Mazda, since its departure from the Ford umbrella, has forged a new direction based on a core fundamental driving experience, SKYACTIV, and new design language, KODO, and an ability to create vehicles that are distinct in their segments. To stand out, Mazda has used premium materials and technology while making affordable products. Mazda is not opposed to future alliances, as is evident in their partnership with FCA to produce the new MX-5 and the Fiat 124 Spider. The partnership, however, is more for Mazda to supply manufacturing for the Fiat 124 Spider while the MX-5 is entirely engineered and manufactured by Mazda. I had a chance to speak to the vehicle line manager, Rod McLaughlin, at a drive event for the MX-5 which I wrote about in this issue. Our fascinating dialogue on Mazda and his career is below.
Damola Idowu: So actually introduce yourself and what do you do at Mazda?
Rod McLaughlin: My name is Rod McLaughlin and I’m the vehicle line manager for the Mazda MX-5 Miata and the Mazda 2.
Damola Idowu: So kind of give us background on what that entails when you say you are the vehicle line manager.
Rod McLaughlin: The role of the vehicle line manager from a product planning standpoint, the main goal is to – from the US market standpoint, incorporate what the US consumers or our interpretation of what the US consumers want in a product. So because a car like the MX-5 is a global vehicle – so it’s sold in Europe; it’s sold in Asia; it’s sold all over the world, each market’s gonna have different demands and different desires. So we all are kind of pushing and pulling to have the vehicle made to our preferences, but it has to obviously be global. But we still take into account what American consumers want, to make sure that the vehicle is viable from an American market standpoint. So for example, like in the presentation, I said that in Japan the desired engine is the 1.5-liter engine for the MX-5. We know that that wouldn’t work necessarily for the American consumer, so we were opting for more power. That’s why the vehicle we have in this market is the 2-liter engine.
Damola Idowu: Now, you’re talking about that 1.5. Does that 1.5 appear in the Mazda2?
Rod McLaughlin: Well the Mazda 2 is not being sold in the United States right now.
Damola Idowu: But it was a couple of years ago?
Rod McLaughlin: Yeah, it was up until last model year. The 1.5-liter engine that would be in the MX-5 has some shared components, but it went through a whole lot of additional development to be the engine in the MX-5 around the world. So, it’s not the exact engine from any other car. It’s been modified and tweaked for a sports car.
Damola Idowu: Okay, so kind of talk about your roles then, because when you’re talking about Mazda2 and then Mazda2 not being [for the] America or US market – are you selling it in Mexico? Are you selling [in] Brazil? Canada?
Rod McLaughlin: It’s selling all over the world, but in terms of from my responsibility, my responsibility is only in terms of managing over the United States and Puerto Rico. So the only reason that I am still managing the Mazda2 is because we’re still selling it in Puerto Rico for this year. Now that can change at any time in terms of what we sell in the United States, but right now, there’s a separate team in Canada that manages those sales, a separate team in Mexico that manages that, but we do the United States and Puerto Rico.
Damola Idowu: Now the MX-5 is really like a niche market, the sports car tailored to a very specific set. You were talking about rear drive and the fun to drive and really, emphasis on being fun. Also, some of the development was done with Fiat Cars – FCA. So how did that process go and how did that affect your role?
Rod McLaughlin: Well to be honest with you, I mean, the MX-5 is a Mazda-built product with the understanding that there would be, at the time, some Alfa participation for a version of that car for them. That ended up being a Fiat brand because the head of Alfa made a brand decision regarding Alfa and Fiat. In terms of what that car actually has, believe it or not, I am contractually limited to not know any of that. I’m in the US market so part of our contract with Fiat is that the people in the various markets don’t know anything, because there’s really no reason for me to know what Fiat is going to do. So that is all housed in the people in the corporate office in Japan…
Damola Idowu: I guess the reason I’m asking that question is that when you were making the distinction of the 1.5 is what Japan wanted, and in America [it] is 2.0. So how does what another manufacturer, which is out of your own corporate structure, affect how you are planning on what components or how you’re designing or how they might be able to modify it to suit their own needs? How does that affect the overall structure and infrastructure on the car?
Rod McLaughlin: Well from our standpoint, we don’t take that into account, because again, we don’t know. So we can’t really move forward with any of that as something that we’re thinking about. We just move forward saying this is what we need for our consumers. We’re not sitting there in the back of the head, saying well is that what Fiat wants for their [consumers] because that’s just not part of our equation. Our equation is purely to submit what we feel is best for the American consumer to sell this car. We’re kind of lucky because we are one of the largest markets on the globe so we tend to get listened to, and not always, but I mean we’re always at the table. So when we’re looking at making suggestions on the product, it’s purely with the US consumer in mind. It’s not trying to second guess where the partnership agreement that we know nothing about entails. We just can’t do that.
Damola Idowu: Now, you kind of were mentioning the SKYACTIV, which really is sort of like putting the soul of what people have known, the fun to drive, lightweight things that you would normally have gotten with a Miata into other products within the Mazda brand line. So how does the SKYACTIV…talk about SKYACTIV on this MX-5…how you’ve updated it.
Rod McLaughlin: I mean the reality is – so SKYACTIV is that approach like you are suggesting. It makes the car lighter. It makes it stronger. It makes it more efficient. It basically allows us to reassess how we do everything. So instead of saying, okay, we want to make the car more efficient so we’ll just throw a hybrid in there, we’ll say well, no, let’s look at the combustion engine and how we do this and how can we make that better? How can we make the transition better? How can we do the gearing better? How can we make the car lighter? How can we make the weld points more strategically placed so the car is stronger even though the car is lighter? So, basically, these are all things that we now label as SKYACTIV technology, but as far as the MX-5 is concerned, these are things we’ve been doing from day one on the MX-5, and now they are just things that we’re doing on all of the products.
Damola Idowu: Exactly.
Rod McLaughlin: So that approach of lightweight, strong, efficient, safe, all that’s just been always part of the MX-5 DNA and now we’ve spread it basically across all the products. And then it comes full circle that this is the first SKYACTIV MX-5, but those are really parallel philosophies to a certain extent, the way the MX-5 has always been built and SKYACTIV technology. It’s just that now that the engine and the transmission – that all those things are now considered SKYACTIV because it’s following that kind of umbrella philosophy of the company.
Damola Idowu: Now, and talking about the SKYACTIV, like with the CX-5, you actually have [a] 185, 184 – 185 pound-feet of torque engine – similar displacement as what you have in that MX-5. Would that be something that might be difficult to, in the future, put in? Because when I’m looking at the Club, I’m like wow, what if this had actually had the same engine as in the CX-5 as a performance [vehicle with the] same displacement?
Rod McLaughlin: Well, actually I think the engine you’re talking about [is] in the CX-5– because the CX-5 has two engines…
Damola Idowu: Oh that’s right
Rod McLaughlin: …the 2-liter and it’s got the 2.5-liter.
Damola Idowu: Exactly. Actually not the same displacement, so that would be the 2.5.
Rod McLaughlin: And each engine, you have to understand, is tuned for the purposes of that car. So a truck engine or SUV engine may have more torque and it’s designed to perform at a different range versus a sports car engine. So even if you take kind of the same block, you’re going to modify it so it performs a little bit differently. The engines in the MX-5 and what they need and how you want that engine to perform is going to be a little bit different. But in terms of the 2-liter in the MX-5 versus the 2-liter in the CX-5, and then how they perform and everything else, there’s nothing lacking in the MX-5. And again, it’s not just the displacement, and as I pointed out during the presentation, it’s not just the horsepower because even though this car has slightly less horsepower than the previous generation MX-5, it’s nearly a second faster at 0 to 60 so it’s the light weight; it’s the transmission; it’s the gearing…
Damola Idowu: Of course.
Rod McLaughlin: …It’s everything that goes into it that makes the car perform the way it does today.
Damola Idowu: But…in the product planning phase, was that something considered or looked into as saying okay well here is a…
Rod McLaughlin: The 2.5 liter?
Damola Idowu: Yeah.
Rod McLaughlin: I mean, well there’s a lot of considerations for different things…first of all, the size of – if you have a 2-liter, you have a 2.5…
Damola Idowu: Obviously it would add some amount of weight, the displacement…
Rod McLaughlin: Yeah, there’s weight consideration. How does it fit, because you’ve got a very compact car. You’ve got engine placement very low. Also, the engine has been pushed back to move weight back towards the center, so if you add a bigger engine, how much of that moves back over towards the front wheels, versus…behind the front wheels. So all those things is not just power, it’s balance, it’s just where that weight is on the car. So there’s multiple considerations for something like that. At this point, I don’t know if there was really from our standpoint, in our market, not really a thought of do we just take this engine and maybe put it into this other car. It’s just kind of, okay they want 1.5. We thought something bigger with more power would be better, but pulling it straight out the SUV without a lot of additional development, which could run a lot of money just to develop it and get that ready for a sports car, maybe not have been the primary consideration.
Damola Idowu: …In conclusion, if you could kind of give like – because you said you’ve been at Mazda like a year and a half?
Rod McLaughlin: I’ve been at Mazda 4 years.
Damola Idowu: 4 years, so kind of like…
Rod McLaughlin: I’ve been on the MX-5 for a year and a half.
Damola Idowu: A year and a half. So kind of just talk a little bit about your journey…for people who just want to know…how did you get to being in charge of the MX-5? What was that pathway?
Rod McLaughlin: Well, I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years, so I’ve been doing a lot of different positions. At Mazda, I started in marketing [and] planning where I was basically responsible for the plan to have the various marketing departments kind of conform to one strategy moving forward from a communications standpoint. And then one day product planning came by and asked me if I was interested in applying for an open position, and that was on the Mazda6. So I worked on the Mazda6 for a while. And then after that, the launch of the MX-5 was approaching and they needed someone to work on that so they approached me about that [and] said, ‘would you like to work on the MX-5’? I said, ‘I would love to; that’d be a dream’. So it’s pretty much as simple as that, just being at the right place at the right time.
Damola Idowu: And putting in about 20 years of work to build your reputation.
Rod McLaughlin: …A 20-year overnight thing…
Damola Idowu: Yeah, appreciate your time.
Rod McLaughlin: No problem.