Hiroshima, Mon Amour
After the war, scientists thought nothing would grow in Hiroshima for close to a century. They were wrong. One of the first things to flower here was Mazda. Over a few decades, it transformed from a local cork manufacturer to a global automaker -- and not just any automaker, but one known for building cars that we love to drive. As Automobile Magazine recognizes Mazda with its twenty-first All-Star award, this one for the CX-5 crossover -- the company's most significant new product in years -- we decided that it was time to pay a visit to the Japanese carmaker's home.
Hiroshima represents for most non-Japanese what researcher Robert Jay Lifton calls a "symbolic evocation" of "our entire nuclear nightmare." In reality, it's a bustling industrial city with more than a million residents. Visitors will invariably check out the poignantly beautiful Peace Memorial Park and Museum, but you'll see more locals cheering on the perennially bad Toyo Carp at Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium (Mazda's founding family runs the baseball team).
Hiroshima has more than rooting interest in Mazda: the company accounts for nearly 20 percent of the city's GDP and directly contributes to the employment of about a third of its population. But this foundation has been fragile as of late.
"We were not allowed to fail," explains CX-5 program manager Hideaki Tanaka over lunch at Mazda headquarters, located south of the city. The squat buildings nearly blend in with the oyster beds that dot Hiroshima Bay and remind us of something both Hiroshima residents and car enthusiasts might overlook: "Mazda is small. Other automakers are big," says Tanaka.
The 2010 divorce from Ford left Mazda in an unenviable position. It sells fewer vehicles than BMW (about 1.2 million in 2012), and none of them are very expensive. The CX-5 is the first new car developed since Mazda split with Ford, and, through its new platform, engines, and transmissions, the small SUV lays the foundation for the independent company's viability.
That's a lot to ask of any car, but the CX-5 doesn't seem to suffer from the burden. The right-hand-drive, diesel-powered model we borrow during our time in Hiroshima exhibits the same qualities we've praised on the other side of the Pacific. The electric power steering is precise and evenly weighted. The brake pedal is firm and progressive. Even on Japanese roads, where it's quite large, the CX-5 feels like a small, nimble car.
Hiroshima is in some respects a city of shrines. The Gokoku Shrine dates back to the nineteenth century and was rebuilt after the war. Although most Japanese profess to be secular, it's still common practice to have a new car blessed for good luck. The normal charge is 5000 yen (about $50), but after brief negotiations in Japanese with our Mazda tour guides -- who apparently point out how much their company donates -- the Shinto priest agrees to waive the fee. Another functionary opens the door, hood, and trunk and chants over it. "We believe everything has a soul," explains one of the guides. "Even a car has a soul."
Shintoism may offer one explanation for why Mazdas have what Tanaka calls "sentiment." We'll suggest a more prosaic reason: driving around here stinks. The streets downtown are congested; the highways are mined with speed cameras. This isn't Germany. It's easy to see why Mazda, unlike other enthusiast brands, pays so little mind to quantitative performance numbers but devotes so much care to how a vehicle actually drives. That's true even for the CX-5, which competes in one of the most heavily benchmarked, homogenized market segments. So, even as Mazda engineers aimed for class-leading fuel economy (a combined rating of 29 mpg with the base 2.0-liter gasoline engine), they also analyzed the finer points of brake feel. Tanaka fought to offer a manual transmission in the United States, even though the take rate hovers around five percent. It's indeed these qualities that make the CX-5 a better choice than more powerful alternatives. That said, we're happy to dip into the diesel's 310 lb-ft of torque and hope to see this engine soon back home (it has been confirmed for the U.S. market in the new 6 but not in the CX-5).
We arrive next at a shrine of universal spiritual import, the Genbaku Dome. It's hard to imagine, as we drive along the riverbank on this perfectly sunny day, that on a similarly sunny day nearly seventy years ago a nuclear bomb detonated above a spot just a couple hundred feet from here. When it did, it incinerated everything within a mile, killing 60,000 to 80,000 people instantly; the final death toll was roughly 140,000. The concrete dome, which had served as the city's industrial promotion hall, was the nearest surviving structure. Mazda's headquarters, located some three miles from downtown and shielded by a mountain, survived the blast and, for a time during reconstruction, housed the municipal government.(The bombing of Hiroshima is a vast subject in itself. We highly recommend reading Hiroshima, by John Hersey.)
In the midst of the larger economic miracle that swept postwar Japan, Hiroshima's partially rotary-powered resurgence was particularly miraculous. Residents started returning as soon as the city was deemed safe, often living in improvised shacks. Within fifteen years, the downtown area had been painstakingly planned and rebuilt. Our obligatory visit to the Mazda corporate museum, guided by forty-nine-year Mazda lifer and RX-8 owner Sumio Kato, reflects the same energy and focus: first car in 1960 (the tiny R360), first sports car in 1967 (the Cosmo), Le Mans winner in 1991. We thank Kato for the tour and tell him he clearly has Mazda blood in his veins. He grins as this is translated. "Domo arigato," he says.
Mazda and Hiroshima's next fifty years may prove more challenging for different reasons. Manufacturing towns across Japan face kuudouka, or "hollowing out," as companies look for lower labor costs and more favorable exchange rates. Even Mazda, which has been among the slowest to move offshore, is planning to build the next 2 in Mexico.
Hiroshima hardly feels hollow, however. It may lack Tokyo's glittering pretensions, but it is clean, bright, and has plenty to offer -- shopping, karaoke, arcades, and more. We settle for a dinner of okonomiyaki, a kind of savory pancake sautéed at our table.
Back at Mazda's headquarters, the CX-5 has one of the factories running at full capacity. Plant manager Hironori Okano points to advancements that boost manufacturing efficiency, including a new molding process for the front bumper that cuts both weight and build time. Mazda has long pioneered new production methods at Hiroshima -- it was one of the first, for instance, to align doors for proper fit before drilling the hinges. This may not sound as exciting as, say, a rotary engine that can spin to 9000 rpm, but they're two sides of the same coin.
"Engineers collaborate from day one," says Okano. This is true at all automakers but rarely to the degree it is at Mazda, where designers and engineers work within walking distance of the assembly line. Line workers also suggest improvements, such as a device that dispenses precisely the needed number of washers for a particular workstation. The goal is to improve plant efficiency -- that is, reduce head count -- by five percent each year. "Isn't it odd to ask employees to contribute to their own attrition?" we ask.
"This is something difficult for Westerners to understand," Okano says.
Mazda will need all the talent and devotion Hiroshima has to offer if it is to survive. The company's size and its dependence on its homeland make it vulnerable. So, too, in a way, does its focus on driver engagement in an era when fewer customers care about driving -- even Tanaka has traded his Miata for a minicar and a bicycle. But the CX-5, a 2013 All-Star and, just as important, an early commercial success, proves that Mazda and Hiroshima can still bloom together. -- David Zenlea, photography by Susumu Okano/Mazda
Price: $21,990/$25,410 (2.0L/2.5L)
Engines: 2.0L I-4, 155 hp, 150 lb-ft; 2.5L I-4, 184 hp, 185 lb-ft
Drive: Front- or 4-wheel
EPA mileage: 24-26/30-35 mpg