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Old 09-22-2003, 07:22   #1 (permalink)
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Japan:Mazda's new president plans more high-profit SUVS for U.S.

By YUZO YAMAGUCHI | Automotive News

TOKYO - Mazda Motor Corp. may send more SUVs to the U.S. market as part of a broad push to improve profitability there, the automaker's new president said last week.

Hisakazu Imaki, meeting with reporters for his first extended interview since taking the helm of Japan's fifth-biggest automaker late last month, said he could not discuss details of the vehicles under consideration.

The company now has only one small SUV in its lineup, the Tribute, which is based on the Ford Escape.

"Yes, we're thinking about SUVs," he said. "That's all I can say. We're thinking of something that would fit the Mazda brand."

Imaki said he also wants to increase the number of exclusives in Mazda's U.S. dealer base, which now make up less than 20 percent of the total of about 717.

He said he knows he has to rebuild U.S. operations, the source of the lion's share of profits for Japanese carmakers.

"Other Japanese automakers are making profits in North America, and we are lagging them," he said. "So we must strengthen our North American operations."

Although Mazda's U.S. sales target for this year is 280,000 units, an 8.4 percent rise over last year, its sales through August are off 6.8 percent to 174,264, according to the Automotive News Data Center.

Imaki said sales should get a boost later this year from the launch of the Mazda3 and two more versions of the Mazda6 sedan. But with the price war intensifying, analysts say it's unlikely that Mazda will hit its target this year.

Imaki also said he is ready to spend money to boost Mazda's prospects in China.

He expects to sell 70,000 vehicles in China this year, up from the 40,000 that the automaker had forecast in May and more than triple its sales of 22,000 there last year.

FAW Car Co., a unit of First Automotive Works, assembles Mazdas from knockdown kits on a contractor basis. Mazda and FAW have no equity relationship.

"FAW is running at full capacity, but we can't continue to rely on knock-downs," Imaki said.

Mazda is in talks with a potential partner to start full-scale local production in China, he said while declining to elaborate. Buoyed by strong demand for the new Mazda6, the company's sales in China for the first eight months are up 295 percent over the year-ago period to 45,159 units.

The appointment of Imaki, formerly an executive vice president who spent years running Mazda's engineering and manufacturing divisions, has boosted morale among the rank and file.

The 60-year-old is Mazda's first Japanese CEO since Ford Motor Co. took a controlling stake in 1996, and he's the first insider to head the company in more than a decade.

He succeeds Lewis Booth, who was named president of Ford of Europe late last month.

When Imaki joined Mazda 38 years ago, the company was called Toyo Kogyo Co., an offshoot of a cork maker, and ranked third among Japanese carmakers.

Imaki also was there when Mazda started shipping cars to the United States in 1970.

Reuters contributed to this report
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