Fiat and Mazda plan to jointly develop roadster based on next MX-5
New model will be sold by Alfa Romeo in Europe, U.S.
TOKYO/TURIN -- Fiat Group and Mazda Motor Corp. plan to develop and build a new roadster for the Mazda and Alfa Romeo brands, the companies said today.
Alfa will launch its version of the roadster in global markets starting in 2015. It will be sold as the Alfa Spider in the United States and will mark the brand's hotly awaited return to the world's biggest market for two-seat sports cars, Fiat said.
The jointly developed car will be built at Mazda's factory in Hiroshima. It will be a successor to the rear-wheel-drive MX-5/Miata roadster and will have distinct styling for each brand.
Details of a memorandum of understanding are expected to be finalized in the second half of 2012, the companies said. The deal does not involve a capital tie-up.
Engineers from both companies are studying how to cooperate on a joint vehicle that will be an "iconic," lightweight, rear-drive roadster with differentiated design and identity for each brand, a joint statement said. The car would be based on MX-5 architecture.
Fiat and Mazda are also talking about further cooperation in Europe, they said. Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported that the automakers are discussing a partnership to expand overseas sales channels.
Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne said in the statement: "This agreement clearly demonstrates our commitment to Alfa Romeo and the determination to grow it into a truly global brand."
By partnering with Mazda, Alfa will be cooperating with the recognized leader in compact rear-drive vehicle architectures to deliver an exciting and stylish roadster for Alfa, Marchionne said.
UBS auto analyst Tatsuo Yoshida said: "The MX-5 is an iconic car in Mazda's line-up, and the lightweight roadster is part of its heritage as a maker of sporty cars. But developing the next iteration for Mazda alone would have been difficult to justify, and this arrangement allows them to do that."
The MX-5, which debuted in 1989, was declared the best-selling two-seat convertible sports car in history by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2000.
The agreement paves the way for Mazda to increase its capacity utilization through Alfa as the Japanese carmaker seeks to end losses. For Fiat, the deal may help the company gain access to Mazda's engine and lightweight technology.
Mazda has "good products and technology, but didn't fully monetize the actual value of its technology," Kohei Takahashi, a Tokyo-based analyst with JPMorgan Chase & Co., said by phone before the announcement. "For Mazda it's better to have an alliance with someone."
Both Mazda and Fiat played down the possibility of an equity alliance, saying their non-binding memorandum of understanding did not involve such talks
Both Marchionne andi Yamanouchi have said they are looking to build new alliances to share the rising burden of research and development costs.
Marchionne told reporters at the Geneva auto show in March that Mazda and Suzuki Motor Corp. are prime partnership candidates. He said there weren't many other possible partners left in Asia.
Marchionne has said that a mass-market automaker will need global unit sales of at least 6 million units to survive. Fiat and its U.S. unit, Chrysler Group, together had 3.7 million in 2010, the most recent year for which industrywide numbers are available. In 2010, Mazda's global sales totaled 1.3 million, half of Suzuki's 2.6 million.
In February, Yamanouchi said Mazda was "actively" seeking alliance partners as it faces an increasingly dire financial future.
His export-reliant company is facing its fourth straight years of losses. In March, for the second time in just over two years, Mazda resorted to a massive equity share sale to raise the money to fix its structural problems and fund advanced technologies.
Squeezing more volume from Mazda's factories in Japan, through OEM deals such as this one with Fiat, could help improve their efficiency and lower production costs. Mazda has been independent since former partner Ford Motor Co., then seeking to raise cash to head off financial woes of its own, sold down its holdings in the Japanese automaker. Ford began to sell off its controlling 33 percent stake in Mazda in 2008. Today Ford owns about 2 percent of Mazda.
Teaming with another big partner is one way Mazda could share costs and get access to overseas market and manufacturing. But Yamanouchi downplays capital tie-ups. Instead, he remains focused on smaller strategic partnerships.
Yamanouchi has already signed a deal to work with Toyota Motor Corp. in developing hybrid drivetrain technology. And last year, Mazda began supplying the Mazda5 to Nissan Motor Co., which sells the compact minivan as a Nissan in Japan.
Yamanouchi wants to start selling Mazda's Skyactiv suite of fuel-saving engines, transmissions and body technologies to other automakers, too.
Bloomberg contributed to this story
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