Mazda refines its '82 cars

By , Automotive editor of The Christian Science Monitor

Toyo Kogyo has made deep inroads into the US auto market in the last dozen years -- ever since the Hiroshima-based automaker shipped its first car across the Pacific.

And who or what is Toyo Kogyo?

Better known as Mazda, the Japanese automaker has none other than Ford Motor Company as its partner and expects to sell upward of 155,000 passenger cars in the US and up to 48,000 trucks, depending on the strength of the market this year.

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For 1982 Mazda can't point to an all-new car; instead, it is talking up some of the refinements in its lineup, including a revised GLC Sport hatchback with a new suspension -- front and rear stabilizer bars and sport-tuned shocks. It's also easier to check the oil level under the hood, Mazda's management says -- that sort of thing.

The 626 sedan and coupe are unchanged for the new-model year although the company reports more ''fine tuning'' in the trim; while the sporty RX-7 has new steel-belted radial tires on the GS and GSL models for better road control instead of the tires used on the '81s.

Even so, no car is perfect, including some of the most highly rated cars in the world today. The GLC Sport which I drove for a while is a case in point.

It's peppy on the road, easy to control, and the price isn't over most heads. Yet, such things as the door locks and radio, I found, are a nuisance. The locks are in a hard-to-reach place, and I found myself reaching over my shoulder to operate them.

Also, the Mazda radios continue to have the on-off switch and volume control on the right-hand side and the station selector on the left. The radio in the car I've been driving is particularly irksome. When a station-selector push button is used, the sound cuts off until the button is released. Ugh.

Further, while there is a choice for the buyer, the car I drove could stand some brightening up inside, both in upholstery and paint. After all, a motorist spends a lot of time in an automotive environment and a drab interior is tough, especially on a dark winter day.

Despite any criticisms, however, Mazda cars have caught the fancy of a phalanx of US buyers, I included, and the company has become a solid figure on the highway.

Never afraid of being different from the crowd, Mazda made a lunge for the rotary engine in the late 1960s and has continued to pursue its development with gusto. The sleek RX-7 is the only rotary-engine car on the highway.

Indeed, it was its rotary-engine commitment that almost sank the company in the aftermath of the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74. It was only quick action by the Japanese lenders and trading companies that finally got the firm out of the brine. As a result, the Mazda distribution setup in the US was revised with one company handling 18 states in the Eastern US and the remainder being handled from a West Coast base.

To assure its longevity in a toughening market worldwide, Toyo Kogyo is zeroing in on better service, not only from the company to its dealers but from the dealers to the consumer.

Mazda has expanded its so-called ''owner retention plan,'' adopted a year ago , in an effort to keep people returning to the company when it's time to buy again. The plan involves repeated mailings to buyers over a three-year period in an effort to fan a two-way dialogue.

It is also an effort to keep buyers returning to their car dealer. Only about one-third of the parts and service business in the US goes to the new-car dealers, according to Eric Sundstrom, general manager of Mazda Motors of America (East) Inc.

Quality, real or perceived, is the hallmark of the Japanese auto industry.

Thus, to achieve its goal of improved quality in the future, Mazda is rapidly expanding the number of industrial robots in its three assembly plants -- from a little more than 200 robots now to about 350 by the end of the year. Too, like all Japanese carmakers, the company is expanding the quality-control program in its plants. In the first six months of 1981 the company netted more than 8,000 suggestions from its workers on how to improve their jobs.

The workers benefit, of course, but not too much in a monetary sense.

Mazda workers get about 70 cents for an average idea, while General Motors, by contrast, pays up to $10,000 for suggestions from its work crews.

Meanwhile, the company has built more than 500,000 front-drive GLCs in the first 18 months of production, a record for any car or truck model produced by Mazda

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