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Mazda Philippines recently lent me a CX-7 crossover SUV, and I couldn’t help but reflect on the significance of this vehicle to the Japanese carmaker. You see, the CX-7 is the first Mazda SUV to have an all-Mazda platform. (Note that I prefer calling crossovers “SUVs,” just to simplify things.)

It seems fitting that Mazda now has a world-class SUV of its own as it gradually severs its corporate ties with the Ford Motor Company. As you know, Mazda has had a long-standing partnership--both technical and commercial--with Ford, ultimately influencing the way it designs and manufactures its vehicles, most notably its sport-utes. It all started 40 years ago, in December 1971, when Mazda began supplying B-Series pickup trucks to its American collaborator. Eight years later, in November 1979, Ford acquired 25 percent of Mazda after realizing how valuable the latter would be to its business.

Through the years, the two car companies shared notes and helped each other in key areas of the automotive trade. They popularized badge engineering, the practice of marketing and selling a vehicle under different brands. An example would be the Ford Festiva, also known as the Mazda 121. In fact, Mazda’s very first SUV, the two-door Navajo, introduced in September 1990, was actually a rebadged Ford Explorer Sport. That the Navajo was poorly received by the market taught Mazda an important lesson: Car buyers generally don’t like rebadged models. If Mazda wanted to be recognized as a respectable automaker, it had to develop its own vehicles.

In June 1992, Mazda became equal partners with Ford in AutoAlliance International, a joint-venture car-assembly firm that now produces the Mazda 6 and the Ford Mustang. This showed Mazda’s hankering to be on an equal footing with Ford as far as car-making was concerned. The two companies then became main proponents of platform-sharing, the practice of spawning different vehicle models off a common chassis to cut costs and streamline the vehicle-development process, announcing the start of a “long-term strategic relationship” in December 1993. This would give Mazda a crucial say in the way the vehicles were conceptualized and engineered, as opposed to merely being allowed to slap its emblem onto Ford products.

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Ford didn’t mind Mazda’s bigger role in car development. It was even encouraged, as proven by Ford’s purchase of a bigger stake in Mazda in May 1996, to the tune of 33.4 percent. In March 1997, the two companies agreed to synchronize their respective product cycles and also to harmonize the development of their platforms and engines. In November 1999, Ford and Mazda set out to jointly develop a new family of global engines for 2001-model-year passenger cars, pickups and SUVs.

And so in August 2000, Mazda launched the Tribute compact SUV, a vehicle it co-developed with Ford. The Tribute, essentially the second sport-utility in Mazda’s product history, was the twin model of the Ford Escape.

In the last decade, we witnessed the fruits of the Ford/Mazda partnership. We saw this in the Mazda BT-50 (aka Ford Ranger) and the Mazda 2 (aka Ford Fiesta). In 2007, Mazda released a pair of stylish SUVs, the full-size CX-9 and the midsize CX-7. The CX-9 was based on the same platform as the Ford Edge--no surprises there. The CX-7, however, was largely intriguing for possessing an all-new Mazda-derived chassis. For once, a Mazda SUV didn’t come with a twin Ford model. In this regard, the CX-7 is a truly special vehicle. Even the upcoming CX-5 compact SUV--called the Minagi in concept form--is said to be based on the Ford Kuga.

Of course, we know that in November 2008, Ford had to let go of the bulk of its Mazda shares to stay liquid in the wake of the recession, reducing its Mazda ownership to just over 13 percent. This was further brought down to a paltry 3.5 percent in November 2010. While the two carmakers insist their technical alliance will carry on, you have to wonder how this will impact Mazda’s product development, the Asian firm having relied on Ford’s resources for so long.

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Thankfully, there’s the CX-7 to assure us that Mazda will be just fine. The sleek crossover is there to convince us that there is life after Ford. It also displays a sportiness that’s a departure from the way Ford makes SUVs. More important, it erases the stigma of the rebadged Navajo. It sells us the idea that Mazda now deserves proper recognition as a legitimate SUV maker, one that is capable of designing and putting together a quality model from the ground up.

If there is one good thing that Mazda took away from its tie-up with Ford, it’s probably the know-how needed to manufacture SUVs. Before Ford came along, Mazda had not built a single sport-ute. And now it has three exciting ones in the CX-5, the CX-7 and the CX-9. Indeed, the MX-5 (or Miata) may no longer be Mazda’s most dynamic product. That distinction may already belong to a crossover vehicle.

Mazda is going to be all right. The CX-7 guarantees it.

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Vernon B. Sarne
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