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Mazda, Fiat Team to Develop Next-Gen Roadster

Alfa Romeo to get version of next Mazda MX-5 Miata.

by on May.23, 2012

The MOU will create new roadsters for both Alfa Romeo and Mazda based on the next-generation, rear-drive Miata platform.

The push to partner up continues to sweep through the global auto industry, Mazda and Fiat signing a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding that will let them share in the development and production of an all-new roadster.

The MOU means Fiat’s Alfa Romeo brand will get its own 2-seater based on Mazda’s next-generation MX-5 Miata rear-wheel-drive architecture.  In a jointly released statement, the two manufacturers said the project is aimed at developing “two differentiated, distinctly styled, iconic and brand-specific light weight, roadsters featuring rear-wheel drive. The Mazda and Alfa Romeo variants will each be powered by specific proprietary engines unique to each brand.”

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The news from Fiat and Mazda underscores a dramatic shift in the global auto industry, even the largest and most well-funded manufacturers, such as the Renault/Nissan Alliance and Daimler AG, looking for joint opportunities to expand their product lines and improve economies of scale. The timing also coincides with the launch of new sports coupes developed through a partnership between Toyota and Subaru.

While the specific focus of the project might come as a surprise Mazda has widely telegraphed its intent to find a new partner as its long alliance with Ford Motor Co. winds down.  In February, the Japanese maker’s CEO Takashi Yamanouchi said his company was “actively” looking for alliance partners.

In today’s news release, Yamanouchi declared, “Establishing technology and product development alliances is one of Mazda’s corporate objectives and this announcement with Fiat is an important first step in that direction. It is especially exciting to be collaborating with such a prestigious marque as Alfa Romeo on a new roadster based on the next-generation MX-5, which is such an iconic vehicle for Mazda and recognized as the best-selling roadster of all time.”

He also indicated Mazda might be open to sharing its new, high-mileage SkyActiv powertrain technology but based on the Mazda/Fiat announcement that doesn’t seem in the cards.  It is more likely that the Italian maker will use a version of its well-reviewed TwinAir technology to power the Alfa roadster.

From Fiat’s perspective the decision to seek a partner also makes sense, according to several industry-watchers.  It has been trying to build the Alfa Romeo brand back up and is particularly interested in coming up with products that could serve as the foundation for a much-delayed re-launch in the North American market.

It is unclear whether the new model – if it reaches production – actually will come to the States, and if so, where it would be produced.  The Fiat brand’s own North American offering, the little 500, is assembled in Mexico.

But the opportunity to land the roadster in new U.S. showrooms seemed obvious in the prepared comments of Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne.

“This agreement clearly demonstrates our commitment to Alfa Romeo and the determination to grow it into a truly global brand,” said Marchionne. “By partnering with Mazda, we will be co-operating with the recognized leader in compact rear-drive vehicle architectures in order to deliver an exciting and stylish roadster in the Alfa Romeo tradition. We are appreciative of this collaboration with Mazda and look forward to maintaining a fruitful and continuous relationship.”

Does that mean the two new allies might have other projects in mind?  That would also surprise few, especially if the roadster project proves fruitful.  Mazda clearly needs help after being cut loose by Ford and Marchionne has significant aspirations to grow the various Fiat and Chrysler brands.  A further partnership with Mazda could give his trans-Atlantic company even more leverage than it has on its own to develop additional projects while also cutting costs.

The alliance between Renault, Nissan and Mazda has followed a similar path.  It started out in 2010 with three distinct projects but has steadily expanded.  Among other things, Renault is taking lead in developing a microcar to replace both its own Twingo and also Daimler’s aging Smart fortwo. The Germans will provide a new platform for several Infiniti models. And among the more recent additions, Nissan will now supply American-made engines to the Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama.

Another new partnership is more directly comparable to what Fiat and Mazda have in store, however. Toyota is just launching a new sports coupe it developed in cooperation with Subaru.  Similar in size and basic dynamics to the Mazda Miata – albeit without the convertible roof, Subaru is marketing its version as the BRZ, Toyota’s Scion brand selling the rear-drive model as the FR-S in the States, with the vehicle dubbed the Toyota GT-86 in other parts of the world.

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