Mazda CEO Takashi Yamanouchi committed to producing hybrid gas-electric cars by 2015. Yamanouchi’s made the commitment at last week’s New York Auto Show, revealing the company’s change of direction on hybrids. In a series of prior statements—some only one week ago—Mazda executives had sworn off hybrids as too expensive and too limited for the mainstream auto market.

Mazda Tribute Hybrid

Mazda currently markets a hybrid version of its small SUV, the Mazda Tribute, using technology provided by Ford. Mazda company executives continue to send mixed messages about using hybrid technology.

The Detroit News reported on April 9 that Mazda would achieve its goal of improving the fuel efficiency of worldwide fleet—its goal is a 30 percent boost by 2015—by emphasizing more efficient gasoline internal combustion engines, and ignoring hybrids. Yamanouchi said the Japanese automaker will introduce a new engine that is 20 percent more efficient in a completely new vehicle in 2011. He predicted that hybrids will represent no more than 10 percent of worldwide auto sales by 2015. He told the Detroit News, “We’re focusing on the 90 percent.”

In late March, Reuters reported that Mazda is developing a fuel-efficient clean diesel engine that will also be ready by 2011. “We believe that improving today’s conventional engines at a low cost is the most effective way to get fuel efficient cars to proliferate,” said Setia Kainai, Mazda’s research and development chief. He said Mazda’s 2.0-liter diesel engine would be as fuel efficient as a hybrid.

Mazda’s executives have consistently supported reducing vehicle weight and rolling resistance, and improving vehicle aerodynamics—but the company has flip-flopped on using even the mildest form of hybrid technology, commonly called start-stop. Automotive News reported on March 30 that Mazda will probably not make start-stop available in the United States. “We’re still thinking about what to do,” said Kanai, when asked if his new idle-stop engines will make it stateside. “In America, there’s not much advantage to it.” Kanai added that American-style long-distance, high-speed driving wouldn’t justify the extra costs.

In the same issue of Automotive News, Yuji Hara, Mazda managing executive officer, criticized hybrids as a fleeting “mood” of a “brand society.” Kanai, the R&D chief, admitted that Mazda lacks the funds need to compete on hybrids, and preferred cheaper fuel efficiency measures. “We’re in real trouble,” said Kanai. “It’s a threat. We don’t have the resources to get involved in that kind of competition.”

While it’s hard to keep track of Mazda’s changing view—and there’s a lot of time before 2015—the latest comments from Takashi Yamanouchi, CEO, apparently reflect a new commitment to find the funds to build hybrids, which are considered a critical area of growth in the global auto industry.

Mazda currently markets a hybrid version of its small SUV, the Mazda Tribute, using technology provided by Ford. The two companies have worked together since 1979, but Ford cut its stake in Mazda to 13.4 percent from 33.4 percent last year.