Mazda Motor Corp. is gearing up to gain ground on rivals, especially in the United States and China, according to President Hisakazu Imaki.

Mazda, a Ford Motor Co. group company, has enjoyed brisk sales in Japan and Europe since releasing its Demio compact and Atenza models last year. But the carmaker, based in Fuchu, Hiroshima Prefecture, is struggling to gain a foothold in the U.S.

“We are changing our Atenza marketing strategy in the U.S. because our initial plan failed,” said Imaki, 60, who took over the top post Aug. 27.

Mazda said it sold 118,920 vehicles in the U.S. during the January-June period, down 7.7 percent from a year earlier.

“Now we think our business in North America will turn around because we will launch wagon and sports versions of the Atenza and the new Axela compact later this year,” Imaki said.

He said Mazda should accelerate efforts to expand its presence in China by setting up local production facilities.

“We are behind our rival carmakers in terms of advancement into China,” he said. “Such a rapidly growing market is very important for us.”

Mazda currently commissions the FAW Group, China’s major carmaker, to assemble its vehicles in the country. Other Japanese auto manufacturers are promoting local production through joint ventures with local carmakers.

“Our business in China is succeeding,” he said. But “we need to start local production as soon as possible” to further benefit from the market.

Mazda is negotiating with Ford and Chinese businesses over possible joint ventures, he said.

FAW is forecast to assemble 70,000 vehicles in fiscal 2003, well up from an earlier estimate of 45,000, he said.

Imaki was thrust into the top spot in August, when his predecessor, Lewis Booth, was assigned head of Ford Europe, which has seen sales slump.

Imaki is Mazda’s first homegrown president since Ford acquired a controlling stake in 1996. Ford owns a 33.4 percent stake in Mazda.

Mazda’s sales were sluggish through the 1990s, but three new models — the Demio, Atenza and RX-8 — launched in the past 16 months have helped put the carmaker back on track.

Mazda’s consolidated net profit was 24.1 billion yen in fiscal 2002, nearly triple the previous year’s figure. In the same year, it sold 1.02 million vehicles worldwide, up 7.2 percent.

Imaki, who has a background in manufacturing technology, said he hopes to increase Mazda’s presence in the Ford group by providing “something attractive.”

“Creating profits is not enough to increase our influence over the Ford group,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to develop attractive vehicles and improve manufacturing technology.”

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