* CEO says Mazda3 critical for returning to profit in H2
* Inventory, incentive levels in U.S. at healthy levels
* Hybrids to come soon after 2010
By Chang-Ran Kim, Asia autos correspondent
TOKYO, June 11 (Reuters) - The head of Mazda Motor Corp (7261.T) said on Thursday the automaker was targeting global annual sales of at least 300,000 cars for its top-selling Mazda3 compact, known as the Axela in Japan. "We're getting requests for more production from Canada, while the car became the best-selling model in Australia," Chief Executive Officer Takashi Yamanouchi told a news conference.
"Despite the tough environment, we hope to sell more than 300,000 units a year," he said at the launch of the remodelled car in Tokyo.
That would be equivalent to more than a quarter of Mazda's global sales, forecast at 1.1 million vehicles for the financial year to next March 31, or down 13 percent from last business year. Mazda has sold more than 2 million of the cars since its debut in 2003.
Yamanouchi said the Mazda3 would play a critical role in helping Mazda achieve its target of returning to profit in the October-March second half of the financial year by lifting capacity utilisation to 80 percent from the current 70 percent.
The second-generation Mazda3 first went on sale in Canada and Mexico in January, followed by the United States, Europe and Australia, and now Japan.
In the United States, Mazda's inventory and sales incentives have returned to healthy levels, Executive Vice President Phil Spender said, adding that the automaker had managed slight gains in market share despite rampant discounting among other players.
While hybrid cars have stolen the limelight in Japan, especially with the introduction of tax breaks for them in April, Yamanouchi said the new Mazda3 achieved a big leap in fuel economy thanks to its stop-and-go system.
With little added cost, Mazda's new stop-and-go feature improves fuel efficiency by around 10 percent in urban areas, where cars stop frequently at traffic lights. Models with the "i-stop" system start at 1.89 million yen ($19,300), the same price as Honda Motor Co's (7267.T) Insight hybrid.
The system is the first in the world to control the position of the pistons when the engine stops automatically during idling. That enables a quick start of just 0.35 seconds, by directly injecting fuel into the cylinder in the optimal position.
Mazda has set a target of raising its global car fleet's fuel economy by 30 percent by 2015, relying mainly on advances in internal combustion engines, automatic transmissions and vehicle weight reduction. [ID:nT197551]
It is also aiming to develop gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles soon after 2010, with the support of top shareholder Ford Motor Co (F.N) or others.
Mazda now sells a limited number of Tribute SUV hybrids in California developed and produced by Ford. ($1=97.94 Yen) (Editing by Michael Watson)