How Mazda Rode Out the Pandemic While Rivals Slipped

The pandemic crushed new-vehicle gross sales final 12 months in the United States, with behemoths like Ford Motor, General Motors and Honda all posting double-digit gross sales declines. Altogether, the gross sales slide reached 15 p.c, with underneath 14.5 million new vehicles hitting American roads, down from a five-year common of round 17 million.

But Mazda — the 13th-ranked carmaker in America — was one in every of simply three to extend gross sales final 12 months. (Tesla and Volvo have been the others.)

The essential accolades piled up, as effectively. U.S. News and World Report, for the fifth 12 months, made Mazda its Best Car Brand. Every one in every of its new fashions that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety examined was a Top Safety Pick, greater than another model. It ranked No. 1 in a Consumer Reports survey on the most dependable new automobiles. And then this 12 months, Mazda obtained the high spot in that journal’s coveted Brand Report Card, based mostly on a mixed rating that measures “road-test performance, predicted reliability, owner satisfaction and safety.”

“During the pandemic, a number of brands were able to take some advantage of getting people to take a look at them,” stated Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision, an automotive analysis and consulting agency. “Mazda has had a little bit of an easier time succeeding because, with just 2 percent of the market, they haven’t had a lot to lose.”

Mr. Edwards, whose agency conducts lots of of 1000’s of in-depth surveys with new automobile consumers every year, attributed a part of Mazda’s attraction throughout this atypical interval to shopper perceptions held by its typical consumers. Just as automobile customers are interested in Jeeps for the notion of go-anywhere capacity, and to BMWs for the concept of with the ability to drive at high velocity on the autobahn — even when this stuff by no means truly occur to an abnormal proprietor — customers have been interested in Mazda throughout the pandemic as a result of the model provided them a fantasy of carefree reduction.

“Mazda owners tend to be younger, single college graduates. They have an income that’s slightly higher than the general population, and they’re less likely to have kids. They enjoy fine dining. They travel the world,” he stated. “So everything that we weren’t able to do this year, this is what Mazda owners love to do. That’s part of the brand imagery.”

And driving was the next-best factor. “Mazdas have this image of being an escape,” Mr. Edwards added.

In addition, although it has a cadre of loyalists, Mazda depends closely on “conquest” gross sales — luring customers from different manufacturers — to gasoline gross sales progress. During the pandemic, as potential automobile consumers navigated closed dealerships, dived deeper into on-line opinions and embraced at-home take a look at drives, the small Japanese marque made its transfer.

“With all of the rules being rewritten, they were able to pick up additional people that were reconsidering what vehicles they were going to consider,” Mr. Edwards stated.

For years, Mazda sported best-in-class gasoline economic system throughout its total vary, however it could be greatest recognized for its zippy $26,830 MX-5 Miata roadster. The Miata, one in every of the few reasonably priced two-seat sports activities vehicles nonetheless on the market, is an business benchmark for the price/fun-to-drive ratio.

Mazda’s high vendor in the United States, the CX-5 crossover, competes with the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.Credit…Mazda

The $20,650 Mazda three compact sedan and hatchback gained the 2020 World Car Design of the Year award, for bringing Italianate styling, and driving ardour, to a dwindling class; even Volkswagen has stop promoting its Golf hatchback, lengthy a core competitor, in the United States. The $24,475 Mazda 6 is a good-looking household sedan that competes fiercely with the Honda Accord, though the Honda sells a dozen Accords for each Mazda 6. It is, nonetheless, being discontinued after the 2021 mannequin 12 months, one other sufferer of the shift to S.U.V.s and crossovers.

Mazda competes in that bracket, as effectively. Its high vendor in the States, the $25,370 CX-5, is a rival to the best-selling Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 and sometimes even competes with luxurious fashions like the BMW X3 and Audi Q5.

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“When I worked at another auto company, the engineers were taught that value was performance divided by cost,” stated Jeff Guyton, president and chief government of Mazda’s North American operations. “The first day that a Mazda engineer involves work, she or he is taught that worth is efficiency divided by weight.

“That’s a completely completely different mind-set,” he continued. “And we do that because weight is the enemy of cost. But it’s also the enemy of fun-to-drive, and it’s also the enemy of fuel economy. So if we judge value as performance divided by weight, we should be able to tackle all of those things.”

Mazda’s distinctive perspective has deep roots. The firm, which was based as a cork-maker in 1920 in Hiroshima, has at all times been one thing of an outlier.

“Historically, Mazda has been pretty small, pretty independent, and geographically they’re not located in the heart of Japan, where most of the big car companies are, so I think that has also afforded them a bit of that independent thinking,” stated Dave Yuan, senior editor of Japanese Nostalgic Car, a web site for American followers of Japanese vehicles. “Their very first vehicle was a racing motorcycle, to challenge the dominance of the big British bike brands.”

Mr. Yuan credit Mazda’s deal with “courageous” engineering for its distinct perspective.

“They tend not to be bound by a lot of the industry conventions,” he stated. “They’re always going to try and seek out things that they believe are the right technology.” This contains, most famously, early and present efforts to tame and maximize the Wankel rotary engine, a high-revving, compact engine with a potent power-to-weight ratio — and inherent difficulties with gasoline effectivity, oil consumption and tailpipe emissions. Mazda engineers are engaged on utilizing the rotary as an onboard generator for his or her first electrical automobile, the MX-30, the place low-stress working situations would enable it to function quietly and effectively.

This spirit additionally encompasses Mazda’s dedication to what Mr. Yuan calls “signature philosophies,” comparable to “what makes a car drive well, and what makes a car enjoyable to drive.”

Many ensuing diversifications — the placement of fuel, brake and clutch pedals; the place of seat backs; the method an engine builds energy underneath a tough flip — don’t present up on spec sheets. But in day-to-day driving, they imbue Mazdas with a way of refinement and delight.

“They really feel like a boutique, artisanal, intricately thought-out product,” Mr. Yuan stated.

The Mazda three compact sedan and hatchback gained the 2020 World Car Design of the Year award.Credit…Mazda

Yet, rising from the pandemic, small automotive manufacturers like Mazda face vital challenges. The key tendencies for the future are electrification and superior driver-assistance know-how, two classes that require immense funding. Mazda simply doesn’t have this sort of capital, or scale. So one technique entails a partnership with Toyota, the world’s top-selling automaker.

In this deal, Mazda positive factors entry to what Mr. Guyton known as “Toyota’s wealth of resources and technology.” But when requested what Toyota acquires, he grew to become a bit extra philosophical.

“I think the Toyota organization looked at Mazda and said: ‘Hey, you guys are consistently competitive in all these big segments all over the world, and yet you have a tenth of the resources we have. If we could have just a little of that in our organization, think what we could do with all the resources we do have.’”

The two manufacturers are constructing a manufacturing facility in Alabama, a plant that will — together with present factories from Honda, Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai — assist that low-wage, nonunion state grow to be the second-largest auto producer in North America, after Michigan.

According to Mr. Guyton, the vehicles constructed there is not going to be “twins separated at birth” — almost an identical automobiles with completely different badges on the entrance. Rather, they are going to be extra like youngsters from a blended household: “They’re going to grow up in the same house, but they are totally unique products.”

This dedication to holding Mazda Mazda shall be essential for the automaker’s future. “Subaru has been true to themselves, and they’ve been able to grow every year, even through the 2008 recession,” Mr. Edwards stated. “Mazda’s really been true to who they are, and if communicated properly, with their enhancements, they are a competitor coming out of the pandemic.”