The pandemic crushed new-vehicle gross sales final year 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 %, with underneath 14.5 million new vehicles hitting American roads, down from a five-year common of round 17 million.
But Mazda — the Thirteenth-ranked carmaker in America — was one in all simply three to extend gross sales final year. (Tesla and Volvo had been the others.)
The important accolades piled up, as effectively. U.S. News and World Report, for the fifth year, made Mazda its Best Car Brand. Every one in all its new fashions that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety examined was a Top Safety Pick, greater than some other model. It ranked No. 1 in a Consumer Reports survey on the most dependable new automobiles. And then this year, Mazda acquired the prime spot in that journal’s coveted Brand Report Card, primarily based 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,” mentioned 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 a whole bunch of 1000’s of in-depth surveys with new automotive consumers every year, attributed a part of Mazda’s attraction throughout this atypical interval to shopper perceptions held by its typical consumers. Just as automotive buyers are interested in Jeeps for the notion of go-anywhere capacity, and to BMWs for the thought of having the ability to drive at prime pace on the autobahn — even when this stuff by no means truly occur to an unusual proprietor — shoppers had been interested in Mazda throughout the pandemic as a result of the model supplied them a fantasy of carefree aid.
“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 mentioned. “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 shoppers from different manufacturers — to gas gross sales progress. During the pandemic, as potential automotive consumers navigated closed dealerships, dived deeper into on-line critiques and embraced at-home check 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 mentioned.
For years, Mazda sported best-in-class gas economic system throughout its whole vary, however it might be finest identified for its zippy $26,830 MX-5 Miata roadster. The Miata, one in all the few inexpensive two-seat sports activities vehicles nonetheless on the market, is an business benchmark for the value/fun-to-drive ratio.
The $20,650 Mazda 3 compact sedan and hatchback received 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, nevertheless, being discontinued after the 2021 mannequin year, one other sufferer of the shift to S.U.V.s and crossovers.
Mazda competes in that bracket, as effectively. Its prime vendor in the States, the $25,370 CX-5, is a rival to the best-selling Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 and infrequently even competes with luxurious fashions like the BMW X3 and Audi Q5.
“When I worked at another auto company, the engineers were taught that value was performance divided by cost,” mentioned Jeff Guyton, president and chief government of Mazda’s North American operations. “The first day that a Mazda engineer comes to work, he or she is taught that value is performance divided by weight.
“That’s a totally 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 company, which was based as a cork-maker in 1920 in Hiroshima, has all the time 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,” mentioned 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 give attention to “courageous” engineering for its distinct perspective.
“They tend not to be bound by a lot of the industry conventions,” he mentioned. “They’re always going to try and seek out things that they believe are the right technology.” This consists of, 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 gas effectivity, oil consumption and tailpipe emissions. Mazda engineers are engaged on utilizing the rotary as an onboard generator for his or her first electrical automotive, the MX-30, the place low-stress working circumstances would permit it to function quietly and effectively.
This spirit additionally encompasses Mazda’s dedication to what Mr. Yuan calls “signature philosophies,” reminiscent of “what makes a car drive well, and what makes a car enjoyable to drive.”
Many ensuing variations — the placement of gasoline, brake and clutch pedals; the position of seat backs; the means 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 mentioned.
Yet, rising from the pandemic, small automotive manufacturers like Mazda face important challenges. The key tendencies for the future are electrification and superior driver-assistance expertise, two classes that require immense funding. Mazda simply doesn’t have this type of capital, or scale. So one technique entails a partnership with Toyota, the world’s top-selling automaker.
In this deal, Mazda good points 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 feel the Toyota group checked out Mazda and mentioned: ‘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 brands are building a factory in Alabama, a plant that may — along with existing factories from Honda, Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai — help that low-wage, nonunion state become the second-largest auto producer in North America, after Michigan.