Mazda Premium is the objective for the Mazda brand in the future. Mazda realizes it is a mainstream brand but wants to become premium. In the minds of the car buyer, Mazda competes with Toyota, Honda and Nissan. Mazda has limited resources and needs to husband them. To achieve Mazda Premium positioning, its products must be executed to meet or beat premium brand competitors. This requires targeted benchmarking against more expensive vehicles in the same product category.
CX-5 Latest Mazda Premium Vehicle At the press launch of the 2017 Mazda CX-5 mid-size crossover SUV (XSUV) in San Diego, Mazda detailed its competitive strategy. The Mazda product development team did not closely benchmark the usual suspects. The CX-5 will be sold against Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage. To go against premium brands, the CX-5 team benchmarked luxury brand XSUVs like Audi Q3, BMW X1, Lexus NX, Mercedes GLA. To show how deep they have benchmarked premium XSUVs, the Jaguar F-Pace was even included on one comparison chart.
The new Mazda CX-5 is a 5-passenger XSUV slotted below the 7-passenger CX-9 introduced last year. The CX-5 completes Mazda’s evolution to its Kudo design theme that stresses the “soul of motion”. The styling is striking and clearly differentiated from its German and Japanese competitors. Mazda states that “every element has been designed to be in a class above”.
To demonstrate the superiority of the premium-designed CX-5 over its luxury competition, Mazda provided these premium vehicles as comparisons to drive through downtown San Diego. While we cannot yet discuss the driving experience, we can reveal that the CX-5 arguably looks and drives better than premium brand XSUVs costing about $10,000 more.
In reality, it will take years for Mazda to achieve premium brand status. Executed consistently and effectively, Mazda Premium will ultimately achieve a stronger image with Mazda dealers and customers. Mazda Premium will allow Mazda to achieve higher per-unit profitability. Ultimately, Mazda Premium will allow Mazda to be positioned at a premium brand like Acura or Buick if all goes as planned. Competing against Audi, BMW, Lexus, Jaguar and Mercedes is still a ways off.
This is the second time I have attended The Quail, a Motorsports Gathering and it did not disappoint. Held at The Quail Lodge and Golf Club in Carmel, California, the event drew 5,000 attendees. Cars and motorsports are supposed to be the highlight of the event, but food, drink and people are even more interesting. The attendees were enthusiasts, collectors, owners and motorsports personalities. Some of the vehicles on display had their owners hovering nearby. Other vehicles had their attendants close to make sure spectators did not touch them. Some of the restorers had worked on the cars for years and were bringing them out in public for the first time since the restoration was complete. Getting more popular all the time are “barn finds”. These are vehicles that have not been restored to a level never even attained from the factory. They have their fifty, sixty, seventy or eighty year patina intact.
There were over 250 vehicles to gaze at. Most were luxury and sporting marques like Ferrari, Lamborghini, Bugatti, Rolls Royce, Bentley. One of the highlights was the new Bugatti Chiron in a deep French blue with a highly chromed character line sweeping up the A-Pillar along the door and then down and back forward towards the front fender. Very dramatic. Framing the Chiron was a “sea” of Bugatti Veyrons in a rainbow of colors.
While The Quail is an event for individuals to showcase their vehicles, corporate displays seem to be on the upswing as well. Bugatti showcased the Chiron. Bentley showed off the Bentayga and the new Mulsanne. Acura was there celebrating 30 years on the market. BMW was celebrating its 100th Anniversary. Cadillac was featuring its CTS-V. Alfa Romeo featured the 4C and upcoming Guilia sedan. Singer, the classic Porsche upfitter, had a small display and a large crowd.
My favorite display was the Bowlus travel trailer hitched to a Bentley Bentayga. This all-aluminum $219,000 travel trailer is reminiscent of an aluminum Airstream but is totally high tech. The Bowlus folks say you can live off the grid for two weeks in their travel trailer and be totally comfortable.
The Quail is a signature event for Peninsula Hotels. Six Peninsula hotels had a spectacular pavilion with gourmet food appropriate from their cities – Bangkok, Beijing, Chicago, Beverly Hills, Paris, and New York. Most people probably couldn’t get through all six pavilions. While all six of the Peninsula pavilions were outstanding, perhaps the best was Beijing with great food and music to set the ambiance for a truly luxurious experience.
Image by: George Peterson
Infiniti QX30 Launched One of the fastest growing product segments is the Luxury Small Crossover SUV (XSUV) category. Infiniti has been a bit late to the party as there are already 33 small XSUVs on the market. Eight of those are luxury brand XSUVs: the Acura RDX has been out since 2013 in its second incarnation, Audi Q3 out since 2014, BMW X1 out since 2014, Land Rover Discovery Sport out since 2016, Lexus NX200t out since 2015, Lincoln MKC out since 2015, Mercedes GLA since 2015, Range Rover Evoque out since 2012. Launch of the Infiniti QX30, while a bit late, pretty much has every brand in the fray.
Infiniti enters the fray with the Infiniti QX30, making it the 34th member in the small XSUV market and 9th luxury brand XSUV. Remember, QX is the Infiniti nomenclature for SUVs whether they are body-on-frame SUVs (QX80) or crossover SUVs (QX70, QX60, QX50). Infiniti cars carry names that begin with a simple “Q”.
All USA QX30s Classified as Trucks The Infiniti QX30 is a highly styled small crossover available in front wheel drive and all wheel drive powertrain configurations. In other markets the all drive model is called “Q30” indicating Infiniti is classifying it as an hatchback car. In the USA, both versions are classified as trucks.
Dramatic Infiniti Design Cues Differentiate QX30 The Infiniti QX30 is sporty and curvaceous like most Infiniti models. It has bulging front fenders sweeping back and down with a strong character line. Infiniti decribes the character lines as “dramatic and turbulent”. The windshield is very fast flowing into a steeply dropping roofline. The front end is instantly recognizable as an Infiniti with its unique “double-arch” grille. In the side view, Infiniti’s signature crescent-shaped C-pillar further differentiates the vehicle. There is a lot going on there, but it works very well in this small XSUV.
Infiniti QX30 and Mercedes GLA Share Platform To keep the investment in line the Infiniti QX30 is assembled in Sunderland, England alongside the Mercedes-Benz GLA. QX30 and GLA share platforms, but Infiniti has loaded its entry with all the latest high tech electronic gadgetry available.
Engine Power at the Low End of Competitive Range The 2.0L 4-cylinder turbocharged engine is shared with the GLA and is manufactured by Daimler in Kolleda, Germany. Power output is 208 horsepower with 258 lb-ft of torque. Compared with other luxury XSUVs this power output is anemic. Driving the QX30, the performance is adequate, even pleasant, but a power output of between 230 and 240 horsepower would be more expected from an engine with these specifications.
The engine is mated to a 7-speed dual clutch transmission.
This article was first published on Forbes.com on June 9, 2016
Tesla Tops Auto Brand Satisfaction for Second Year in a Row Tesla owners are the most satisfied overall among all car and light truck owners according to the results of AutoPacific‘s 2016 Vehicle Satisfaction Award research. The annual study includes over 65,000 respondents for 2016 and covers 273 vehicles sold in the United States.
Tesla owners are almost unanimous in agreeing the Tesla is fun to drive, powerful, eco-friendly, upscale, safe, distinctive and expensive. These are not people who are really looking for the greenest car around, they want a car that makes a statement and can tear away from almost every other car when the light turns green. The fact that Tesla has been the top-ranking brand in AutoPacific’s research two years in a row is testament not only to how much Tesla buyers like their product, but at how well the brand has been positioned. Of course, Tesla today is a one-car brand and that one car has really resonated with its owners. Things may be different when data for the Model X and Model 3 are included in the years to come.
Other luxury brands trail Tesla. Cadillac, Lexus and Lincoln are next in satisfaction, then comes a surprise.
Kia Top Ranked Popular Brand Kia is ranked fifth overall and is the top popular brand in the research. This is quite a feat for a Korean brand that was just an asterisk fifteen years ago. Clearly, Kia products are capable of competing with the best. The Kia Optima mid-size sedan was third overall behind the Cadillac Escalade Luxury SUV and the Mercedes S-Class Luxury Car. These cost about three times what the Optima would cost. Kia owners see their vehicles as safe, fun to drive, comforting, a good value from a trusted brand. While these attributes are above the results for the industry as a whole, they bear little resemblance to the magnitude of the Tesla results.
Here are the top ten most satisfying brands:
New Maxima Job #1 in April 2015 The 2016 Nissan Maxima is assembled at Nissan’s huge Smyrna, Tennessee plant. Smyrna has become the highest capacity single plant in the United States with a capacity of over 650,000 units per year. The 8th Gen Maxima Job #1 was in April 2015 and dealers began getting the cars in early June. Competing with the likes of the Toyota Avalon, Chevrolet Impala, Dodge Charger, Ford Taurus and Acura TLX, the new Maxima pushes the design envelope with its “energetic flow” styling. The styling is head turning and certain to be controversial.
Acura’s entry premium compact car is being updated for the 2016 model year. The 2016 Acura ILX is what Acura terms its “Gateway Model” – the entry to the Acura lineup. The strategy for the 2016 Acura ILX is much like Honda implemented for its CR-V compact crossover SUV. Honda termed that a Major Mid-Cycle Change. Similarly, ILX has been freshened and given a better powertrain than before.
Mild Styling Changes The 2016 Acura ILX looks basically the same as the 2015 model. It is a compact sedan with pleasant, slightly sporty styling. For 2016, the car gets a new more aggressive front end appearance with LED accent lights and LED headlamps. All Acuras will have LED front lights from now on. The grille is tougher looking and the “parrot’s beak” has been toned down somewhat. The tall lamps are upgraded and more distinctive than before. In the industry, this is called a front and rear six – think of it as a face and butt lift.
The interior gets minor updates with upgraded seat material and contrasting stitching on the steering wheel, shift knob and parking brake handle.
Upgraded Powertrain with Only One Choice The news, however, is under the skin. The only engine/transmission choice now is a 2.4L direct injection 4-cylinder with 201-horsepower mated to an 8-speed dual clutch transmission. If this sounds familiar it should because it is basically the same 4-cylinder used in the mid-market TLX. Since 2016 Acura ILX is now made at Honda’s Marysville, OH plant alongside the TLX this communization makes sense.
No Manual Transmission – YEA! The enthusiasts among you may be asking where the manual transmission formerly with the 2.4L went? It was dropped in favor of the fast-shifting dual clutch transmission and the fact that no one was buying them. Gone also is the hybrid model, also for lack of interest. AutoPacific’s research confirms that this is the right direction to go. Consideration for manual transmissions is very low and hybrid consideration continues to drop as gasoline prices in the USA fall.
Technology and Stuff Recognizing that a premium brand has to deliver more refinement, Acura has increased the sound deadening in the ILX to make the car much quieter than now. Also, following the CR-V strategy with HondaSense, AcuraWatch suite of advanced safety and driver assist features is available on the car for the first time. This feature suite includes adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, road departure mitigation, collision mitigation braking system, upgraded rear camera. Once again, we are seeing a manufacturer “democratize” its technology taking stuff formerly available on upper level models and making them available on lower line products.
The 2014 Acura RLX is the highest scoring Executive Luxury Car in AutoPacific’s 2014 Ideal Vehicle Award research. The RLX designers, planners and engineers knew exactly what their target buyers wanted and designed the RLX to meet those needs. The Acura RLX is at the top of the list against a strong group of executive luxury entries such as the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, BMW 5-Series, Cadillac CTS Sedan, Volvo S80 and the Audi A6. RLX sells in such small numbers but, even with small sales, the car scores well in AutoPacific’s IVA research battery.
RLX owners clearly did not want their vehicle any different. Of the fifteen categories in the Ideal Vehicle questionnaire, the 2014 Acura RLX led in five satisfaction categories and was within three percentage points of another two.
The top five highest ratings by RLX owners are: same passenger room, same exterior size, same seat fit, same wheels, and the same cargo space.
Every vehicle cannot be perfect. RLX owners want more distinctive exterior styling than what they have now as well as more interior storage compartments. RLX owners also wants simpler information and entertainment technology. The RL and RLX have always been technology laden products, but their technology has gone beyond what their owners can cope with.
The 2015 Lincoln MKC hit Lincoln dealerships in June 2014 and promises to be the 2nd volume entry for Ford’s premium brand after the award-winning Lincoln MKZ. Lincoln is the top brand in AutoPacific’s 2014 Vehicle Satisfaction Award research and the MKZ and MKZ Hybrid are the winners of their product categories. The MKC (getting confused with the alphanumeric nomenclature yet?) is joining a booming market for smaller crossover SUVs and, based on our brief drive of the vehicle, the MKC should do very well in AutoPacific’s 2015 Vehicle Satisfaction Award research.
Excellent Package The MKC is a “small” crossover SUV, but it does not feel small from the driver’s seat. The front seating package is spacious. Visibility forward is excellent. Ergonomics are good. Transmission shifting is through push buttons on the left hand side of the center stack. The MyLincoln Touch system is more intuitive (but reading the channel numbers for SiriusXM is almost impossible because of tiny font sizes) and stable. Losing the shifter in the center console is an excellent idea for many reasons. It allows for more storage in the console and also allows the console to be narrower giving the front seat passengers more seat width. The MKC is a persuasive package that will appeal to buyers across all age ranges.
Neat Features Abound on MKC For those buyers who want the latest technology, MKC offers a lot. Of course, there is MyLincoln Touch that sets the stage in the center stack. There is Approach Detection where the vehicle reacts to the key fob approaching the vehicle at night and the headlamp accents, taillamp accents, door handle pockets and interior all light up. There is even a Lincoln logo projected onto the pavement from the outside rear view mirror puddle lights. Then there is Drive Control that includes continuously adjusting shock absorbers to provide a comfortable ride under all conditions. Electric Power Steering and Active Noise Control are standard features that complement the Drive Control System. Active Park Assist not only can park the MKC, but includes Park Out Assist to help the driver maneuver the vehicle out of a tight parking space. As with many newly introduced vehicles there is a suite of electronic driver assist technologies: lane-keeping system, driver alert system (checks driver alertness), adaptive cruise control, collision warning system with brake support, blind spot information system, and cross traffic alert. These features may sound like overkill, but once you have used them, they become a necessity rather than a luxury.
Highly Differentiated from Escape – All EcoBoost Engines The MKC is derived from the Ford Escape but shares no body panels or interior trim bits. Without looking under the skin, the relationship is invisible. The 2015 Lincoln MKC comes standard with a 240HP 2.0L EcoBoost 4-cylinder engine. Optional is a 2.3L EcoBoost 4-cylinder with 285-horsepower (with 93 octane gasoline – in California the top spec gas octane is 91 octane so the output for the 2.3L would be about 280HP). The base vehicle is front wheel drive with all wheel drive available as an option.
Outstanding Dynamics Starting in Santa Barbara and driving across the Los Padres National Forest to the Tejon Ranch , the MKC proves to be nimble and athletic on the twisty roads more suited to a sports car than a X-SUV. With the 2.3L EcoBoost and AWD, the MKC is quick and solid over all road surfaces.
Price and Competition The base price of the MKC is $33,995, but the versions Lincoln provided for the drive evaluation were all in the $50,000 range equipped with the full suite of electronic features and the big engine. The size and price of the MKC puts it in the competitive set with the Cadillac SRX, Acura RDX, Audi Q5, BMW X1, Infiniti QX50 (i.e. EX), Range Rover Evoque, Volvo XC60. As if that isn’t enough competition, there is more to come: Lexus NX, Mercedes-Benz GLA, Audi Q3, Porsche Macan. Clearly, buyers will have a tremendous challenge sorting out which of these smaller XSUVs to select.
Now for the Nit-Picks Ford (Lincoln) can be depended on to make mistakes in feature availability. For a company that touts “democratization of technology” (meaning the neat electronic features found on the top of the line will be available in a Focus, for instance) the base MKC cannot be had with an in-vehicle navigation system. Since MyLincoln Touch is standard and each vehicle has a center stack screen, and the navigation system is via an SD card, navigation should be available on all models.
Brand Challenge The only thing standing in the way of the MKC being a whopping success may the Lincoln brand. While AutoPacific’s research shows Lincoln is doing a great job satisfying its customers, the brand has languished and is only now starting to re-assert itself. The MKC is an outstanding addition to the Lincoln portfolio. Now the challenge is to get buyers into the dealerships to drive and buy the MKC. It will be interesting to watch how Lincoln markets the vehicle in the coming months and to monitor its sales performance.
Early in its life, Acura was a brilliant attempt to establish an upscale Japanese brand that was a smart buying decision. The Acura Legend and Acura Integra carried the brand at first with the Legend being a very rational buying desicion vs. a Mercedes 300 or BMW 525.
Unfortunately, Acura lost its way when it went further upscale and changed from using names for its vehicles to alphanumeric nomenclature. This was a move that Honda insiders once admitted cost $1.5 billion in lost sales revenue and damaged the Acura image immeasurably. At the same time the third generation of the Acura range topper was launched replacing the well-liked Legend. This was the RL. It had boring style, was heavy, slow and expensive. It had completely abandoned the Legend’s Unique Selling Proposition. Wags called it the “Ruined Legend”.
The RL never caught on except with buyers heavily engaged in technology. Adding the Super Handling All Wheel Drive System as an optional drive package helped handling, but was very heavy. The engine did not have the oomph to handle all the weight. RL sales slumped into the range of hundreds per month – an unsustainable level.
Now we come to the introduction of the Acura RLX Sport Hybrid in Spring, 2014. The front wheel drive RLX was launched in early 2013 as a 2014 model. The RLX is arguably better styled than the RL it replaces. However, it is still a very heavy car (3,933 lbs base) and with its standard 310-horsepower 3.5L V6 it is a lot of weight to push around. The solution? Add a Sport Hybrid model as the new top-of-the-line RLX – the Sport Hybrid system adds 350-lbs to the weight of the car, but the power of the hybrid powertrain more than offsets the weight gain..
Officially, the hybrid is a mouthful – Sport Hybrid – Super Handling All Wheel Drive. The hybrid absolutely transforms the car.
With one of the most technologically advanced powertrains in the industry, the RLX hybrid puts out a combined 377 horsepower. Impressive. We won’t go into the details of the technology much beyond the fact that it has Honda’s Earth Dreams Three Motor Hybrid System combining the RLX’ 310-horsepower 3.5L V6 with one 47-horsepower and two 36-horsepower rear electric motors. The resulting 377-horsepower combined with the 7-speed Dual Clutch Transmission makes the car into a dancer.
Think of Disney’s Fantasia. The front drive RLX can be the dancing hippos in tutus. The Sport Hybrid with SH-AWD plus DCT in sport mode becomes a completely different car. A star. The transmission downshifts in the blink of an eye anticipating what you want it to do. Fantastic!
The Sport Hybrid adds equipment not available on the front wheel drive car: larger front brakes, electric air conditioning, power distribution monitor added to the 8-inch color display, head-up display, Chestnut wood trim, premium audio system with 14 speakers, electronic gear selector, unique wheels, smoked chrome plating for grill.
The front wheel drive base car gets 20/31/24 (City/Highway/Combined) mpg with a city range of 370 miles and highway range of 575 miles from its 18.5 gallon fuel tank. The hybrid is rated at 28/32/30 mpg giving city range of 425 mile and highway range of 475 miles from its 15.1 gallon tank. While the hybrid does get much better city fuel economy, its smaller fuel tank hurts its maximum range. Clearly the hybrid in the RLX is about technology and performance, not maximum range.
While Acura has not released pricing the the hybrid, the 2014 RLX with the top of the line Advance Package is priced at $60,450, $12,000 higher than the base RLX. Given this price range it’s reasonable to expect a price of between $65,000 and $70,000 for the RLX Sport Hybrid. Given the dynamic improvement the hybrid system gives the car, this may be worth every penny.
Acura’s MDX has been the shining star in their lineup for years now. Having invented the three-row crossover, Acura has polished that shining star in their lineup for the 2014 model year with an all-new model.
I know, it really doesn’t look all that new. Trust me, it is. I’ve seen it from the inside out. Everything you can’t see is new and even the exterior (YES, it is!) is new. The MDX is a formula not to be messed with and Acura knows this quite well. So, they made an all-new MDX but modernized the exterior a bit and significantly improved the interior. The MDX is one of the few crossovers that has enough cojones that men of all types need not fear that it looks like they are driving a glorified minivan.