This article appeared in Forbes Auto: May 23, 2016
Photo Credit: George Peterson
Mazda has always been a brand different from most. It built its image on rotary engines that were fun to drive, but tough to make. Challenges from emissions and fuel economy regulations doomed the rotary early in the 21st century. Production ceased in 2012 with the demise of the Mazda RX-8 sports car. Mazda’s gorgeous Vision R coupe shown at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show demonstrates Mazda hasn’t given up on the rotary, but admits only a small group of dedicated engineers are presently working on it. But the rotary engine is just part of the Mazda story.
The Ford Days to Independence From 1979 through 2009, Ford Motor had an increasing equity stake in Mazda Motor. Starting with 7% stake in 1979, Ford increased its position in Mazda until it had effective control with 33.3% of the company. Mazda and Ford teamed up on several car platforms where Mazda’s design expertise opened the eyes of Ford engineers to new more efficient techniques.
As the Great Recession deepened and Ford was struggling for liquidity, Ford divested its shares in Mazda and the company became independent in 2009. The result was a stand-alone brand with good products, but low volumes. In 2011, Mazda raised $1.9 billion to guarantee its future viability and develop its SkyActiv platform now underpinning its cars and crossover SUVs. With the introduction of the Mazda CX-9 crossover SUV in mid-2016, the transition to SkyActiv is complete.
For Mazda’s 2016 Fiscal Year, the company sold a bit over 1.5 million vehicles world wide and had a net income of ¥134 billion (~$1 billion). Prospects are even better going forward as Mazda entered a technology sharing agreement with Toyota in May 2015.
Repositioning “Zoom Zoom” to “Driving Matters” Now the stage is set for Mazda to reposition itself. In the United States, Mazda wants to be perceived as an upscale mainstream brand similar to Acura. Acura has always seemed like an upscale domestic brand (and not particularly successful), so this positioning may make sense.
One of the first things Mazda has done to facilitate this change is change its advertising tag line from “Zoom Zoom” to “Driving Matters.” “Zoom Zoom” has been around seemingly forever, since about 2000. At first, Mazda’s products did not live up to the “Zoom Zoom” tag line, so now that they do, the tag line is changed to a more mature “Driving Matters”. “Zoom Zoom” is still there, but in a secondary position to “Driving Matters”.
“Driving Matters” fits with the attitude that people who buy a Mazda product are more enthusiastic about driving than buyers of most other mainstream brands. Mazda does not want to sell an appliance – transportation from point A to point B – they want to sell a vehicle with an active, sporty driving experience that their owners embrace.
Mazda Vehicles Deliver More of a Premium Ambiance Along with repositioning the message, Mazda’s products have been achieving higher transaction prices at their dealers. Much of this results from selling a richer mix of vehicles with about 50% of the CX-5 being the upper middle Grand Touring model and the CX-9 having a projected 40% being the Grand Touring model (then combined with the Touring model, Touring plus Grand Touring are expected to be 70% of the CX-9 mix). No longer wanting to be a “cheap and cheerful” brand, Mazda will not be the cheapest in any segment. It wants to be best. Simply, the brand is chasing a better quality of business.
Mazda has a real winner on its hands with the CX-9 – a Large Crossover SUV that actually says Zoom-Zoom! The CX-9 is the outright winner in 26 of 48 satisfaction attributes, and is well rated in the rest. Winning attributes of the CX-9 include such important characteristics as:
• Exterior styling and size
• Fun-to-drive, power/acceleration and handling (the essence of Zoom-Zoom)
• Seating capacity and flexible/changeable seating
• Quality, reliability/dependable, durable/long lasting
• Safety features and a feeling of safety while driving
• Operating costs, anticipated resale value and value for money
Quietly tucked away in a corner of the 2006 Los Angeles Auto Show II was the all new Mazda CX-9 Crossover Sport Utility Vehicle. No surprise here, as we brought you the reveal from the New York Auto Show in April (click here) and the CX-9 has been seen tooling nearby on the roads surrounding Mazda North American Operations headquarters in Irvine, California. The disturbing thing was that the CX-9 was getting no attention even with an overhead display similar to that Mazda used to launch the CX-7 last year. VehicleVoice and AutoPacific staffers stumbled on this forlorn looking CX-9 while searching for the john.
The CX-9 becomes Mazda’s flagship and effectively replaces the not-missed Mazda Millenia near luxury sedan that literally faded away several years ago. Sharing a platform with the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX, Mazda did the Ford entries one better by enlarging the body and adding a third row of seats. In the Mazda lineup the CX-7 does the 5-passenger duty and the CX-9 does the 7-passenger duty.
Hyundai has developed a new SUV/crossover to go up against the likes of the Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer, and Mitsubishi Endeavor. In size terms, it falls neatly between the Pilot and Explorer, or between Mazda’s new CX-7 and upcoming CX-9. On sale in the States in December 2006 and being formally introduced to U.S. buyers at the 2007 North American International Auto Show in January, Veracruz has already arrived in the home market. Here are some photos of the Korean-specification model, from VehicleVoice and AutoPacific correspondents, along with some speculation and fact about what we think we’ll see here in three month’s time.
At first glance, the Veracruz styling is attractive and the expected equipment level looks to be competitive. We’re looking forward to seeing it in the tin, the real measure. As Hyundai product executions make solid strides in quality and overall look with each successive product, the Veracruz has potential to be one of the best Hyundai offerings yet.
We’ve reported on the CX-7 several times previously. In fact Mazda’s Jeremy Barnes was featured in a walkaround of the CX-7 in our second-ever video cast. Now AutoPacific has driven it in the rolling Virginia countryside outside Washington DC.
Mazda compares the CX-7 with the likes of the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4. They also mention vehicles like the Nissan Murano. Certainly, CX-7 may have some similarities, but it is a very different type of vehicle.
On the plus side, CX-7 has very distinctive styling. Mazda describes it as a combination of sports car and SUV. They say it has the image and driving performance of a sports car – or maybe a sports coupe – and the utilty and capability of an SUV. CX-7 certainly looks different from SUVs and sedans. And it is a useful piece – functional.
Shinsuke Kawasaki, head of the Mazda product development team for CX-7 used the descriptive term “Metropolitan Hawk” to convey the sense of what he wanted to his colleagues. Yes, CX-7 is an SUV, but an SUV for the city. CX-7’s targets were to 1) have advanced emotional styling, 2) have exceptional driving performance, and 3) to suport a user’s urban lifestyle. It is an SUV for a person wanting individualistic transportation, not necessarily a joiner.
Its off-road pretentions are mild (using essentially the same AWD system as on the MazdaSpeed6) and Mazda did not provide any opportunity for off-roading. Darn.
CX-7 Powered by Turbo 4-cylinder
Mazda’s conclusion going into development of the CX-7 is that SUVs over-deliver on family and under-deliver on performance. Matching Mazda’s Zoom-Zoom image, Mazda set out to make the CX-7 a different type of performer. Surprisingly, it is powered by a turbocharged 2.3L 4-cylinder with 244-horsepower. Now, a turbo four is not what is expected in an SUV (except that Acura is launching the RDX SUV with a turbo 4 at about the same time), but this engine does pretty well. Little turbo lag, spritely performance, little torque steer. At high RPMs it gets a bit raucous – does not have the sophistication and finesse of a Volkswagen 2.0L Turbo 4-cylinder for instance. We would have opted for a V6, but Mazda’s 2007 CX-9 7-passenger SUV gets Ford’s 3.5L DOHC V6 with 265-horsepower. The CX-7’s turbo four is a clear differentiator. Not bad, but unexpected.
But there are negatives. These are not killing points, but if Mazda had really heeded the input from folks who want a more useful sporty car and might consider an SUV, they wouldn’t have missed on some important points.
Mazda’s Five-Passenger CX-7 Gets Seven-Passenger Sibling, CX-9
Mazda has floundered with its MPV never being quite right for a minivan and the Tribute a decent, but undermarketed, SUV offering. The brand may be in a better position for 2007MY, with two new crossover SUV products that seem to be just what customers want these days. The Tribute goes on a break, scheduled to return as a 2008 model year vehicle.
Mazda’s CX-7 spring 2006 launch provides a glimpse of what Mazda’s SUV lineup will look like over the next year, but the CX-7 isn’t the only new thing for 2007MY. Mazda is adding a second, larger SUV product for its 2007 model year lineup.
The CX-9 is being prepped quickly, with an introduction at the 2006 New York auto show in April and a sales launch in early 2007. VehicleVoice and AutoPacific correspondents were on hand for the introduction. Mazda is pitching its two new SUVs as offering an alternative for those looking for SUV attributes, like more space and all-weather capability, but also insistent on keeping a zoom-zoom sporting driver. As the launch release says, the CX-9 intends to “blend sporty driving spirit with seven-passenger SUV practicality.”
In discussions with Mazda North American Operations design management, the CX-9 is the attitudinal successor to the old Mazda 929 and Milenia four-door sedans. As those products withered away over the years, Mazda wondered what types of vehicles they really wanted to buy. Well, the CX-7 and CX-9 are the result of that navel gazing, and are much better choices today than me-too sedans.
According to Mazda, the CX-9 is on its own platform. It is its own product, and most certainly not a long version of the CX-7. And the CX-7 is certainly not a shorter version of the CX-9. In any case, the two do share styling cues, with the larger CX-9 taking on a more grown-up and sophisticated look, with its longer proportions and wider stance. Mazda is building both CX-7 and CX-9 in Japan and making a big deal about these vehicles being designed primarily for North America.