The pandemic crushed new-vehicle sales last year in the United States, with behemoths like Ford Motor, General Motors and Honda all posting double-digit sales declines. Altogether, the sales slide reached 15 percent, with under 14.5 million new cars hitting American roads, down from a five-year average of around 17 million.
But Mazda — the 13th-ranked carmaker in America — was one of just three to increase sales last year. (Tesla and Volvo were the others.)
The critical accolades piled up, as well. U.S. News and World Report, for the fifth year, made Mazda its Best Car Brand. Every one of its new models that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tested was a Top Safety Pick, more than any other brand. It ranked No. 1 in a Consumer Reports survey on the most reliable new vehicles. And then this year, Mazda received the top spot in that magazine’s coveted Brand Report Card, based on a combined score 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,” said Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision, an automotive research and consulting firm. “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 firm conducts hundreds of thousands of in-depth surveys with new car buyers each year, attributed part of Mazda’s appeal during this atypical period to consumer perceptions held by its typical buyers. Just as car shoppers are attracted to Jeeps for the perception of go-anywhere ability, and to BMWs for the idea of being able to drive at top speed on the autobahn — even if these things never actually happen to an ordinary owner — consumers were attracted to Mazda during the pandemic because the brand offered them a fantasy of carefree relief.
“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 said. “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 thing. “Mazdas have this image of being an escape,” Mr. Edwards added.
In addition, though it has a cadre of loyalists, Mazda relies heavily on “conquest” sales — luring consumers from other brands — to fuel sales growth. During the pandemic, as potential car buyers navigated closed dealerships, dived deeper into online reviews and embraced at-home test drives, the small Japanese marque made its move.
“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 said.
For years, Mazda sported best-in-class fuel economy across its entire range, but it may be best known for its zippy $26,830 MX-5 Miata roadster. The Miata, one of the few affordable two-seat sports cars still on the market, is an industry benchmark for the cost/fun-to-drive ratio.
The $20,650 Mazda 3 compact sedan and hatchback won the 2020 World Car Design of the Year award, for bringing Italianate styling, and driving passion, to a dwindling category; even Volkswagen has quit selling its Golf hatchback, long a core competitor, in the United States. The $24,475 Mazda 6 is a handsome family sedan that competes fiercely with the Honda Accord, even though the Honda sells a dozen Accords for every Mazda 6. It is, however, being discontinued after the 2021 model year, another victim of the shift to S.U.V.s and crossovers.
Mazda competes in that bracket, as well. Its top seller in the States, the $25,370 CX-5, is a rival to the best-selling Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 and occasionally even competes with luxury models like the BMW X3 and Audi Q5.
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May 27, 2021, 8:02 p.m. ET
“When I worked at another auto company, the engineers were taught that value was performance divided by cost,” said Jeff Guyton, president and chief executive 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 unique perspective has deep roots. The company, which was founded as a cork-maker in 1920 in Hiroshima, has always been something 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,” said Dave Yuan, senior editor of Japanese Nostalgic Car, a website for American fans of Japanese cars. “Their very first vehicle was a racing motorcycle, to challenge the dominance of the big British bike brands.”
Mr. Yuan credits Mazda’s focus on “courageous” engineering for its distinct perspective.
“They tend not to be bound by a lot of the industry conventions,” he said. “They’re always going to try and seek out things that they believe are the right technology.” This includes, most famously, early and current 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 fuel efficiency, oil consumption and tailpipe emissions. Mazda engineers are working on using the rotary as an onboard generator for their first electric car, the MX-30, where low-stress running conditions would allow it to operate quietly and efficiently.
This spirit also encompasses Mazda’s dedication to what Mr. Yuan calls “signature philosophies,” such as “what makes a car drive well, and what makes a car enjoyable to drive.”
Many resulting adaptations — the placement of gas, brake and clutch pedals; the position of seat backs; the way an engine builds power under a hard turn — don’t show up on spec sheets. But in day-to-day driving, they imbue Mazdas with a sense of refinement and delight.
“They really feel like a boutique, artisanal, intricately thought-out product,” Mr. Yuan said.
Yet, emerging from the pandemic, small automotive brands like Mazda face significant challenges. The key trends for the future are electrification and advanced driver-assistance technology, two categories that require immense investment. Mazda just doesn’t have this kind of capital, or scale. So one strategy involves a partnership with Toyota, the world’s top-selling automaker.
In this deal, Mazda gains access to what Mr. Guyton called “Toyota’s wealth of resources and technology.” But when asked what Toyota acquires, he became a bit more 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 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.
According to Mr. Guyton, the cars built there will not be “twins separated at birth” — nearly identical vehicles with different badges on the front. Rather, they will be more like children from a blended family: “They’re going to grow up in the same house, but they are totally unique products.”
This dedication to keeping Mazda Mazda will be crucial 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 said. “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.”