The good news for Mazda: Following a tight battle in April, in which the company's compact outsold the Honda Civic by a tad over 100 units, the Mazda MAZDA3 became the top-selling car in the entire nation through the first four months of 2010. The bad news: The nation in question is Canada.
Here in the U.S., the MAZDA3 barely made the list of top 10 compacts last month, trailing the Toyota Corolla (including the Toyota Matrix), Civic, Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cobalt, Hyundai Elantra and even the Volkswagen Jetta.
Plus, the MAZDA3 accounted for essentially half of all U.S. Mazda sales in April and was up just 16.6 percent year-to-date, a rate that lags the market as a whole. The automaker's next-best-selling product in terms of volume was the Mazda MAZDA6, which found 2,536 customers in April, down 3 percent from the same time last year.
The end result for Mazda in April was about what one would expect, as its overall sales were up a modest 17.3 percent, a result that, again, underperformed the industry as a whole.
It's story is one I've been following for a while, and now is a nice time to check in again, because the final chapter in the company's efforts to succeed in this country could start as soon as this summer. That's when the Mazda MAZDA2, the company's fresh new subcompact, is due to hit dealerships.
But first a quick recap: Mazda was one of the darlings of the automotive world back in the early- to mid-2000s. It had built a strong reputation for producing cars that were relatively fuel efficient but still fun to drive, and was starting to bring that "zoom-zoom" stuff to a growing line of crossovers.
The automaker launched the Mazda CX-7 as a unique mix of crossover versatility and car-like'”nearly sports car-like'”dynamics, with the emphasis firmly on drivability. Especially notable was the CX-7's exterior. While most crossovers at least gave a nod to their SUV roots by using a rugged design language with plenty of sport-utility cues, the Mazda featured swoopy curves and an aerodynamic appearance that still helps it standout from the competition.
The bigger, seven-passenger Mazda CX-9 didn't have the same kind of breakthrough styling as the CX-7 when it debuted, but it still won plenty of rave reviews from the press and plenty of sales from customers. The 2010 model remains a credible contender among big crossovers, although its fuel efficiency is noticeably lower than the Ford Flex or Chevrolet Traverse.
But the point is, with these fresh crossovers and critically acclaimed cars like the MAZDA3 and MAZDA6, the end of 2007 saw the company notching its best year in the U.S. since 1994.
And then, depression set in'”on a global basis.
Worse, for Mazda anway, other automakers in the same basic position'”like Subaru'”began gaining traction during the meltdown while Mazda sales just plain melted. In '07, Mazda sold 296,110 vehicles; in 2009, while Subaru was setting records, Mazda was in the process of shedding 90,000 sales over a two-year period.
It's hard to see what went wrong, too. The Subaru Legacy mid-size sedan outsold the similarly sized MAZDA6 in April by a score of 3,851 to 2,536. In April of 2009, It was MAZDA6, 2,615; Legacy, 2,561. Yes, the Legacy offers four-wheel-drive, but the Mazda remains one of the most acclaimed, best-driving sedans in its segment.
Sales of the Subaru Outback have catapulted from 3,293 in April 2009 to 7,688 last month, an increase of 133 percent. The CX-7, in the same segment, did notch a nice 79.2 percent boost of its own this April, but that pushed its sales to just 2,237. Once more, in a battle between four-wheel drive and fun-to-drive, U.S. drivers seemed more interested in the former.
It's really only in the compact segment that Mazda is doing better than Subaru. (Given the April sales of the Subaru Tribeca'”236'”it's hard to say that vehicle really "competes" against the CX-9. Or any other mainstream seven-seater.) The Subaru Impreza continued to chug along with another 16 percent April increase, but the MAZDA3 continues to outsell it by about 5,500 units per month.
Which brings us back to Mazda. The Krome on Cars analysis goes like this: Mazda's high-efficiency, high-fun positioning didn't seem to play well during the meltdown because customer downsizing mostly went from big to medium vehicles, while Subaru's all-wheel drive gave it an extra advantage with a certain type of former SUV buyer.
But the next big industry transition is supposed to be the move into compact and subcompact segments, and almost all stakeholders are preparing for this shift. The president continues to push for higher fuel-efficiency standards, the automakers continue to explore electric vehicles and prep new small cars, etc., etc.
If someone can just convince customers to take the plunge, I'll be convinced Mazda might have a future in the U.S.