The automotive industry in North America has perhaps never been as competitive as it is today. Not only are more brands are jockeying for market share than ever before, the number of car sales has remained fairly static in the decade since the Great Recession; with major technological changes looming on the horizon and a generation of buyers held back from the market by lower wages and greater economic precarity, auto makers are struggling to cut through the noise and attract new buyers.
But amidst all this upheaval, some brands are faring better than others. Even as more established names like Ford and GM struggle to keep up with the changes brought on by a changing economic reality, Mazda has been quietly asserting itself as one of the most flexible and dynamic automakers on the market.
Mazda came to North America in the late 1960s, and the plucky Japanese company first attracted attention for its adoption of innovative, energy efficient engines during the fuel crisis in the 1970s. In the decades to come, the company built a strong reputation for thoughtful, driver-oriented engineering and an emphasis on craft over gimmicks. In the 1980s, it received rave reviews for its MX-5 Miata, a throwback to the classic British roadsters of the mid-20th century, and its CX-5 compact SUV has received accolades for its slick design and excellent handling.
How has a relatively small Japanese car manufacturer been able to buck the odds and succeed in one of the world’s most saturated automotive markets? The secrets to Mazda’s success are writ large in the engineering of one of its most successful automobiles. Mazda 3 cars are not the fastest on the market — nor are they the most luxurious, the most fuel efficient, or the cheapest. But there is something about this agile, stylish sedan that drivers across North America have found utterly irresistible. The Mazda 3 may not excel in any individual performance category, but what it delivers is a driving experience unrivalled in its intuitive coherence. The Mazda 3 delivers the complete package, and as a result it has developed a reputation for being one of the most drivable cars on the road.
Just as the Mazda 3 has become one of the most popular sedans on the market due to its driver-oriented design and smooth blend of practical and precocious, Mazda has carved out space for itself as a car maker due to its thoughtful engineering and pared down approach. Compared to large-name automotive manufacturers, which produce endless iterations of their basic sedan, truck, and SUV models, Mazda has focussed on meeting the needs of a wide customer base. While it has not shied away from high-tech solutions (its SKYACTIV technology, designed to provide better fuel economy, better control, and a more intuitive driving experience, is state-of-the-art), Mazda has generally avoided the kind of flashy innovations that do more to build auto-show prestige than deliver an accessible driving experience.
The North American auto market is only set to become more competitive, and brands like Mazda show that one of the surest routes to success lies in paring back operations and focussing on delivering a small range of extremely competent vehicles. With consumers facing a glut of choice, and a growing number of buyers looking for cars that can deliver efficiency, durability, and performance over gimmicky prestige pieces, Mazda’s targeted marketing strategy is a model that other brands are likely to follow.