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Why Can Mazda Not Break Through?

March 9, 2012 by Matt

Mazda Logo Miata Shifter

A recent Left Lane report that Mazda will be cutting back its US workforce revived a question that’s been rolling around in my head for some time: Why is Mazda not more successful? Why can they not break into the “upper tier” of Japanese automakers, a plane occupied by companies like Toyota, Nissan and Honda?

Granted, all automakers have to lay off workers from time to time in order to adapt to changing demand, or an underperforming product, or increased competition. But Mazda seems to be a perpetual underachiever, almost always turning our cars that are among the best in their respective class, and well put-together at that, but unable to vault their manufacturer into the upper echelon of Japanese makes. As a result, they seem to experience crises every half dozen years or so where they’re compelled to pare down their workforce or seek a business alliance, never actually entering bankruptcy, but certainly experiencing hard times, with little surplus development money available for the projects they’d actually rather be working on, such a next-generation rotary engine, or putting together a factory race team and adding to their already-enviable racing pedigree.

Mazda MX-5 Miata Roadster Green Silver NC

A quick mental scan of Mazda’s product line over the past decade or so offers some insight into the company’s fortunes. As much as GM would like us to believe otherwise, an automaker’s success or failure is tied pretty directly to the quality of the cars they design, engineer and manufacture, and a glance at Mazda’s output—the 3, 6, RX-8, MX-5, CX-7, CX-9 and Tribute, among others—reveals vehicles that are almost always a joy to drive, but in terms of mass-market appeal, are a little out-of-step with mainstream tastes. They’re not boring transportation appliances, and as much as we enthusiasts would consider that a selling point, the hard truth is that much of the buying public is looking for the anonymous beige box to tote them around, never breaking down and getting 30 mpg and playing their MP3s via Bluetooth. That being the case, consideration of Mazda cars requires a bit more of a “leap of faith” from the consumer than say, an Accord or Camry, vehicles that all their friends have; known quantities. Success, no matter how it’s arrived at, begets success, and as such Toyota, Honda and Nissan occupy enviable positions atop the podium, leaving Mazda and other Japanese makes nibbling around the edges.

Is that the whole story, though? Interesting cars that are lovely to drive but are cursed by the fact that the words “Camry” or “Accord” aren’t affixed to their trunklids? Or is there more to it? Why do you think Mazda isn’t more successful?

Filed under: Car Industry, Mazda, News


  1. Phill says:

    As stated, the only downfall is that Mazdas are built for enthusiasts not mainstream boring people. Out of the total population only 20% of drivers are enthusiasts. That’s relatively small compared to the 80% who just want the appliance with Bluetooth. I am an enthusiast and I love these cars, but sine the market is so limited, Mazda has naturally limited themselves. A question does arise though, BMW…. yes the Germans arrgh…. they were driven by enthusiasts… what was it that drove BMW to their stardom? Maybe Mazda should take a look back to reflect?

    • Matt says:

      BMW had a number of things back then Mazda didn’t (and doesn’t). German cachet, the fact that they were kind of the inventors of the sports sedan, so they were the only game in town for quite a while, and the fact that they were through a period (the ’80s) when they were extremely trendy to own for the upper-crust set. Mazda doesn’t have any of that.

      If we’re going to compare the two, the funny things is, from a racing pedigree angle, Mazda’s probably got BMW beat—multiple IMSA GTU victories, a Le Mans 24h outright victory (’91), and many dedicated sports car racing classes like Spec Miata and Spec 7. The adage is that on any given weekend, more racers are driving Mazdas than any other make. So the Japanese automaker certainly “earns it,” so to speak.

  2. Kevin says:

    I own an RX-8 and bought it because of the appeal. Most drivers, however, just want what everybody else is having. I’ve driven the Accords and Camrys and Corollas, and to some it up in one word: BORING. $20,000+ of boredom. Mazda should really be in a better spot compared to the other Japanese companies. Their offerings are better and other than pickups, Mazda offers all the models. On a personal note, I’ve been holding out for the 16X engine since the Furai concept, and I speak for a large community when I say that we all have our hopes up that Mazda will deliver.

    • Matt says:

      Hi Kevin! Thanks for commenting. I completely agree with your sentiments—Mazda should be in better shape than they are. On a related note, I came across a Mazda text ad today that read something like, “Do you care what you drive? Consider Mazda.” That sums up what I love about the company.

      I’m hoping for the 16X to come through soon as well. I’ll report it here as soon as I hear anything.

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