Tiny Mazda stands tall among giants

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

In the land of automotive Goliaths, David is still holding his own.

Mazda’s brand is built on core platforms, on the iconic Miata sports car and on a philosophy that translates to “the joy of driving.”

This week Consumer Reports released its widely consulted 2017 Annual Top Picks, and once again luxury automakers and corporate leviathans dominated the Top 10 brands list: Audi and Porsche (both owned by giant Volkswagen Group), BMW, Lexus (colossus Toyota’s luxury brand), Honda and General Motors’ Buick.

But at a time when emissions regulations, safety rules and driver-assist features have driven auto developments costs sky-high, the smallest mainstream automaker in the U.S. — Mazda — stood out at No. 7. Mazda was one of only three brands — luxury titans Porsche and BMW being the others – to land a Consumer Reports recommendation on every vehicle it produced.

Like Japan’s Subaru at No. 5 among brands (an independent whose 615,132 cars sold in the U.S. last year was roughly double that of Mazda), Hiroshima-based Mazda has made its mark with outstanding quality and distinctive products. It’s a business model that holds lessons for other automakers in the dog-eat-car U.S. market, says Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports’ director of auto testing.

Mazda’s core investment goes to critically acclaimed “driver’s cars” across an eight-vehicle range that includes sedans and its best seller, the CX-5 SUV.

“Mazda both benefits and is hurt by its small size,” says Fisher. “Its size makes it a challenge to work out the resources to produce new cars and new platforms. But the benefit to not being a full-line automaker is that they can concentrate on getting a few powertrains and platforms right.”

Fisher contrasts Mazda’s success with the small Chrysler brand, which has struggled to break Consumer Reports’ Top 20 even with the resources of Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles. The Detroit brand rose seven places in this year’s survey to No. 19 on the strength of the Chrysler Pacifica, just one of two vehicles it still produces (the Chrysler 300 is the other). Its sister Fiat brand came in dead last on the list.

“Chrysler’s potpourri of platforms are all over the map,” says Fisher. “Some are home-grown, some were built with Mercedes, others with Fiat. Their crazy history has made it more difficult to build consistency.”

Mazda’s brand is built on core platforms, on the iconic Miata sports car and on a Japanese brand-philosophy — hashiru yorokobi — that translates to “the joy of driving.”

“It’s a philosophy based on human-centered development,” says Mazda research and development engineer Stan Hortinela. “We look at all the senses: touch, smell, sight, sound. How do you take an inanimate object and communicate to the driver in such a way that they don’t have to do so much work?”

Hortinela continues that “we focus on things like minimum jerk theory that is about the rate of change of acceleration. That determines smoothness. It’s like Japan’s high-speed trains — they get up to speed very quickly but you never recognize the speed from zero until you’re going over 100 miles per hour. We want to get the car to react in a way to tell your body to be prepared for movement — but not in a way that you’re surprised.”

It’s this attention to detail that has given Mazda consistently strong scores across all factors Consumer Reports looks at, from customer satisfaction to road tests to safety to reliability.

“Even the Miata sports car has excellent long-term reliability and fuel efficiency,” says Consumer Reports’ Fisher,” which are not normally high on the list of sports car buyers.”

Mazda’s halo vehicle, the best-selling sports car ever, is an example of the cost pressures on the small company. Vice President of U.S. Operation Robert David says Mazda could not have built its latest-generation Miata without partnering with Fiat. Mazda has entered other partnerships with big players like Toyota to share costs on new self-driving and battery technologies.

Meanwhile, its core investment goes to critically acclaimed “driver’s cars” across an eight-vehicle range that includes sedans and its best seller, the CX-5 SUV. Mazda uses its cache as a performance brand to play in a more premium space occupied by luxury brands, while keeping costs down.

“Mazda takes a much more conservative approach than other companies, but often with the same benefits,” says Fisher. “Ford, for example, made huge fuel economy investments in transmissions and turbochargers which have not panned out in reliability and fuel efficiency. Mazda has been making do with six-speed transmissions and non-turbos while still delivering on performance and mpg results.”

“Sometimes,” he concludes of Mazda’s David vs. Goliath act, “it helps to do more with less.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.