Mazda’s centenary highlights its SUV developments to perfection
When celebrating important dates, car companies often reveal ‘secrets’ about their past and Iain Robertson was amazed to discover a 4×4 lineage within Mazda that owes a soupcon to Land Rover and Jeep, even though its SUV line-up is current and responsible for almost 50% of its turnover today.
Having enjoyed Mazda products for much of the past 45 years, both in terms of ownership and experience, it is surprisingly easy to fall into a trap of knowing what the brand does in the UK, while ignoring its achievements in a world market. On the face of it, Mazda’s current SUV involvement is less than two decades old. The CX-5 has been a tremendous range broadener for the company, supported by both the charming CX-3 and the more recent CX-30 models, which together add up to 45.5% of the brand’s total UK sales. It is little wonder that the forthcoming MX-30 EV is going to be an SUV-alike and even Mazda expresses surprise at the success of the market segment.
Back in 1972, Mazda produced a basic but solid body-on-chassis 4×4, which was known by the Pathfinder handle. Sharing typical design traits with the Land Rover Defender, Toyota Land-Cruiser and even the Jeep Wrangler, Mazda’s variation on the theme was uncompromisingly agricultural in its approach, complete with off-road boots and canvas ‘tilt’. Intriguingly, it was built in Burma and sold predominantly in that part of the world. Visitors to Myanmar can still spot the occasional Pathfinder, which was acquired extensively by the Police and military.
Much like Mitsubishi and its Shogun Sport, Mazda based its 1991 Marvie model, which possesses some Land Rover Discovery design cues, on its B-Series pickup platform. It was equally utilitarian in its intentions, although the leisure sector was starting to show interest in that class of vehicle, a factor that would lead subsequently to the burgeoning growth of the Sport Utility Vehicle sector.
From a personal standpoint, my first experience of a Mazda SUV came with the launch in 2000 of the Mazda Tribute. In some respects, it was a fairly naïve machine, being an unadorned and plainly designed estate car, but it was immensely important for Mazda. Developed jointly by Ford and Mazda, because the US giant held a large chunk of the Japanese firm’s shares at the time, it was badged as a Ford Explorer and became a most successful model in North America. It was even sold as a Ford in the UK for a brief period of time. While Mazda continued to sell the Tribute here until 2004, the popular 2.0-litre version being available in both front and 4WD forms, it had given Mazda a small but worthy stake in the SUV scene.
The CX-7 arrived in 2007. Powered by Mazda’s 254bhp 2.3-litre petrol-turbo engine, which would also do service in both Mazda6 and 3 MPS models, it had been designed by Moray, the brother of Jaguar Cars’ designer, Ian Callum. It was a beautiful looking machine, being very streamlined and purposeful. I used an example on the annual Fuel Economy Marathon and finished second overall, returning MPG almost 50% greater than the official combined figure for the car.
However, the die had been cast for Mazda, which may have appeared to have been late to the SUV party but, in truth, held a strong lineage within the all-wheel drive scene worldwide. Its separation from the Ford arrangement also loosened its design ties, which meant that it could start to develop its own stance, rather than having a reliance on Ford’s American studios.
The real ground-breaker for Mazda arrived in 2012, with the launch of the CX-5, which, despite several minor upgrades, remains true to its original Kodo design philosophy and also introduced Skyactiv technology for the first time. Within a year, the model proved its success in the UK by commanding an excellent 19% of the brand’s total sales. Mazda continues to turn heads with stunning design statements and the CX-5 marked a major turning point for the brand, leading its sales impetus in several world markets.
Barely three years after CX-5, the UK received the compact alternative in CX-3 guise and SUV sales leapt to 27% of Mazda’s total volume. The importance of SUV was never more than obvious. However, the CX-3 established and has maintained some important standards in terms of both build quality and chassis dynamics. In the meantime, Mazda has introduced CX-4, CX-8 and CX-9 models in other territories that are appropriate for brand expansion.
The CX-30 that is still fresh in the UK is now starting to be spotted on our roads and will be joined soon by the all-electric MX-30. We have reviewed and previewed both models extensively so far but it is abundantly clear that Mazda is enjoying its development of SUVs that make clear design statements, without replicating or borrowing from other brands. Mazda leads with driver orientated cockpits, engaging on-road behaviour and magical styling that spins heads and attracts attention like few others can.
In many ways, Mazda’s current emphasis on the SUV scene reflects my own interest in it. For many years, I was not a fan. Yet, I have grown to appreciate the better packaging potential and the overall efficiencies that are now feasible. Mazda has proven that an SUV can retain a wide range of competences, without looking like a farm vehicle and its unique developments in engineering have demonstrated that petrol engines can work more efficaciously and also frugally overall.
Conclusion: Mazda may lack the involvement of a major manufacturing partner but its independence highlights a wilful desire to remain ‘different’, yet immensely attractive, to a knowledgeable audience. Its place in the SUV scene is assuredly strong and the future of this centenarian looks most fruitful indeed.