In the Age of Automation, Mazda Strives to Stay Human

2017 Mazda3
2017 Mazda3 | Mazda

As of April of this year, the average price for a new car in America is now $33,560. That’s just about $23,000 shy of the median household — that’s combined — income of the United States, which per the Kaiser Family Foundation, sits at $56,516. Mazda’s most affordable model starts at $17,845 for the Mazda3 sedan; in range-topping Signature trim, the new 2017 CX-9, its most expensive model, will command over $44,000. Mazda wants a larger slice of what’s in between the two.

But this is no easy task. There are a number of factors driving that increase in average new car price, but they can largely be attributed to a combination of these three issues: new tech options, electrification, and a move upmarket as consumers demand more features on lower trim levels. Of these issues, Mazda has really only focused on how to do the third well.

2016 Mazda CX-9
2016 Mazda CX-9 | Mazda

The two biggest trends in the auto industry right now are hybridization (or full electrification) and autonomous cars. Mazda has neither; it offers a suite of safety tech akin to other automakers like lane-keep assist and blind-spot warnings, but stops well shy of having any sort of autonomous ability in its vehicles. Similarly, there isn’t a single hybrid or EV in its small but competitive lineup.

Instead of these shortcomings becoming weaknesses, Mazda has actually seen sales grow steadily since 2009. That’s because the brand has been committing to a shrinking but increasingly important corner of the American car-buying populace: People who genuinely love to drive. Those who A) understand that they need to commute anyways, and want to make the most of it, or B) just really love driving. Every engineering decision in their vehicles is done with the intent of improving the quality of the experience for the person in control. Passengers won’t be neglected as far as creature comforts go, but they should understand that the car wasn’t engineered for them, it was made for the person behind the wheel.

2016 Mazda6
2016 Mazda6 | Mazda

We got to experience this approach first hand. Back in June, I was invited out to Monterey, California where Mazda’s track, Lagun- *clears throat* Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, lives. It’s a heralded hero in American motorsport, known most prominently for The Corkscrew, a helical curve in which the bottom of your car falls out as you make a 90-degree right turn. We were there to drive 30 miles an hour in an oval for the morning (but don’t worry, we got some track time in later), to experience G-vectoring, the tool that Mazda spent eight years and untold dollars working on that 99.9% of its buyers won’t even notice is there. Further, it won’t cost them a cent more on the MSRP.

Why? Because it helps the driving experience. More specifically, it helps the driver. They may not know it’s even in there, working for them, but Mazda’s engineers do. And for a small, enthusiast-driven company, that’s enough for them to justify the effort.

But Mazda is a small fish operating in a small pond. Automakers’ focus on how a car drives has largely been diverted by autonomous ability, fuel economy (though it’s worth noting that Mazda has had the best EPA fuel economy for three years running; Mazda rep Jacob Brown added that it is the only automaker to meet next-gen requirements aside from Tesla), rugged capability, and comfort. While most automakers have shoveled huge quantities of money into self-driving cars, electrification, trucks, and all-weather vehicles (fun fact: You can spec out a GMC Sierra Denali to more than the base price of a Ford Mustang GT350R), Mazda hasn’t. Toyota, Honda, and Nissan sell the most sedans and crossovers because they’re good at everything, but don’t stand out at anything. And that’s good enough for most people.

But those trends are putting Mazda between a rock and a hard place. In order to continue growing, Mazda has to sell more cars. But enthusiast-oriented vehicles don’t sell in volume; look no further than the Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86 twins to see evidence of that. Now, the cool thing to be is rugged and luxurious — a leather-clad all-terrainer that can pull highway duty during the week and hit the lake house’s horrible dirt road on weekends and won’t look horrible with a roof rack. Such multi-tasking demands can be seen in recent models as the Volkswagen Alltrack, the Mercedes E-Class All-Terrain, the Volvo V90 Cross Country, and Audi Allroad.

2016 Mazda CX-3
2016 Mazda CX-3 | Mazda

While it continues its push upmarket with the CX-9, Mazda wants to make sure its vehicles are simultaneously fit for the same kinds of duties that the aforementioned soft-roaders are. How often will you see a new Mercedes GLS hauling two kayaks and a bike on the back? Probably not often. The Volvo XC90 more so, but an Audi Q7? Most of the dirt these cars see is from the potted plants that spill in the trunk on way home.

For its latest trick, Mazda flew out a group of folks to South Carolina (myself included) for an “active lifestyle” event that paired driving Mazdas (the fun enthusiast part) at a posh resort (the move upmarket part) with kayaking and biking (the active, “we need plastic cladding on our wheel wells” part). Mazda’s building an image that encourages drivers to take their high-end vehicles on out-of-the-way adventures — and enjoy every minute on the way there.

Take the Mazda CX-3, for instance. It’s not much larger than the Mazda3 hatch, but enough so that a rough dirt road won’t put a hole in your oil pan. It has gray plastic in places that suggest “I drive through underbrush” every day on the way to work. And it handles like a Mazda — that is to say, better than anything in its class.

Essentially, Mazda builds cars for the connoisseur of the commute.

Sadly, however, that’s an endangered species. Volkswagen’s brand-new I.D. EV concept that was unveiled in Paris has a driver’s chair that will swivel to face the rear occupants so you can literally do everything possible to ignore the car, ignore the commute, and ignore the surroundings outside the vehicle. That’s the anti-Mazda — a car made to insulate you from every horrible thing about driving when Mazda moves to embrace it and make it better. You read the Journal on your way to work? Replied to some emails? Nice. I’ll bet the dude in the Mazda6 had more fun than you, albeit he probably didn’t get as much done.

Disclaimer: Mazda provided the author with airfare, lodging, and food for the duration of the Active Lifestyle program, and none of that swayed his opinion. Driving the MX-5 might have, though.

Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.