HIROSHIMA, Japan — Mazda executives are counting on the redesigned CX-9 large crossover to reverse a slump that has sent U.S. sales and market share sliding in the first quarter and forced the brand to dabble with the incentives it once swore off.
Showing off CX-9 production to journalists here, executives say they have high expectations for the flagship vehicle, which will sit atop Mazda’s lineup as its priciest offering.
The CX-9 started production in February at Mazda Motor Corp.’s Ujina plant here and arrives stateside this spring.
It can’t land soon enough for Mazda’s U.S. operations, which are struggling with flagging car sales and a lineup light in hot-selling crossovers.
“We have high expectations for this vehicle,” says Kiyotaka Shobuda, Mazda’s senior managing executive officer for quality, brand enhancement, production and logistics. Shobuda says the CX-9 rounds out Mazda’s offerings in the critical crossover segment, topping a lineup that includes the CX-3 subcompact and CX-5 compact. “We hope to accelerate our sales in North America with this car.”
Mazda’s U.S. sales slumped 17 percent through March from a year earlier to 64,643 vehicles, in an overall market that was up 3.3 percent. Mazda’s market share dropped to 1.6 percent from 2.0 percent the year before.
Sales were undermined by the sell-down of the outgoing CX-9. But the company’s sedan sales also tumbled amid tougher competition.
The shrinking sales are pressuring Mazda to increase incentives, which runs counter to the brand’s strategy to lift its image and pricing power.
Indeed, Mazda will boost incentives and marketing for the Mazda3 and Mazda6 sedans to stoke sales, Robert Davis, senior vice president of U.S. operations at Mazda North American Operations, told Automotive News last month at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention. Mazda6 sales fell 37 percent through March, while Mazda3 volume declined 19 percent.
“The root cause of the problem was Mazda3 and Mazda6,” Davis said. “We’re not going to shy away from it. We’ve made some changes to Mazda3 already and are working on Mazda6.”
Mazda’s strategy aimed to hold the line on incentives to nudge the brand upmarket by buttressing prices and residuals.
In March, however, Mazda’s average transaction price rose just 0.4 percent from a year earlier, against an industry average increase of 2.3 percent, according to Kelley Blue Book.
Mazda’s increase lagged those of every Japanese nonluxury brand except Mitsubishi and soon-to-be defunct Scion. Its average transaction price of $25,356 was also lower than those of all mass-market Japanese rivals except Mitsubishi and Scion.
At global headquarters here, executives said the more premium positioning of the CX-9, which will have a U.S. base price of $32,420 including shipping, should burnish the entire lineup’s image and help combat the need for incentives.
“We hope the entire brand will be lifted,” says Katsuaki Sasaki, the CX-9′s project manager and assistant chief engineer.
“This is the highest end of the entire Mazda lineup,” he says. “With this as a starting point, we would like to further raise Mazda’s brand image and make high-end products.”
Among the features Mazda touts as a premium upgrade is a new paint finish dubbed “machine gray,” which has a silky sheen of tiny aluminum flakes. The more lustrous patina better reflects light off the curvy sheet metal styling of Mazda’s Kodo design language.
Mazda wants to incorporate a sense of craftsmanship in its quality pitch. During the factory tour, CEO Masamichi Kogai repeatedly highlighted the company’s focus on monozukuri, which loosely translates as “the art of making things.”
“This vehicle is deployed with top-class quality achieved only by craftsmen using authentic materials,” Sasaki said of the CX-9. “We want to position craftsmanship as one of our themes.”