Mazda is about to introduce the updated Mazda 6 which is hardly a banner-headline news event. But it is a subject of considerable interest for students of the battles that rage for European market share.
If you are a struggler brand, and if you are re-launching the most important car you have in the range against offerings from 26 competitors in Europe, how on earth do you get attention?
You don’t get it with heavy advertising because you can’t afford that. Mazda competes in all segments whilst maintaining a European market share of just 1.5% last year. It therefore has to spread its budget thinly across five mainstream model lines, and advertise the halo MX-5 which is run-away winner of the two-seat sports car sector.
The quirky RX-8 is going, sadly. The Wankel engine can’t hack it in the emission/consumption battle against conventional engines – though it will remain in production as a hydrogen power unit and as the electrical generation unit for hybrids running on hydrogen.
So what is the positioning of the brand? Mazda is not a local manufacturer; it’s an importer. It’s not one of the three highly visible Japanese brands Toyota/Nissan/Honda; it’s seen as a bit of an outsider to mainstream Japanese. It’s not a premium brand like Audi/BMW /Mercedes; it’s not a volume brand like Ford/Opel /Volkswagen
Prospective owners – many of them user-choosers on company car lists – seem to select Mazda because they like the styling and the cost of ownership. Residual values are very well managed and the list price is competitive. Parts prices have always been held down.
Joachim KUNZ has been a key player in the positioning of new Mazda 6 in his capacity as European manager of powertrain. He is one of the people who has to ensure that it feels sporty and has the sort of ride and handling that keen drivers enjoy and feel able to recommend to their mates. Kunz needs to help push the 6 further ahead of the 6% of the C/D segment that the car currently wins in Europe. His key competition is Passat , A4 and Insignia but his target is BMW 3-Series. Credibility in that task arises from the reputation of the MX-5.
“Without it, would we still be around? That car is the lifeline of our company.”
Good ride is crucial but hard to define. “There is no such thing as the best ride,” he says. “The BMW is a contender but seen as too firm. The Avensis is seen as too soft and bouncy but some users love it.”
His decision was to attempt to create a really good ride compromise, better steering feel and better “stability feedback”.
He is quite coy about detailing the nature of the important engineering changes.
It’s all about rubber, and that never sounds as if the engineering has been very substantial. “We revised all the characteristics of all the rubber in the front suspension,” he says.
So there you have it. If you are lined up for a fight with the best and the budget is tight you have to think clever. And, for the engineers of the new Mazda 6, one of the best ways to get a fairly ordinary fleet saloon alongside the best in the sector was to tune the rubber. Sometimes simple is best and the mundane can make money. Certainly road testers felt the car was a marked improvement on the version it succeeds.
Time will tell.