New Mazda dealers are opening throughout the UK at an increasing pace to meet the demand from customers to have a dealership or service centre no more than 20 minutes from their house.

A dozen new Mazda dealerships have opened since June and a further two will open in December, bringing the total dealer count up to 140 by the end of the year, reaching the final target of 156 in 2004.

Mazda's UK arm claims the growth within the dealer network reflects the recent successes of new models such as the 6, rotary-powered RX-8 coupe and the continued success of MX-5 roadster.

Since Mazda established its own UK national sales company in 2001, building brand awareness has been just as important as building the dealer network and preparing to meet the challenges of the changes that come with the new block exemption agreements.

Mazda UK has identified 156 "areas of influence" where it wants representation, based on the theory that dealers sell more to people living closer to them. These "areas of influence" can be very small in cities and towns or very large in rural areas, managing director Phil Waring said.

Research shows that while customers are prepared to travel up to an hour to buy their new car, they are put off if they have to drive more than 20 minutes to have it serviced.

This means having an additional 50 service centres, or authorised repairers, supporting the dealer network. These could be established as "hub and spoke" operations as part of a main dealer's business or a multi-franchised specialised service centre, Waring said.

Dealer development manager Wray Tennant believes that the changes created by block exemption create a "fantastic" opportunity and certainly should not be seen as a threat. The block exemption changes mean that traditional dealer territories vanish and any dealer can sell cars anywhere in the UK, or indeed in Europe.

Customers stand to benefit from a much wider choice of where they buy their cars, said Tennant.

Waring believes that the changes will help Mazda UK become even more customer-focused. "There are some very interesting issues for us with this. We're learning from the experience of leading retailers, such as the supermarkets, in the way we identify suitable locations for our dealerships to best serve the local market areas," he said.

"Mazda UK believes that the majority of its customers will buy their vehicles and have them serviced and repaired by franchised dealers, and we are committed to provide customers with the level of aftercare coverage to ensure that they have access to an authorised repairer within a reasonable drive from their home or office.

"It is important that the customer receives the best service possible at the most convenient location," added Tennant.