It is more than 10 years since Mazda Europe president Steve Odell last lived in Europe. Now, after a year of rapid growth – particularly in the UK and Germany –  Odell is taking stock of just what has been achieved and what lies ahead.

Mazda now has control of more than 80% of its Western European distribution network. Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden are still operated by independent distributors. Odell says each is doing a good job and taking over the distribution in those countries will be done “when it’s appropriate and when it suits both sides.”

He is already seeing the benefits of a pan-European organisation. “It is both financially efficient and image efficient. It allows us to have just one advertisement instead of each country doing its own things. This allows us to strengthen a brand in a way that we couldn’t have ten years ago. Europe is much more integrated these days.”

Sales across Europe on the back of the 6 launch grew from 152,000 in 2001 to just over 182,000 in ’02.

“We have modest plans for growth,” said Odell, speaking last week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The target for this year is 210,00 units helped by the launch of the Mazda2 at the start of the year and the RX-8 in the summer. Towards the end of this year, the new 3, replacing the 323 (Familia) will arrive.

“We are partly capacity restricted,” said Odell. “We are selling as many 6s as we can get; I believe the 2 will be successful and the RX-8 is very attractively priced,” he said. Prices for the RX-8 in the USA will start at $25,180. This is expected to translate into a UK price of around £20,000.

Mazda Europe should reach around 300,000 annual sales “some time in the future”

The last year has already produced record sales in Italy and Spain; the company has recaptured the No 2 Japanese importer slot in Germany, behind Toyota, and has seen record sales for the MX-5 – a car that is almost 12 years old.

This year, the UK should hit more than 39,000 units with a full year of 6 sales added to the launch of the 2 and RX-8. Mazda’s best year in the UK was 33,000 units in 1997.

So what is Mazda’s secret? “Mazda should be a Japanese car company with a twinkle in its eye,” said Odell.

The task of sticking to that definition falls to engineer Joseph Bakaj, managing executive officer of Mazda Motor Corporation. He is promising more and more derivatives from each of Mazda’s core models – the 2, 3 and 6 – with a concept based on each at the world’s major motor shows, the first at Geneva in March, another at Frankfurt and more at Tokyo.

The new 3 is the result of a joint development by Mazda, Ford and Volvo on which Ford took the lead whereas with the 6, Mazda was the leader.

What makes a Mazda a Mazda? “The packaging and innovation,” said Bakaj, singling out the doors on the RX-8 and the one-touch fold down seats on the 6 as two examples. Interior detailing is another key area with the Japanese eye for detail playing a major role.

“The way a Mazda drives with delicate precise steering is different to a Ford which is more firm and direct. We have a different brake set-up which has very immediate response with short pedal travel and a Mazda engine must have a spirited response.”