Mazda built its name on no-frills thrills and cars that go zoom-zoom, such as the RX-7, Miata and Mazda3.
But as brand executives see it, the quest to build market share, customer loyalty and profits will mean taking on a different persona, as a premium maker of elegant sedans and crossovers.
"Fun to drive" remains a cherished brand attribute. But the former Ford Motor subsidiary is learning to speak with a slightly different accent.
Driving a Mazda is like getting a taste of a "German-Japanese" blend, said Abby Manteghi, general manager of Fremont Mazda in the San Francisco, California.
While Mazda can't pass itself off as a luxury brand, the mix of quality, handling and design has proved potent enough to draw upscale consumers who drive German cruisers -- a trend that Mazda North American Operations CEO Masahiro Moro says has picked up in the last five years.
Mazda has communicated with these affluent prospects in recent years with its "Driving Matters" campaign built around craftsmanship and attention to detail. That U.S. tag line was set aside in April with the debut of Mazda's first ad under the "Feel Alive" mantra, a brand platform celebrating exhilaration and inspiration that Moro says puts Mazda in "more upscale, premium territory."
Woody Stilley, a sales manager at Southern States Mazda in Raleigh, North Carolina, remembers being fooled when he saw a spot for the CX-9 crossover a few years ago. Stilley, who was working for a Hyundai store at the time, said the ad -- dotted with rich imagery of woodgrain and leather -- had him thinking it was for Lexus or BMW at first glance.
"Mazda has positioned its products, the quality of them, to compete with Lexus, BMW and Mercedes," Stilley said. "We're actually having customers cross-shop those products with a Mazda."
Manteghi said showroom traffic is made up of consumers -- including a steady flow of doctors and engineers -- who own Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz coming in to see what Mazda has to offer.