Feb 4, 2009
There was a time when Mazda, like Honda, Nissan and Toyota, was a premium manufacturer. Their Eunos, Xedos and stillborn Amati brands were an attempt to crack the burgeoning premium market in the early 90’s. Sadly, unlike their Japanese counterparts (who have gone on to achieve moderate-to-stellar success with Acura, Infiniti and Lexus respectively), Mazda never quite made it work.
It certainly wasn’t down to styling or engineering integrity. Cars like the Eunos 500 (left), 800 and Cosmo demonstrated a level of visual finesse and refinement that led me to believe, along with more than a few others, that Eunos had become the new Jaguar.
A more likely reason for the downfall was Mazda’s pursuit of an ambitious (some would say suicidal) brand diversification program that would have seriously taxed a stadium packed with the worlds best branding, logistics and strategic experts, not to mention a company bank account that was about to be subject to the stresses of the decade-long stagnation of the Japanese economy. To give you an idea of just how ambitious the diversification was, not only were the Eunos, Xedos and Amati luxury brands created from scratch but there was also the Efini sports brand and the Autozam small car brand. All of these were in addition to Mazda…pure silliness!
Sadly, by 1997 the great premium experiment was over and the company entered a period of making mind-numbingly dull but worthy products. It seemed as if the company that brought us the bombastic RX-7, sultry Eunos 800 and sublime Cosmo had lost it’s mojo and had put the lights out in the fun department. Only the RX-8 and the ever-lovely MX-5 remained as reminders of how innovative and passionate Mazda can be.
Slowly but surely, those lights are coming back on. You would have had to have been living under a rock to have not noticed that, over the last four years, Mazda’s designers have been making like rabbits and producing some of the most sensual, innovative concepts that we’ve seen since the 60s and 70s. They have been show cars in the truest sense, full of impossible packaging, wishful surfacing and non-existent technologies and the car design scene has been all the better for this boundless (and beautiful) optimism. But the last car in the Nagare series, the little Kiyora, signalled a subtle but important shift in Mazda’s approach.
Two weeks ago I was privileged enough to spend a day photographing the Kiyora at Mazda’s European development centre just outside Frankfurt and came to understand a little bit more about what this car signals for the resurgent brand.
The first thing that struck me about the car were the thoroughly sensible proportions. Massage in some room for a crumple zone, a 1.3l engine and raise the roof just the tiniest amount and you can start to see this car as a sexy, sporty city car. Actually, you start looking at a vehicle that’s not far off the upcoming Audi A1 and BMW’s Mini in size. Interesting.
The second thing I realised (and it’s well hidden by the pure-fantasy polycarbonate gull-wing doors) is that Mazda’s “Nagare” (it means flow) surface language is starting to mature into something that’s suited to being stamped in a press as opposed to lovingly, but expensively, hand crafted (this non-driving model is worth about €1.8 million).
This lack of suitability for mass production has actually been one of the biggest points of contention with Mazda’s previous Nagare concepts, like the Hakaze (left). Many commentators have wondered out loud how the flowing surface sculpture will ever work and if the Nagare cars have just been a very expensive brand building exercise with no real-world applicability.
Take a look at the section through the door however, (imagine running a saw from top to bottom and looking at the resulting line) and it shows an ease of form that would have the guy that devised the old BMW Z4s front quarter panel laughing in your face. Thoroughly pressable and undeniably sexy.
So what do these two things indicate? A car that’s not a million miles away from production reality, that’s what.
Tone it down just a little bit more and a production Kiyora would still keep the strong Nagare feel, offering a sensual repost to the brutish A1 and the loveable but cliched Mini.
Ah yes, the Mini and the A1. “They’re premium products” you say. “Mazda hasn’t got a hope”, you snort. Nonetheless, the Kiyora signals Mazda’s intent to go premium again but this time under it’s own brand and in a segment that lets Mazda build on it’s strengths of efficiency, lightness and a dedication to dynamic excellence.
The entire Nagare series has been all about developing a new sense of premium that, while being identifiably Japanese and uniquely Mazda, is globally applicable. With any luck, the production Kiyora will take this new premium right to the heart of territory that’s currently occupied by Mini but will soon be joined by new or refreshed competitors from Mercedes, Audi.
What bodes well for Mazda is that the Kiyora is an alternative take on what a premium urban vehicle can be. Audi has the thoroughly orthodox A1, BMW the practical-looking (but highly impractical) Mini while Mercedes pursues the gussied-up MPV look in the form of the A Class.
Mazda already has the 2 to look after more traditional, practicality-oriented buyers. The Kiyora’s flexible 2+2 or 2+luggage layout will appeal to fashion-forward urbanites who appreciate IKEA-lugging practicality on a Saturday afternoon and love being able to get stuck in Saturday night traffic with three friends aboard on the way to the latest bar. In between, the rear seats disappear and it reverts back to being a sexy shooting brake that plays up to the Zoom-Zoom sportiness that Mazda is always reminding us about.
It’s an audacious move for Mazda but one that I can’t see failing. That’s if the accountants in Japan can see beyond the current industry difficulties. If Mazda can carry over the innovative package, diminutive dimensions and, most importantly, get the surface language into production with the minimum of alterations they will have a truly unique, desirable product. This all in a market segment that is going to become increasingly important as people continue to downsize their vehicles. Mazda and premium? It doesn’t seem so silly after all.
Many thanks to Benno Gaessler and the team at Mazda Europe.
(Mazda Kiyora images © Andrew Philip Artois Smith 2009. All other images courtesy of Mazda)