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Mazda’s Unlikely Transformation

There’s nothing I love more than an underdog. True, it’s nice when a clearly great candidate or team wins simply because fair competitions should reward the best. And yet, there’s something very grating and unnerving about large, dominant sports teams, like Arsenal in the U.K. or the New England Patriots in the U.S. (or the elected president of a country) whining about how the system is so unfair while they rack up the wins. Listen, Patriots fans, your team is really good, admit it. Whining about petty unfairness makes you seem, well, petty — no ones likes that, dude. Confidence is quiet; insecurity is very noisy.

In a way, Toyota is like the Arsenal of cars. They dominate globally and have many of the best-selling cars and trucks in almost every country on the planet from the USA to UAE, and nobody better say otherwise or they’ll be crucified in the comments section. In a recent, well-known reliability study, Toyota and Lexus together took 15 of the top 20 spots. One Mazda was in the top 20. But Mazda’s moderate success and transformation are just as impressive as Toyota’s considering where they came from.

New Mazda, Old Mazda

When I was a kid, my parents bought a new 1983 Mazda GLC Sport. It was an OK car. It didn’t really break down, but it was pretty sparse inside and felt a little cheap. I think it was marketed based on its sporty demeanor, not its luxurious interior. Note to shoppers, “sporty” is usually a synonym for “basic” or “unrefined,” kinda like how “doll house,” “cute” or “charming” in a real estate listing really just means “small.”

Today, Mazda has turned a corner, thanks to SUVs like the CX-9, CX-5 and cars like the Mazda3 and Mazda6. That one reliable Mazda I mentioned earlier is the Mazda3. For years, the Mazda3 (perhaps the spiritual successor to the GLC) has been quietly impressing customers with a sharp look, sharp handling and tons of versatility. It’s also a car that has, for many years, felt like something that’s more valuable than the price suggests. In this case, the sporty is backed up with a compelling look and a quality interior. I suspect Mazda has already laid out a plan for changing the “Zoom-Zoom” tagline they’ve used for years. It’s still there on the U.S. website in the bottom corner of some photos, and more prominently in many sections of the “Innovation” tab. Still, I think it will eventually fade away quietly.

CX-9 Details

But with the CX-9, sharp handling and reliability aren’t the focus — rather it’s the plush interior and exterior design that has us thinking of Mazda as more than just a Hyundai or Honda competitor. In fact, Autotrader recently added a 2018 CX-9 to the fleet of long-term test cars, cars we keep for about a year and used them on a daily basis. We opted for the top of the line Signature version to see if this Mazda could outclass other crossover SUVs from actual luxury brands.

Mazda’s not dumb, they know automotive publications and consumers alike will be making the same comparison — you can’t NOT make the comparison. The top of the line CX-9’s price snuggles up nicely to the base price of a Lexus RX. The loaded CX-9 is about $45,000, whereas the base Lexus RX 350 is about $44,000. The RX 350L is closer to $48,000. It has a third row of seating, just like the CX-9.

Is the Lexus a nicer, more deluxe luxury car? Yes, but not nearly to the degree you’d think. Also, with the Lexus, you have to add a few option packages to get features like in-car navigation, 20-inch wheels, rain-sensing wipers, premium audio, power moonroof and a few other items that the CX-9 Signature has standard. Add two or three of these packages, and the price of the RX L is well over $50,000. In fairness to Lexus, the Mazda doesn’t have a Mark Levinson audio system (it’s a Bose), the mouse-like controller for control of the in-car features or a 12.3-in screen. Then again, all-wheel drive in the Lexus would cost extra still on top of the optional packages, and all-wheel drive is standard with the CX-9 Signature.

The bottom line is that a Lexus RX, similarly equipped, can cost $10,000 more than a Mazda CX-9 Signature. That’s a lot of money. But showing up to the party in a Lexus has a different vibe than showing up in Mazda. Does that matter? Not to me. What about you?

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