- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2000

Make way. Here comes Mazda. After hitting a relatively hard rut in the road for the past few years and leaning heavily on Miata sales for its prominent reputation, Mazda is moving aggressively to turn the spotlight upon the rest of its lineup of sedans, minivans and trucks.

"We're going back to our knitting to make sure that everything we introduce is a true Mazda," said Stephen Odell, vice president of marketing and sales operations, indicating that Mazda is rekindling its heritage and injecting it back into the entire product line. That means making major changes to existing and future vehicles down the road.

"We got off the track four or five years ago with too many models we couldn't market properly," Mr. Odell said. "But with the kind of guerrilla marketing we have in mind and with that special Mazda magic, its DNA, that we're adding to new models in the next couple of years to reflect what Mazda is all about we're re-energized."

Mazda plunged into manufacturing a glut of new products in the wake of the phenomenally successful 1990 Miata roadster but was unable to handle the load, and many of its products went unnoticed and underrated. All eyes and most of Mazda's promotional efforts were on its icon, the timeless, classic Miata. While the strategy paid off for the car, with well over half a million on the road and recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling two-seater roadster of all time, most of Mazda's other products were neglected.

Company executives today, however, are no longer putting all their eggs in one basket. They believe they're about to enter the most exciting period in Mazda's history, promoting their 2001 models that include more powerful B-Series trucks, the Tribute sports ute, the MPV minivan, the Millenia and 626 sedans, plus a brand-new hatchback addition to the Protege line. Mazda plans to take the DNA derived from the RX-7 and the Miata and spread that tradition into every vehicle that comes off its assembly line. Mr. Odell said that new models are the key, although the company has some current "great models not leveraged enough, ones that we need to show better."

Mazda acknowledges it cannot afford to allow the purists' Miata to become dated, so for 2001 there are subtle, as well as sensible, design changes plus a good dose of added horsepower, from 140 to 155. Also on the new model are larger brakes and headlights, a six-speed manual transmission, variable valve timing and a more rigid chassis. Styling will remain true to the Miata's classic roadster roots for the next several generations, avoiding the sharp edges showing up on some new cars. The Special Edition Miata arrives next spring, marking no particular anniversary but satisfying fans who have come to expect a limited-edition model each year.

The company's near-luxury sedan, the Millenia, is expected to play a big part in Mazda's renaissance because of its extra advantage as a sporty sedan in the highly competitive, entry-level luxury-car segment. Restyled with a European flair inside and out, the front-wheel-drive sedan has more luxury standard features for 2001, competing with Acura's TL, Infiniti's I30 and the Lexus ES300.

Mazda's third major change for 2001 is to the compact B-Series pickup trucks. The top-of-the-line version, the B4000, has a powerful new 207-horsepower, 4-liter V-6 engine, pumping out 45 more ponies than its predecessor, with a towing capacity of close to 5,900 pounds.

To make it faster and easier for lazy shoppers to search for a Mazda, the company has a new Web site, www.mazdausa.com, where you can select a model, options and accessories, be quoted a price, receive credit clearance on line and be directed to local dealers for delivery.

There's a lot of latent good will toward this small company that electrified the United States with its impudent little sports car a decade ago, and Mazda hopes that the good will extends to the rest of its vehicles this time around. "We've got some really great stock coming," Mr. Odell said. Judging by Mazda's new television commercials, its zoom, zoom strategy seems ready to take off.

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