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Old 07-14-2003, 07:16   #1 (permalink)
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Japan:Mazda seeks smoother launch of new Mazda3 subcompact

By JAMES B. TREECE | Automotive News

TOKYO -- When Mazda Motor Corp. introduces the Mazda3 subcompact in the United States, it will heed the lessons learned from last December's introduction of the Mazda6, the automaker's marketing and sales boss said here last week.

One change: The 3 will go on sale when available in a number of markets, but Mazda will "hold its marketing powder dry until the first quarter," said Stephen Odell, the company's senior managing executive officer in charge of marketing, sales and customer service.

The Mazda3, which replaces the Protege, will be launched in December. "You launch anything in December and it's tough to do," Odell said.

Advertising that trumpeted the Mazda6's V-6 when 70 percent of the cars available were equipped with the inline four-cylinder also hurt the car's U.S. launch, he told a small group of reporters in Tokyo.

As a result, Odell said, Mazda must now offer incentives on Mazda6s equipped with the I-4 engine to clear a backlog of unsold cars.

"As we clear that hump, I think you'll see our incentives fall substantially," he said.

In other comments, Odell defended Mazda's "zoom-zoom" advertising campaign, although he said it might have to evolve over time. He also reaffirmed that Mazda will "get close to" its North American sales targets of 280,000 in the United States and 70,000 in Canada, "so long as the industry holds its nerve."

The U.S. market is fragile, he said, because people have one eye on the economy "and one eye on a terrorist attack that may not happen."

That U.S.-market target of 280,000 represents an 8.4 percent rise in U.S. sales from 2002's 258,213. But in the first six months, Mazda's sales are down 7.7 percent to 118,906, according to the Automotive News Data Center.

Since its early tribulations, Mazda6 sales have increased, bringing hope to Odell that it will sell as strongly in the United States as it is selling in Europe. In June, Mazda sold 7,645 Mazda6s, compared with 1,581 in December 2002, its first full month on the market.

In Europe, Mazda will sell more than 80,000 Mazda6s this year, he predicted. That compares with sales of its predecessor, the 626, which averaged 45,000 and peaked around 60,000 or 70,000 a year. Demand is above the 80,000 level, as Mazda's plants struggle to keep up with European demand, he said.

What has changed, he said, is word-of-mouth. "A car that wins 50 awards around the world is fundamentally a good car," he said. "I can advertise as much as I like, but consumers don't believe me. It's third-party endorsements that sell cars."

While Odell implied that Mazda3 sales could start ahead of the marketing support, he ruled out a regional launch of the RX-8 sports car.

Mazda has begun producing the U.S.-edition RX-8 sports car in Japan for launch in late July or early August. Odell insisted that he will not begin sales until each of Mazda's approximately 800 dealerships in the United States has at least one car in the showroom.

"I think the first three, four, five or six months of RX-8 will be very good," he said. "The dealers have done a good job of pre-selling the car."

After the Mazda3 launch, Mazda will follow in the first quarter of next year with a wagon and five-door hatchback version of the Mazda6. "You could argue it's a marketer's nightmare to launch so many cars so close together," Odell said.

On the other hand, he said, having so much new product in showrooms will be great for dealers. In particular, the RX-8 should help build showroom traffic in the United States, if the Japanese market's reaction to the car is any guide. In Japan, showroom traffic last month was up 30 percent compared with a year earlier, Odell said, in good part because of the RX-8.
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