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July 7, 2020

A Brief History of Mazda's SUVs: From Utilitarian Workhorses to Stylish Everyday Cars

Today Mazda is famed for creating a range of great to drive and attractively designed cars and SUVs, known for their style, technology, and dynamic ability. In recent years, Mazda has reacted to the huge desire for SUV style vehicles with a host of new models, ensured each of them features Mazda’s trademark driver engagement, so that a Mazda SUV always puts the “sport” in Sport Utility Vehicle.

Yet, believe it or not, it’s only been in the last 15 years of Mazda’s history that they’ve really delved into the SUV phenomenon. In the past, Mazda’s flirtations with rugged 4x4 vehicles and off-roaders were mostly utilitarian in nature.

Like most car manufacturers, Mazda’s first 4x4 vehicles were very much all-wheel drive workhorses. This was certainly the case with an odd global anomaly in Mazda’s history: the Mazda Pathfinder XV-1. A rugged off-roader in the ilk of the original Toyota Land Cruiser and Land Rover, the Pathfinder was designed in Hiroshima but was exclusively assembled and sold in Burma between 1970 and 1973. Popular with the military and police, it was powered by a 90-horsepower engine and was offered with either a canvas roof or as enclosed nine-seat version, largely unknown in the rest of the world, a few can still be seen on the roads of Myanmar (Burma’s modern name) today.

From the 1960s onwards Mazda production of pick-ups grew throughout the next two decades, and the next vehicle that could be considered to be in the SUV lineage was developed from the 4th generation B-Series pick-up. Launched in 1991, the Mazda Proceed Marvie was a boxy off-roader utilizing the B-Series’ underpinnings. Featuring, three rows of seats it was only produced in right-hand drive, and sold in Japan and Asian markets, while in Australia in was sold as the Ford Raider.

Given the American love affair with off-roader type vehicles, it’s no surprise that Mazda also launched a 4x4 vehicle for the US market in 1991. The Mazda Navajo was fundamentally a rebranded Ford Explorer Sport and was built in Kentucky. Sold exclusively in the United States, it was a two-door, four-wheel drive SUV and was distinguished from its Ford sibling by a unique grille, plus different wheels and headlamps. Powered by a 4.0-liter V6 petrol engine with a choice of four-speed automatic or five-speed manual gearbox, it established the idea of an SUV in Mazda’s American dealers before production stopped in 1994.

A similar OEM supply deal also saw a rebranded Suzuki Escudo sold as the Mazda Proceed Levante in Japan in the late 1990s, but as the 21st century arrived, Mazda launched its first serious SUV: the Mazda Tribute. Jointly developed with then shareholder Ford, the Tribute was based on the Mazda 626 platform and formed the basis for the Ford Escape.

Both cars made their public debut in 2000, with the Tribute revealed at that year’s Los Angeles Motor Show. With US market Tributes produced alongside the Ford Escape in Missouri, the Tribute was also manufactured in Hiroshima. With a sportier suspension setup than the Ford, it arrived with either a 120 horsepower 2.0-liter or a 196-horsepower 3.0-liter V6.

A revised second-generation Tribute was launched in 2007, but by then Mazda was already fully embracing the explosion of SUV sales with the launch of the first-generation CX-9 in 2007. It shared some mechanical parts with Ford models, but unlike Mazda’s previous OEM partner-based offerings into the world of SUVs, this was arguably the first real independent Mazda SUV and a car that expressed Mazda’s style and focus on driving dynamics.

By 2007 an equally stunning Mazda SUV had arrived. Based on the MX-Crossport concept car that was revealed at the 2006 LA Motor Show, the Mazda CX-7 was unlike any all-wheel drive vehicle to have worn a Mazda badge before. Like the CX-9 it was designed by Moray Cullum, and this was an SUV that could attract customers on style alone.

Offered with front (or all-wheel drive in other markets), it was powered by a normally-aspirated 2.5-liter or turbocharged 2.3-liter MZR engine. It was praised for its sharp car-like handling and slick gearbox. It proved to be successful for Mazda and paved the way for the next-generation of SUVs which would fully capitalize on the SUV boom.

A groundbreaking car for Mazda, the CX-5 was the first car to feature Skyactiv Technology, and the first to feature Kodo design. The first of a new generation of Mazdas, the 2012 CX-5 featured all of Mazda’s latest engine, chassis and transmission technology, plus a huge step forward in cabin quality and overall desirability. Praised by media and customers alike, it was named the 2012 Japan Car of the Year. A truly global model, its success was crucial and kept it at the top of its game before the second-generation model was unveiled in 2016.

A car that has continually evolved to offer ever improving refinement, interior quality, equipment and technology, the CX-5 continues to be a hugely popular family SUV and the recently updated 2020 Mazda CX-5 is a linchpin of Mazda’s current line-up.

As consumer demand for SUVs spread to a wider range of different sized vehicles, the CX-5 was joined by the smaller Mazda CX-3 in 2015, sharing its platform with the Mazda2, the CX-3’s sporty styling, premium feel and sharp handling set it apart from many crossover rivals.

The CX-3 was a sales success around the world and remains a key model in Mazda’s global SUV production. The second-generation CX-9 was launched in 2016 and delivered new levels of refinement, equipment and premium quality to Mazda’s flagship SUV.

Then, there’s the CX-8—Mazda’s largest SUV in Japan where the CX-9 isn’t sold. Launched in 2017, is proved to be extremely popular in its home country. It’s the best-selling three-row SUV thanks to its combination of practicality, quality, and of course, design.

Produced and sold exclusively in China, the Mazda CX-4 is a coupe inspired SUV with a sweeping roofline, launched in 2017 it’s another example of Mazda’s ability to produce vehicles tailored to localized SUV demands alongside their core global models.

And the latest of those core models is the Mazda CX-30. Launched in 2019, it slots into a new SUV segment for Mazda, and following the Mazda3 is the second model in the company’s next generation line-up. Combining the bold stance of an SUV with the sleek profile of a coupe, the CX-30s cabin, technology and quality sets new standards for a Mazda SUV.

As Mazda heads into its second century, a range of stylish, great to drive, high-quality and ever more efficient SUVs will continue to play an enormous part in Mazda’s future. The next chapter is certainly being written with their first-ever EV: the Mazda MX-30.

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