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Racing helps Mazda ride Russian boom

Popular: The Mazda3 is the brand’s top model in Russia, last year accounting for almost half of its total sales.

Mazda makes the most of Russia’s car sales boom, out-pacing other developing markets

Mazda logo13 Mar 2012

By MARTON PETTENDY

MAZDA says its innovative customer racing activities in Russia will remain a key factor in sharing in the nation’s unprecedented automotive sales growth, which continues to out-pace that of other developing markets.

As rampant new-vehicle sales growth continues to slow in the world’s other three developing ‘BRIC’ nations – Brazil, India and China – the Association of European Businesses this week announced Russian vehicle sales increased by 25 per cent in February, bringing the 2012 year-to-date sales growth to 23 per cent, which is also better than expected.

The AEB is now forecasting a 12 per cent increase in vehicle sales this year, to 2.8 million units – just shy of the pre-GFC high of 2.9 million sales in 2008 – while Mazda expects its 15 per cent sales growth last year to continue until at least 2015.

As positive business conditions continue to see Russian consumers spend at record rates – despite the social unrest that followed this month’s presidential election – the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) this week said the Indian economy would expand by just 6.9 per cent in its current fiscal year ending March 31 (down from the 9.0 per cent projected in the 2011-12 budget).

 center imageFrom top: BT-50, Takeri concept (aka the next Mazda6), CX-5 and an MX-5 in the Russian ice race.

The OECD, a grouping of more than 30 nations that account for more than 60 per cent of global economic output, said Composite Lead Indicators (CLIs) showed that economic growth in Russia and India – where there are rising concerns about a prolonged slowdown in the national economy – continued to eclipse that of China and Brazil.

“The CLIs for India and Russia are also showing stronger signs of a positive change in growth momentum,” the OECD said in a statement this week. “However, the CLIs for China and Brazil continue to point to below-trend growth.”

While Mazda’s share of the million-vehicle market in Australia, where its sales increased 4.2 per cent last year to 88,000, is one of the largest worldwide at 8.8 per cent, the Japanese brand’s share of Russia’s 2.5 million-vehicle market last year was less than 2.0 per cent, at 39,800 sales.

Russia’s population is more than six times larger than that of Australia at about 142 million.

Next month, Mazda Russia will formally split from Mazda Europe to become a direct distributor, answering directly to HQ in Hiroshima for the first time, and this month will commence production at its new Vladivostok plant.

It expects to grow its share while Russian consumerism continues and Japan’s number five car-maker renews its entire model line-up by 2015.

The Mazda3 is the brand’s top model in Russia, last year accounting for almost half of its sales in its challenge to the Ford Focus, which has eclipsed a succession of Ladas to become Russia’s top-seller.

However, the all-new CX-5 was only released in January, the new BT-50 ute is yet to hit Russia and next year’s redesigned Mazda6 is also expected to be a volume seller in what is predominantly a sedan market.

Mazda was only established in Russia in 2005, but has quickly grown to become one of the highest-profile brands in one of Europe’s ‘big three’ markets – alongside the UK and Germany – in part due to an extensive ‘sport driving’ program established as the first of its type in Russia under the guidance of Mazda Russia PR chief Maria Maguire.

Established in partnership with Russia’s 54 Mazda dealers and the Russian Mazda Community, which has about 100,000 members with an average age under 30, the Zoom Zoom Challenge ran between 2007 and 2010 and attracted more than 15,000 Russian Mazda owners to motorkhana-style events around the country.

The events promoted various Mazda models – including the 3, 2 and the MX-5, which found fewer than 50 Russian customers last year, mostly in the warmer southern regions near the Black Sea – and will this year employ the new CX-5 crossover in a 50-event navigation rally program.

The MX-5’s successful Zoom Zoom Challenge campaign led Mazda Russia to establish the Mazda Sport Academy, which now conducts performance-based driver training courses at venues across Russia for both Mazda owners and the general public.

Led by Oleg Kesselman – clerk of course for the high-profile 2012 MX-5 Ice Race earlier this month, when an Australian media contingent was again defeated by their Russian colleagues – the MSA now provides participants the chance to pit skills learned in the academy’s MX-5s against others in the Mazda Sport Cup series, which began last year with lap-sprint events on six Russian racetracks.

Typically, a Mazda Sport Cup event sees about 100 participants undertake qualifying laps in the school’s standard MX-5s before being culled and split into groups of five that compete for two slots in a national final.

Last year’s final saw 12 finalists, four corporate teams and four media teams contest a Moscow-based event in MSA’s 10 MX-5 Aoris, which are race-prepared in Lithuania with a bolt-in roll cage, single racing seat and harness and weigh 120kg less than standard due to the removal of the folding hard-top and other unnecessary luxuries.

Set-up for circuit racing rather than ice-specific duties, the Mazda Sport Cup MX-5s also feature a lower ride height, firmer springs and more negative wheel camber but otherwise remain standard, including street-legal exhaust systems.

Mazda now sees its unique Russian racing program as a key tool in promoting awareness of the brand in the northern European nation.

“We have a very healthy community of enthusiasts,” Mazda Russia’s senior sales operations manager Kirill Luchkin told GoAuto in Russia.

Mazda Russia said it exposed more than 1000 potential customers, fleet clients and VIPs to its products in the Mazda Sport Cup’s first year and says it is already fielding enquiries from other markets to export the concept.

As in Australia, Mazda is seen as a premium Japanese brand in Russia and has become a dominant small-car player, but continues to be outsold by local manufacturers Ford, Volkswagen and Toyota.

“Russians trust Japanese brands and Toyota is the best example,” said Mr Luchkin.

“People here aspire to own a foreign car and our racing activities are not only the best held by a manufacturer in Russia, but also show the world Mazda is still building stylish, fun and sporty cars. Racing has done wonders for the brand here.”

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