NEW YORK – The recent debut here of Mazda Motor Corp.’s newest cross/utility vehicle, the CX-9, the largest model ever sold in the U.S. by the Japanese auto maker, marks the beginning of the end for the MPV minivan.

Not targeted for a near-term demise, however, is the B-Series pickup, a top U.S. executive says.

Mazda earlier acknowledged the MPV would be phased out of its U.S. lineup this year, and Mazda North American Operations President and CEO James J. O’Sullivan says the last of the North American-bound minivans now are in process at the Hiroshima, Japan, assembly plant.

“We’re taking the last orders,” O’Sullivan tells Ward’s in an interview at the auto show here. “The last production is finishing up right now, and some of the stuff is in the water and at the ports.”

The MPV is falling victim to a numbers game, O’Sullivan says. Mazda, which is straining capacity in Japan not only in final assembly but in component supplies, is shifting allocation to the more-promising CUV markets with the CX-9 and earlier-introduced CX-7.

“It’s still a great vehicle, still relevant to the market,” O’Sullivan says of the MPV. “But when you’re limited on production capacity, do you continue to build the MPV or do you do things like the CX-7 and CX-9? That’s why we made that choice.”

MPV sales totaled only 4,223 in the first quarter, down 6.4% from like-2005’s 4,513. Last year, sales reached 17,634, a 29.1% falloff from 2004’s 24,860 and less than half the 35,600 delivered in 2000.

The model peaked in the U.S. in 1991, its fourth year on the market, when 48,144 were sold.

O’Sullivan takes a “never say never” approach as to whether a minivan could rejoin Mazda’s U.S. lineup in the future.

“Anything is possible,” he says. “But it’s got to be relevant to the U.S. consumer.

“(And) it’s got to be able to resonate with this showroom,” he adds, pointing to Mazda’s heavily revamped lineup on the auto show floor.

However, he says there is no plan to share capacity with controlling stakeholder Ford Motor Co. at Ford’s Oakville, Ont., Canada, plant, where the new Ford Edge/Mercury MKX CUVs will be produced and the Mazda6-based replacements for the Ford Freestar/Mercury Monterey minivans are expected to go into production in 2008.

“There are no plans for that right now at all,” he says. “We have enough on our plate.”

O’Sullivan says the CX-9 and smaller CX-7 will fill the void left by the MPV.

“We’re going to be able to attract those customers that still need the packaging of a minivan but don’t want a minivan per se,” he says.

The CX-9 will hit U.S. dealer showrooms toward the end of the year, but the marketing effort won’t kick into high gear until first-quarter 2007, O’Sullivan says.

The 7-passenger vehicle is aimed at younger families with “a couple of children and a dog,” he says. While the CX-7 is targeted toward younger couples with “maybe one child (who) need something that’s a little more than a basic sedan.”

Mazda won’t forecast volumes yet for the CX-9 but says it expects to sell 40,000 CX-7s in the vehicle’s first full year on the market. It goes on sale in the U.S. in May and will base at $23,750 (not including a $560 destination charge).

“The customer feedback we’re getting from requests for information, lead generation, the Internet…(it’s) very, very positive at this point,” O’Sullivan says of the CX-7.

And there still could be room in Mazda’s lineup for more CUVs, the executive says.

“No, I’m not (set on CUVs),” he says. “We’re going to always have to refine our portfolio and take a look at other niches where Mazda can resonate and have an opportunity.”

As for the B-Series pickup, O’Sullivan says that will remain in the lineup “as long as we’ve got some critical mass.”

“If you go to some markets, it’s certainly necessary, and (those) dealers do like it,” he says. “They don’t sell a lot of them, but it provides a niche and fills a need for right now. So as long as we think we need to keep it within the plan, we’ll do that.”

The B-Series is based on the Ford Ranger and built alongside it at Ford’s Twin Cities plant in Minnesota. That facility is targeted for closing in 2008.

Through March, Mazda sold only 1,282 of the small pickups in the U.S., down 43.9% from like-2005. Last year, sales totaled 5,872 units, and the truck’s peak year was 1986, when 157,127 were delivered.

Mazda B-Series
U.S. Sales
Year Units
2006 1,282
2005 5,872
2004 10,266
2000 30,124
1995 43,437
1990 77,409
1985 115,788
Note: 2006 is through March.
Source: Ward's AutoInfoBank.
Mazda MPV
U.S. Sales
Year Units
2006 4,223
2005 17,634
2004 24,860
2000 35,600
1995 14,784
1990 43,147
Note: 2006 is through March.
Source: Ward's AutoInfoBank.

dzoia@wardsauto.com