MONTEREY, CA – Mazda says it intends to grow market share in the key U.S. market this year and has adopted a proactive, consumer-driven approach to ensure the company meets its goal.

Typically, the Japanese auto maker’s sales in the year’s first-half are slow, says Robert Davis, executive vice president of U.S. operations. But this year, Mazda got off to a strong start, with deliveries surging 68.2% in January and 27.0% in February, according to WardsAuto data.

The early sales jump was by design, Davis tells WardsAuto at a media event here. “We focused a lot on direct marketing and generating leads and driving traffic to our dealers, including a strong focus on customer retention,” he says.

The strength of the used-car market has helped, Davis admits. “A lot of our customers (have) equity, so we did a very aggressive program of bringing (owners) from the service department into the sales department when their car had equity and tried to get them into a new Mazda.”

Davis declines to reveal Mazda’s targeted share. Last year, the auto maker controlled 2.0% of the U.S. light-vehicle market, according to WardsAuto data.

Mazda is hoping the recently launched CX-5 cross/utility vehicle will help drive its current momentum throughout the year, with a sales goal of 40,000 units set for the 5-seat CUV. Davis says that would make it the second highest-volume model in the auto maker’s U.S. lineup, behind the Mazda3 C-segment car.

CX-5 units began arriving on dealer lots last month. Its official launch date is April 1, when Mazda says inventory levels will be sufficient. Limited stocks likely affected sales last month, when the CUV sold just 357 units. This compares with the Mazda3’s 11,275 deliveries, following 9,200 in January.

The 40,000-unit bogey is modest, but the small-CUV segment is fiercely competitive. Mazda says the CX-5’s top competitors are the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and Ford Escape.

Those three models accounted for 604,903 deliveries in the U.S. last year, and the segment is projected to continue to grow, says Tim Barnes, director-product planning and strategy, Mazda North American Operations.

“Consumer research shows we’ve got a very strong value proposition with the CX-5, both from a content standpoint as well as how it’s positioned,” he says, adding the small CUV segment is projected to surpass 1.3 million units this year.

The CX-5’s primary target is women ages 25-35 who are just beginning their careers. The secondary target is married men and women 35-60 years old and either at the managerial level in their careers or retired.

Current Mazda3 owners are expected to migrate to the CX-5 as their life circumstances change. The auto maker also hopes consumers seeking superior fuel economy will be attracted to the small CUV.

Powered by a 2.5L Skyactiv 4-cyl. engine producing 155 hp and 150 lb.-ft. (203 Nm) of torque, the CX-5 achieves a combined city/highway fuel economy rating of 29 mpg (8.1 L/100 km) with front-wheel drive.

All-wheel-drive versions are rated at 28 mpg (8.4 L/100 km). Both figures are best-in-class when compared to non-hybrid competitors, Mazda says.

Barnes says the auto maker plans to ramp up its marketing expenditures this year, and the CX-5 will be the beneficiary of a soon-to-be-launched advertising campaign that will combine traditional and social-media elements.

“It’s a phased approach with marketing, but we will have more absolute money to spend, and it will be a more-efficient spend,” he says.

bpope@wardsauto.com