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Mazda began life more than 80 years ago as a cork-making company in Hiroshima, Japan. In 1931, the company introduced its first car, the Mazda-Go, and Mazda entered the American car market with its R100 sport coupe in 1970. In 1987, Mazda opened its first plant in the United States in Flat Rock, Michigan, and today Mazda Motor Corp. is a publicly traded company that sells millions of units annually. It employs over 35,000 workers and it has a global manufacturing network that stretches from the Philippines to Zimbabwe.

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Mazda Motor Corp. in the United States

Mazda still operates its original U.S. plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, where it produces the Mazda 6. It also produces the Mazda Tribute in a second factory in Kansas City, Missouri. Mazda’s North American Operations Center is split between Irvine, California, and Flat Rock.

In 1979, Ford Motor Corp. purchased a 7 percent stake in Mazda, marking the beginning of a long and prosperous relationship between the two companies. Ford increased its stake to 20 percent in the 1980s, and it purchased a controlling interest in 1997 as Mazda struggled to weather the Asian Financial Crisis. Once the United States’ own financial crisis hit in 2008, Ford opted to reduce its stake in Mazda to 3 percent, although the two companies’ strategic partnership continues.

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According to Truecar.com, Mazda held between 1.0 and 2.0 percent of the U.S. auto market during 2010, and its market share peaked at 2.3 percent in March 2011. Mazda’s market share consistently beats that of competitors like Mitsubishi, and it is comparable to that of other foreign automakers like Subaru, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, and BMW. Nissan, Kia, and Hyundai all have consistently higher market shares than Mazda.

The Mazda Product Line

Introduced to the public under the tagline “Zoom-Zoom,” which refers to the sheer joy of motion, Mazda’s philosophy is to produce affordable vehicles that are fun to drive as well as practical. Although Mazda does not command a large portion of the U.S. auto market, it manufactures several award-winning vehicles and is rapidly expanding its offerings.

Miata MX-5 Sport Convertible

Perhaps Mazda’s best-known and most-popular vehicle, the Miata MX-5 is one of a handful of affordable, high-performing sports cars on the road. Mazda first introduced this convertible roadster in 1989, and it has sold over 900,000 Miatas globally since the sports car’s debut. The lightweight Miata’s 2.0 liter, 4-cylinder engine gets 167 horsepower. Edmunds clocked the Miata’s acceleration time from 0-60 mph at 7.5 seconds, and reviewers rave about the vehicle’s smooth shifting and superb handling. If Mazda’s main goal is to make cars that are fun to drive, critics agree that it has succeeded with the Miata MX-5.

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Not only has the Miata earned a spot on Car and Driver’s “Ten Best” list more than nine times, including in 2011, it was also Motor Trend’s “Best Sports Car for $25,000k.” U.S. News ranked the 2011 Miata MX-5 as the #1 Affordable Sports Car, beating stiff competition from the Hyundai Genesis Coupe, the Nissan 370Z, and the Mitsubishi Eclipse. The Miata has also won international honors like “Best Sports Car of the 1990s” from Sports Car International, Japan’s 2005 and 2006 “Car of the Year” award, and the 2005 Australian “Car of the Year” award.

The Practical Side of Mazda: M2, M3, M5, and M6

Mazda’s lineup of more practical vehicles ranges from the subcompact Mazda2, which is new to the U.S. market in 2011, to the Mazda5 minivan and the Mazda6 family sedan. All four of Mazda’s offerings, including the compact Mazda3, remain true to the Mazda philosophy of “Zoom-Zoom” by earning above-average ratings from reviewers for their drivability. Although you can rely on the fact that any of these Mazdas will feature excellent handling, reviewers complain that some models, especially the Mazda2 and the Mazda6, are a bit underpowered compared to the competition.

Mazda SUVs: the CX-7, CX-9, and Tribute

Mazda offers a menu of SUVs ranging from the compact 5-seat CX-7 to the more spacious 5-seat Tribute and the 7-passenger CX-9 midsize SUV. While critics are largely disappointed with the look and performance of the 2011 Mazda Tribute, U.S. News ranked the CX-9 #1 out of 23 midsize SUVs on the market. As with Mazda’s car and minivan offerings, critics appreciate that the CX-9 is a practical family vehicle that is still fun to drive. With a starting MSRP of $29,135, reviewers say that the CX-9 is on the expensive side for its class, but for drivers who want to have a bit of fun while hauling around seven passengers, they say that the CX-9 is worth the extra money.

Although it doesn’t win quite the critical raves that the CX-9 does, the 2011 Mazda CX-7 is still a sporty handler with “zippy performance,” according to U.S. News. Edmunds also designated the CX-7 a “Consumers’ Top Rated” vehicle for 2010. The main complaints that reviewers have about the CX-7 are its cramped cargo space and rear seat. As with all Mazda minivans and SUVs, reviewers also point out that the stiffer suspension necessary to produce these vehicles’ sporty handling means a choppier ride.

High Maintenance Zoom-Zoom: the Mazda RX-8

The RX-8 is heir to the Mazda legacy of rotary engines, which were used in all Mazdas before the 1970s oil crisis made these gas-guzzlers impractical. For drivers willing to feed the RX-8’s constantly-thirsty fuel tank and keep up with its extensive maintenance requirements, U.S. News says that the RX-8 will deliver “superb handling dynamics” for a budget price. The RX-8 also stands out among affordable sports cars for its roomy backseat and rear “suicide” doors, which allow passengers to access the backseat without using the front doors.

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