In the automotive world, manufacturers, the automotive media, and vehicle owners decided long ago which brands fall into which category, premium or mainstream. In some cases, the manufacturers make the answer plain as day. Here are some examples:
Toyota= Mainstream Lexus= Premium
Honda= Mainstream Acura = Premium
Ford= Mainstream Lincoln=Premium
Nissan= Mainstream Infinity= Premium
Chevy= Mainstream Buick= Premium
VW= Mainstream Audi= Premium
You can see the obvious here. Manufacturers build two versions of vehicles. Some are mainstream. Affordable, high in value, practical, and attainable by most. Other vehicles, often almost identical to the mainstream models, are marketed and priced as premium. Higher in cost, lower in value, a bit less practical, and attainable by fewer shoppers. The upside to the premium brands is that they have slightly better interior trims, and perhaps a bit more power or torque.
Some other brands are universally viewed as premium. These include BMW and Mercedes-Benz The only real argument with these brands is which of the models and trims cross over into the “luxury” class. Some brands are universally accepted as mainstream. Subaru seems to fit this definition pretty nicely.
Mazda is unusual. There is just one brand from this manufacturer, not two, like Toyota/Lexus and Honda/Acura. However, if you compare a Mazda to a similarly-sized Lexus, Infiniti, Acura, Buick, or even an Audi, it is very difficult to pinpoint exactly why the Mazda would not be considered the equal of the premium brand.
Quality is certainly not the benchmark. Mazda’s longest-running crossover SUV model, the CX-5, has a higher reliability rating over the past decade than pretty much every similarly-sized crossover model made by every “premium” brand. Check out the ratings of the CX-5 at Consumer Reports. Or look at this rating listing that scores brands by durability from JD Power. As you can see, Mazda scores higher than Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Acura, and Infiniti. Lincoln is second from the bottom. So reliability and durability are not objective indicators of whether a brand is considered premium or not.
Mazda Premium Torque
What about torque and power? Mazda’s models often offer the highest torque in their segment, and in many cases, also provide more power than many premium branded models. So, we can’t simply draw a line in the sand and say, “This much performance means premium; any less is mainstream.” Ford also kicks that concept to the curb. Its crossovers are much higher in power and performance than many premium vehicles their same size.
Mazda Premium Features
Could features be the key? If so, Mazda is clearly a premium brand. After all, Mazda offers head-up displays, perforated ventilated and cooled leather seating surfaces, and many other features that some of the premium branded models we drive are not equipped with. And again, Chevrolet kicks to the curb the concept of features indicating a premium status. After all, you can get hands-free Super Cruise in a Chevy along with a digital rear mirror, and nearly all of the premium-branded crossovers we test lack these features. So content is not a “go-no-go” indicator of mainstream vs. premium segmentation.
Mazda Premium Looks
How about looks? Is there a better-looking compact crossover than the Mazda CX-30 in Soul Red Crystal with a Parchment interior? If so, we have never seen it. And aren’t looks entirely subjective? Heck, many brands offer both rugged and sleek models. So how can looks be our guide as to segmentation?
Mazda - Premium In the Minds of Customers
At the end of the day, we think the only real way to tell if a brand is premium or mainstream is to ask owners. So we did. We polled owners of the CX-30, CX-5, and CX-50 and asked them if they felt their Mazda was closer akin to a premium model and brand or to a mainstream model and brand. Overwhelmingly, they chose premium. Here are some poll results. Notice that in a couple of case the polls were hijacked with off-topic member-added choices, but the data still point in one direction.
In addition to the poll answers, many Mazda owners offered up their thoughts. Here is a quick rundown of some of the quotes from the CX-30 and CX-5 club members:
I initially wasn't gonna even buy a Mazda CX-30, but the second I sat in one. I remarked to my passenger, ‘whoa, this feels like a Lexus.’ Honestly, I like the interior more than the Lexus NX since it's less cluttered but still feels high quality and refined.
Depends on the trim, but the high-end CX-30 trims are closer to competition from Lexus than Hyundai.
Had a (Acura) TLX previously, then a Mazda6 now the CX-5. Looked at the RDX, but the infotainment screen was glitching out on the test drive, so went with the CX-5.
My consideration set was the X3, GLC, CRV, and CX5. Odd, I know, but I wanted to compare it to something that was similar in price and class in addition to the brands I was used to driving. CX-5 Signature is definately closer in feel to a BMW than a Honda, but certainly not identical to a luxury brand. I’m very happy I went with Mazda, and look forward to moving up to a CX-70. Sorry BMW.
We have a (Mazda CX-5) Sig(nature Trim), and an (Acura) RDX. The CX5 is comparable. It’s a value buy. I enjoy driving my Mazda better overall.
The CX-50 club members responded with a 60% tilt toward Mazda being premium, but the comments were mostly the opposite. Here are some comments from the CX-50 club members:
Ehh... none of the above. It's got an aging inefficient old powertrain, some nice tech, and handles great, but the throttle and braking feel doesn't match the steering feel. There are definitely more refined options. The NX blows the CX-50 away, heck even the new Sportage has a ton more tech and more efficient powertrain.
Mazda wanted to compete with Subaru Outback and not the Forester. Added ground clearance and trunk space compared to CX-5. Made it longer and wider, added Roof rails. Now Subaru’s AWD is better, but everything else looks, materials, transmission etc Mazda wins. Compared to Acura and Lexus? Eh, maybe, but maybe not yet. Upcoming CX-90 and CX-70 top trims, for sure. Compared to KiA/Hyundai, GM, Chevy, even Toyota? Yes. Any day.
“Perceived” quality? LOL. Fit and finish are lightyears away from Lexus or Acura. I only bought mine on an impulse… because of it’s looks and driving dynamics (low center of gravity).
Craftsmanship is deficient and MPG is horrible.
We also think that the salespeople who sell vehicles may have some real insight into the question. After all, they know what models the buyers are cross-shopping. Remember, these are the days when one company owns nearly every brand in many regions. So the salespeople often work at a company that sells both mainstream and premium models. We asked a Mazda salesperson, Jonathan Sewell, a.k.a. “Sewell Sells,” if he could offer some insight on how Mazda shoppers see the Mazdas that he sells them.
Here is what Jonathan told Torque News: “Let me first say that Mazda views “their” competitors as BMW and Audi. And I’m sure in some areas, that’s the case. What I typically see in Enterprise is shoppers come from mainstream brands such as Nissan, Toyota, and Honda. When they drive Mazda they are usually blown away by the premium materials and quiet drive. Part of this different experience is because we don’t have Audi, BMW, and Lexus nearby. It’s 100 miles away. So most people aren’t driving those brands or cross-shopping. I do think with the CX-90 we will see a lot more of those high-line clients checking out Mazda. And I also think the CX-90 will win over some of them. What I really work on every day is getting more of the Honda, Nissan, and Toyota customers to come drive a Mazda. The high volume manufacturers have their (loyal) following.”
Honestly, we were hoping that Jonathan would simply seal the deal here, but he is saying what a lot of Mazda folks we spoke to off the record are saying. Mazda shoppers often come from mainstream brands, but they feel like the Mazda they try is a step up from mainstream.
Mazda Premium Service
Not all Mazda customers come from mainstream brands. Some are refugees of bad experiences with premium models. You may Dr. Tuncer as a guest writer here at Torque News. She moved from BMW to Mazda when she was disappointed by BMW’s service and reliability. BMW didn't offer loaner cars. Mazda did. And she needed a loaner car to do her business on days she had service performed. For her, Mazda was a step up in terms of service visit practicality. During COVID, Mazda offered to service her car for free because she was a healthcare worker. How can that experience be topped?
The movement from the mainstream segment by Mazda is definitely underway. The CX-50 was a bit of a detour given that it is clear Mazda had the Subaru Outback in mind when it developed the CX-50. However, the CX-90 is clearly a premium three-row vehicle in all regards, at least on paper. We can’t wait to give it a try and see how it compares to the best three-row crossover SUVs in the premium segment, such as the new Lexus RX and the Acura MDX.
Image of Mazda CX-30 by John Goreham.
John Goreham is an experienced New England Motor Press Association member and expert vehicle tester. John completed an engineering program with a focus on electric vehicles, followed by two decades of work in high-tech, biopharma, and the automotive supply chain before becoming a news contributor. In addition to his ten years of work at Torque News, John has published thousands of articles and reviews at American news outlets. He is known for offering unfiltered opinions on vehicle topics. You can follow John on Twitter, and TikTok @ToknCars, and view his credentials at Linkedin