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Architecture + Branding: Dealership design leans to luxury in lockstep with Mazda’s increasingly premium positioned product portfolio

1-Aiming higher

In the last decade or so, the luxury vehicle marketplace in the United States has been in transition as traditional luxury brands, especially the German triumvirate, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi, have been chasing down every niche, and moving steadily downstream in search of increased volume. Conversely, mass-market automobile manufacturers have been making attempts to move upwards into the rarefied air, and higher transactional prices, of luxury nameplates.

Mazda, the scrappy Japanese purveyor of spirited driving machines, best known for its Miata roadster, has been one of those manufacturers steadily making strides upwards.

Since the introduction of its CX-5 SUV in late 2011, the brand has doubled-down on its KODO design philosophy and suite of “Skyactiv” technologies. Already revered for its driving dynamics, Mazda has increasingly focused on design, craftsmanship, better quality interior materials, in-car technology, and premium content.

Acclaimed by automotive journalists and critics, and flush with a recently rejuvenated product portfolio, Mazda’s entire lineup has been largely redesigned, and elevated. In a bid to match the customer experience with the new premium products, Mazda has pursued a strategy to also elevate its American dealerships’ built-design and aesthetic.

2-Evolved design

Unlike other Japanese brands, Honda (Acura), Toyota (Lexus), and Nissan (Infinity), which established luxury brands in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, Mazda aborted its plans for its Amati luxury marque in the early part of the 1990s. Lacking a distinct luxury nameplate and sales channel, Mazda is faced with the task of creating a dealership experience and design that can serve a much broader spectrum of consumers, from the entry-level budget-minded to the higher-end mid-luxury premium purchasers.

Walking this marketplace tightrope, the brand has adopted a middle of the road aesthetic. Dubbed “Retail Evolution”, the new U.S. dealership design started appearing in 2015 (source: forbes.com, bizjournals.com, autonews.com, mazdanews.com). Low-key, sedate, and mature, the linear design embraces a modernist approach, devoid of superfluous embellishments or in-vogue design details.


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, left side, 11409 WA-99, Everett, Washington (source: maps.google.com)


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, right side, 11409 WA-99, Everett, Washington (source: maps.google.com)

Envisioned as the next generation of a pre-existing concept, the new design is largely complementary, and builds upon the foundation laid by the “Retail Revolution” design (source: autonews.com, forbes.com). Although all-new from the ground-up designs are conceived for new-builds, it is quite likely that alterations to existing facilities, so as to better align with this newer, more refined iteration, will prove popular with American dealers (source: autonews.com, forbes.com). Due to such realities, “Retail Evolution” is less of a formulaic prototype building design program, and more of a general framework that allows for localization and adaptability. As such, matters relating to site, orientation, building geometry, articulation, size, width, and length are inherently more subjective, case-specific, and reflective of pre-existing conditions.

However, building height is likely to be much more prescriptive, as the design is anchored by a prominent, double-height, glass-enclosed vehicle display. Largely wrapped in glass at the ground floor level, the front facing showroom area creates a dominant volume to frame, and accentuate, the front of the building. Wholly integrated into the storefront glazing, the entrance/exit doors tend to be located opposite the glass tower element.


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, left side, 1117 State Route 32, Batavia, Ohio (source: maps.google.com)

In contrast, the side walls and the rear of the building, with significantly less glass area, are more opaque in nature. Clearly delineating the client-focused, front-of-the-house, from the mostly back-of-the-house, service and support functions, the divide is typically visible just beyond the showroom area.

Overwhelmingly adopting a flat roof design, the parapet offers limited variability. However, the roof level tends to systematically step down beyond the showroom area and towards the rear, therefore adding more visual effect, and vertical heft, to the double-height showroom feature.


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, right side, 1117 State Route 32, Batavia, Ohio (source: maps.google.com)

Although limited in use, canopies may serve to call attention to the entrances, such as the main customer showroom, or service bay entrance. Meanwhile, adornments such as window awnings, cornices and lintels are largely absent.

The materials palette consists primarily of glass, aluminum, Concrete Masonry Units (CMU), metal cladding, Aluminum Composite Panels (ACP), and Insulated Metal Panels (IMP). Although banding and wainscots are generally non-existent, material choices and colour are used to concretely segment and slice the spaces and functions, both horizontally and vertically. Utilizing a two-tone approach of black and white, the color scheme is both classic and classy.

Reserved, mature and toned-down, the restrained, luxury-leaning “Retail Evolution” design is far from polarizing.

3-Sledgehammer subtlety

Even though it builds upon its predecessor, “Retail Evolution” stands as a near complete repudiation of the boisterous, youthful, and strikingly colourful “Retail Revolution” design.


Mazda dealership, aerial view, 2815 South Main Street, Bountiful, Utah (source: maps.google.com)


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, left side, 2815 South Main Street, Bountiful, Utah (source: maps.google.com)


Mazda dealership, front view, 2815 South Main Street, Bountiful, Utah (source: maps.google.com)

First appearing in Utah in January 2003, the brazen design has benefitted from the passage of time and geographical diffusion to become more familiar and palatable to American consumers (source: mazdanews.com). Embracing an industrial-chic ethos, “Retail Evolution” was loud, proud, and unmistakable. Even altered for factors like site, orientation, location, climate, and building characteristics regarding geometry, articulation, size, width, and length, the established design guidelines resulted in a unified theme without resorting to a one-size-fits-all prototype.


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, 13700 Wayzata Boulevard, Minnetonka, Minnesota (source: maps.google.com)


Mazda dealership, front view, 5900 North Oak Trafficway, Gladstone, Missouri (source: maps.google.com)


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, left side, 5885 East Circle Drive, unit 350, Cicero, New York (source: maps.google.com)

The double-height glass-enclosed vehicle display originator, the “Retail Revolution” design often included a vertical blade, of varying height and length. Jutting out at the edge of the glass-enclosed tower, the blade would visually, and physically, punctuate the de facto termination point between showroom and support spaces.


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, right side, 9902 South Memorial Drive, Tulsa, Oklahoma (source: maps.google.com)


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, left side, 13900 Washington Street, Kansas City, Missouri (source: maps.google.com)


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, left side, 4900 Detroit Road, Sheffield Village, Ohio (source: maps.google.com)

A combination of punched windows of varying width and height would populate the showroom area and consumer-facing facades. As such, a formal entrance/exit point is discernible, especially when the doors were painted blue.


Mazda dealership, front view, 5885 East Circle Drive, unit 350, Cicero, New York


Mazda dealership, right side view, 5885 East Circle Drive, unit 350, Cicero, New York

A flat roof and continuous parapet would largely ring the client facing facades at a consistently elevation. Vertically reinforcing the hierarchy of spaces, the roof would generally step down towards the rear of the building, and over support and service spaces.


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, 5900 North Oak Trafficway, Gladstone, Missouri (source: maps.google.com)


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, 4730 Morse Road, Columbus, Ohio (source: maps.google.com)

In addition to being finishes off in an eye-catching colour, a small canopy would frame the entrance/exit doors. However, a much more expansive canopy/column supported roof/carport/portico, would typically wrap around the corner of the showroom, opposite the double-height glass-enclosed vehicle display. Dubbed “Drive Center”, the large canopy served as an area for dealers to keep their cars “at the ready” for customers to experience Mazda vehicles. For a brand that often advocates that every one of their vehicles are designed with “The soul of a sports car”, the Drive Center was an integral feature of Mazda’s “Retail Revolution” design.


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, left side, 9902 South Memorial Drive, Tulsa, Oklahoma (source: maps.google.com)


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, right side, 4900 Detroit Road, Sheffield Village, Ohio (source: maps.google.com)


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, right side, 5885 East Circle Drive, unit 350, Cicero, New York (source: maps.google.com)


Mazda dealership, front view, 13900 Washington Street, Kansas City, Missouri (source: maps.google.com)

Sleek, modern, industrial, the exterior walls were generally free of awnings, cornices, and lintels. The materials consisted in large part of glass, aluminum, corrugated metal siding, Concrete Masonry Units (CMU), Aluminum Composite Panels (ACP), and Insulated Metal Panels (IMP). Through the use of material and colour, an effort was made to differentiate the ground level showroom area from the uppermost second floor area, and the support functions. Although less common in the front-of-house portion, wainscots and banding elements can be discerned in wall surfaces beyond the customer-centric showroom area. Surgical insertions of bold green, orange and blue, and a tonal distinction between the grey upper portion and the black lower portion of the showroom, results in large quasi-continuous colour bands that sweep across the mostly public facades. While creating a continuity, the colour bands also assist in making the significantly single tone, grey coloured support spaces, fade into the background, and allow the showroom to command visual attention.


Mazda dealership, rear 3/4 view, 5900 North Oak Trafficway, Gladstone, Missouri (source: maps.google.com)


Mazda dealership, rear 3/4 view, 13900 Washington Street, Kansas City, Missouri (source: maps.google.com)

A showroom looking more “like a hip garage, balancing fashionable furnishings with industrial finishes”, boasting an elevated display platform with an industrial-sized turbine. which dealers have derisively called “the fan boat”, a glass-encased vehicle lift and internet connected M Cafe, “Retail Revolution” lacked maturity, and seemed inherently designed to appeal to a particular socio/psychographic cohort (source: designforum.com, wskfarch.com, autonews.com, truecar.com). However, with countless reports of younger Americans and Millenials abandoning the automobile and driving en masse, refocusing away from the highly coveted, aged 18-to-34 demographic, may prove wise.

Therefore, substituting a brash design for another that does not alienate older, more mature buyers with discretionary and disposable incomes, should yield benefits in climbing up from a plebeian to a premium plateau.

4-Brand image seppuku

Nonetheless, Mazda has another significant, largely self-inflicted, built-design problem with its American dealer base.

As recognizable, unique, and adaptable as it was, “Retail Revolution” never experienced full adoption. In fact, less than half of US Mazda dealers ever made the leap (source: autonews.com) Therefore, even a decade after its introduction, American Mazda dealerships remain a hodge-podge of individualistic and legacy designs.


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, 4522 Roosevelt Way NE, Seattle, Washington (source: maps.google.com)


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, left side, 635 Riverdale Street, West Springfield, Massachusetts (source: maps.google.com)


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, right side, 1001 East Battles Road, Santa Maria, California (source: maps.google.com)


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, left side, 15150 Airport Road, Gulfport, Mississippi (source: maps.google.com)

One of the major shortcomings of “Retail Revolution” was that it was never mandatory for dealers to invest the estimated $2 to $4 million in order to cement the new Mazda brand aesthetic into the American consumers’ consciousness (source: autonews.com, mazdanews.com). A fully voluntary program, some dealers found the cost simply unjustifiable. Therefore, in light of prohibitive costs, options that skewed towards upgrades, conversions, and/or rehabilitation of existing or competitor’s facilities would become common, as opposed to brand new from the ground up facilities.


Mazda dealership (circa 2007), front 3/4 view, left side, 16800 Beach Boulevard, Huntington Beach, California (source: maps.google.com)


Mazda dealership (circa 2016), front 3/4 view, left side, 16800 Beach Boulevard, Huntington Beach, California (source: maps.google.com)


FORMER Nissan dealership (circa 2011), front 3/4 view, right side, 20626 Hawthorne Boulevard, Torrance, California (source: maps.google.com)


Mazda dealership (circa 2014), front 3/4 view, right side, 20626 Hawthorne Boulevard, Torrance, California (source: maps.google.com)


Mazda dealership (circa 2016), front 3/4 view, right side, 20626 Hawthorne Boulevard, Torrance, California (source: maps.google.com)

Partial efforts, whereby a Mazda dealership could be combined with another manufacturer to help amortize costs, also saw light. In many instances, the distinctly brash Mazda architectural identity successfully stood apart from its neighbour’s more pedestrian design.


Mazda dealership, front view, 750 SE 122nd Avenue, Portland, Oregon (source: maps.google.com)


Mazda dealership, front view, 3560 28th Street, Grand Rapids, Michigan (source: maps.google.com)

Furthermore, being one of the smaller Japanese manufacturers, Mazda USA’s dealer network is less vast than many of its rivals. Sales of roughly 300,000 vehicles per year, spread across a dealer network of approximately 640 dealers, pales in comparison to the 1 million plus units Honda, Toyota, Nissan or the Detroit Big 3 each sell annually in the United States (source: insidemazda.masdausa.com, autonews.com, goodcarbadcar.net). As such, with limited sales volume and brand penetration, Mazda might struggle to gain traction in some markets, and is sometimes relegated to the background, especially versus larger top-of-mind brands that can move the metal at a higher velocity.


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, right side, 7801 Metcalf Avenue, Overland Park, Kansas (source: maps.google.com)


Mazda dealership, front 3/4 view, right side, 347 Main Street, Waterville, Maine (source: maps.google.com)

Although the brand prominence might wane or fade within larger corporate dealer groups, Mazda’s own inconsistencies in built-design identity could singularly hamper its premium branding effort.

5-Lessons in luxury

Notwithstanding all of the pitfalls regarding being small, one of the remarkable strengths of the Mazda brand is its ability to forge a connection with its most ardent fans. Not typically the top-of-mind brand, Mazda’s consumers must in some capacity actively seek out the brand as its presence is not as obvious at the other more popular marques. In a way, the brand almost seems like a well-kept secret, where a select few are in the know.

Although limited dealer coverage would intuitively limit brand growth, luxury goods tend to thrive on scarcity. Even as far back as 2012, Mazda had expressed its apprehensions towards diluting the brand by adding more US dealers, preferring instead to “fatten existing dealers’ earnings so they will invest in their stores” (source: autonews.com). Although still a voluntary program, “Retail Evolution” builds on the previous design and does not inadvertently penalize those dealers that already bought into the original vision a decade ago (source: autonews.com). And, when moving upscale, limited diffusion could actually be a serendipitous boon for the Mazda brand in the United States.

As Korean manufacturer Hyundai has demonstrated in recent years with its Genesis and Equus lines, even mainstreams brands, without a rich lineage in luxury and short on cachet, can earn a spot in the automotive luxury sphere by delivering a product that can rival the established players.

Since 2011, Mazda has set a product release cadence that has seen it renew much of its lineup (Mazda3, Mazda6, MX-5, CX-9, CX-5), jettison lower volume and entry-level models (Mazda5, Mazda2), provide a glimmer of hope to rotary enthusiasts (RX-Vision) and introduce a small SUV (CX-3) in the fastest growing segment in the automotive space. Armed with an extensively overhauled premium product lineup, and a new, luxury-leaning, mature architectural identity, Mazda and its American dealers are uniquely positioned to communicate the brand message, through product and architecture, to those unfamiliar with the small Japanese manufacturer that still believes that “Driving Matters”.


Disclaimer: All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.


About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.


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