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2019 Mazda MX-5.

Jeremy Freed/The Globe and Mail

“Mazda is available right now!” breathlessly proclaims the ad, which is small on print inches but long on enthusiasm. “Buy now! Drive now! This full family-size luxury car is completely equipped for only $2295.” This advertisement, placed in a UBC student newspaper by Hugh Moore motors circa 1969, doesn’t specify the model name, but it doesn’t need to. Then as now, it’s hard to mistake a Mazda for anything else. Also, there were only three Mazdas to choose from in Canada at the time: The R100 coupe, the B200 compact pickup and the 808 “Grand Familia” sedan.

Fifty years later the Hiroshima-based car maker’s marketing is more sophisticated, but its offerings remain just as tightly edited and just as unique. With just eight vehicles in its 2019 lineup (compared to Honda and Toyota with almost 20 apiece) Mazda continues to set itself apart from other Japanese brands in Canada by sweating the details and doing things its own way.

Mazda’s relationship with Canadians has always been a somewhat special one. In 1968 we became the second foreign market to receive the brand after Australia, where they’d opened shop the previous year. The company’s range of roadsters, hatchbacks, pickups and crossovers has since become beloved by sport tuning fanboys, suburban families and practical-minded commuters from coast to coast. In 2018, Mazda is a smaller player than other Japanese imports, but arguably inspires more enthusiasm in its owners.

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“It’s not just Canadians’ appetite for small, stylish, affordable, fun to drive cars, but that propensity and openness to global brands, and Japanese brands like Mazda,” says David Klan, senior director of sales, marketing and regional operations for Mazda Canada, explaining the brand’s unique appeal to Canadians over the years. “American buyers in the late 1960s were still into very large cars and trucks, so the opportunity for this market was a better fit. It gave us a really good foray into the whole North American market by starting here.”

In 2018, Mazda anticipates selling 78,000 cars in Canada, a fraction of the numbers touted by juggernauts such as Toyota and Honda, but enough to make it the fifth strongest country for the brand globally. “We only compete in 58 per cent of the market, but where we compete we compete very well,” says Klan, touting robust sales of the Mazda3, which remains a strong seller across the country – particularly in Quebec. With its seventh generation scheduled for release in 2019, this compact remains a cornerstone for the brand even as the sedan segment declines. Its combination of curvaceous sheet metal, impressive driving dynamics and reliability make it a perfect embodiment of what Mazda does best – it may be an economy car, but it never feels lacking.

2008 MX-5 with a retractable roof.

Mazda

1990 Mazda Miata.

Jeremy Freed/The Globe and Mail

1990 Mazda Miata.

Handout

There have been problems over the years, too, of course, among them the brand’s reputation for rust-prone cars, which contributed to a recall of 300,000 vehicles in 2017. There’s also the question of why, as every other brand in the world is rolling out hybrid and electric models, Mazda’s line remains steadfastly carbon-fueled.

Needless to say, there was little talk of rust or fuel cells at a recent celebration of Mazda’s past five decades in Canada. The brand threw a party for 400 guests at its Markham, Ont., headquarters, and handed journalists the keys to a fleet of vehicles including the 2019 MX-5 roadster, fresh off the boat from Japan. While the refreshed MX-5 remains an incredible piece of machinery, which now makes more power than ever out of its high-revving two-litre engine, the stars of the day were the vintage Miatas, RX-7s and RX-8s pulled from storage for the occasion.

Among Mazda’s crowning achievements of the past half-century is their relentless championing of the Wankel rotary engine, a unique design that offers simplicity, low weight and smooth power delivery in a compact package. It was a distinguishing feature of the brand’s Canadian lineup from 1968 until the retirement of the RX-8 (much to the chagrin of its cult following) in 2012. Die-hard fans still pay near original MSRP for well-preserved specimens.

There is perhaps no better way to understand the appeal of Mazda’s vehicles than by driving a fleet of 20 and 25-year old RX cars on quiet country roads on a sunny summer afternoon. Whether the sleek RX-7 with its insect-like rear hatch or the four-door, four-seat RX-8 (which technically makes it a family car), these relics from the 1990s remain thrillingly poised and powerful, with exterior design that barely shows the passing of decades. The engines beg to be redlined, rewarding you with both spirited performance and the uniquely satisfying whine of that rotary turbine under the hood, a constant reminder that you’re driving something out of the ordinary.

2007 Mazda RX-8.

Ford

1993 Mazda RX-7.

Jeremy Freed/The Globe and Mail

1978 Mazda RX-7.

Handout

Much about Canada, and pretty much everything about the automotive industry, has transformed from 1968 to today. But Mazda has weathered the ups and downs while building a brand whose products only look better with the passing of time. Legions of Wankel fans and Miata lovers aside, the secret to Mazda’s success is deceptively simple: They make cars that look good, drive even better and stand out from the crowd.

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“We’ve never, not in the ‘60s, not in any decade since, never tried to be everything to everybody,” David Klan says. “We’re the opposite of that brand for everyone, the car that’s an appliance that gets you from point A to point B. A Mazda is a different kind of driving experience.” You may not be able to get an 808 Grand Familia for $2295 anymore, but little else about the way Mazda does business has changed. Thousands of Canadian drivers will agree that’s decidedly a good thing.

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