Mazda No. 5
The market doesn't capture everybody's demand - even those willing to pay
A few weeks ago, I was tweeting about large cars, safety, and whether or not policies to try and shrink cars (because of the collateral damage they inflict) penalize large families.
It sparked a conversation about smaller family-friendly cars. Somebody replied, “I’m remembering a thread from years ago when a manufacturer stopped making a beloved multi-row car that was great for city families. It was essentially a modern station wagon (I think) the city parents loved, but it lost out to the SUVs.”
Somebody else ventured a guess as to which car it was, and added that he’d owned one: “We had one for awhile and loved it in the city. Sliding doors are great for street parking.”
We figured out which model it was (here’s a Reddit thread about it) and here it is. Take a look at this car:
It’s the Mazda5 (preceded by the similar Mazda MPV), discontinued in 2015 in the United States and by 2018 everywhere. Many similar vehicles exist in the European and Asian markets, however. But there are virtually none in the U.S. market.
You might be thinking, what do you mean, virtually none? Isn’t that…a minivan?
It is, but look closely. It’s small. But it’s a three-row six-seater, with a flat floor and fold-down rows, making a decent flat cargo space. (It looks like this.) It can fit cargo and/or kids. Two or three of them.
This vehicle type is known as an MPV, or multi-purpose vehicle. They’re also referred to as mini-minivans and occasionally as compact minivans. The Mazda5 was built not on a truck chassis or a large sedan chassis, like pretty much all other minivans, but on the chassis of a compact sedan!
Here’s a snippet of a Mazda5 from Wired:
It’s a six-passenger van, but it's built on the same C1 platform used by compact cars like the Mazda3, Ford Focus and Volvo C30. At 180.5 inches long, it's nearly two feet shorter than a Dodge Caravan or Honda Odyssey, but it's got ample room for four adults and two kids. Mazda's optimistic euphemism for the 5 is "the space van," though those sliding rear doors might as well wear a "Student of the Month" bumper sticker.
In Europe, compact MPVs (multi-purpose vehicles) like these are huge sellers and almost every automaker offers one. Those cars almost never make it across the Atlantic, which is why the Mazda5 is the only car in its class in the U.S. until the arrival of the Ford C-Max next year.
The Ford C-Max? Also discontinued.
In America, this sort of vehicle has always been a bit of niche product, but it serves a distinct and important niche: the urban and/or budget-conscious family who wants a relatively inexpensive, useful car that’s easy to keep and use in a dense environment. Cheaper and less bulky than an SUV or true minivan, roomier and more versatile than a sedan. The station wagon—also a nearly extinct vehicle form in the U.S.—met a lot of these criteria, too. But station wagons had low roofs and boat-like bodies.
The idea that the Mazda5 was a perfect vehicle for city families is really interesting, and makes me think about a lot of things. City families, except very rich or poor ones, barely exist in the American imagination. Families, suburbs, and SUVs have all become conceptually joined together. And SUVs and suburbia are scaled for each other—oversized, isolating, zero-sum in their conception of mobility and safety.
So what’s going on here?
The absence of an MPV segment in the U.S. car market is to some extent a regulatory failure, what with SUVs being exempt from the tighter fuel-economy standards to which cars are held. It’s also a market failure, in the sense that some small but significant number of individuals would buy a car like this at its market price, if it were actually offered. As low as the sales on compact minivans (or disappearing subcompact sedans) might be, they’re absolutely not non-zero. The fact that manufacturers cannot or will not capitalize on that slice of demand is interesting.
There may be economic and manufacturing reasons for this, too. Perhaps, at least after the pandemic, economic logic requires scarce and expensive parts to go into more expensive vehicles. However, the trend of small cars being discontinued precedes the pandemic.
There’s no question, however, that Americans do in fact predominantly buy SUVs, pickup trucks, minivans, and crossovers, and increasingly fewer compact vehicles of any type. Even as vehicle prices increase and loan terms deteriorate.
But the disappearance or non-appearance of compact, city-friendly, kid-friendly vehicles is also a failure downstream of another failure. We massively underbuild cities and urban environments in the United States. Prices alone tell us this—the most expensive places to live are typically urban, whether of the intense New York City variety or the quieter, stately Old Town Alexandria type. More ingenious studies also suggest this. Cities aren’t inherently expensive; they’re expensive because of supply and demand, like virtually everything else.
This artificial undersupply of urban environments in America means, in turn, that there are many would-be urban families which never form. And those which do form are not a sufficient buying bloc to influence the car market in a European or Asian direction.
If you think that suburban housing and suburban cars are totally congruent with “family friendly,” then you’re missing some of what is, and a lot more of what could be.
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