TOKYO -- Carmakers are continuing their shift towards popular sport utility vehicles, edging into the space once occupied by minivans.
Japan's Mazda Motor this month unveiled its new CX-8 three-row, crossover SUV, which features a longer wheelbase than its competitors, allowing ample legroom even in the third row for passengers up to 170cm tall.
While still rare, other automakers have been introducing a third row in SUVs, such as BMW's X5, Audi's Q7 and Mitsubishi Motors' Outlander.
Mazda will discontinue production of minivans -- which do not fit with the curvy design concept the brand is pursuing -- by the end of the fiscal year. Meanwhile, it will shift its focus to SUVs, betting its future on the CX-8, which is destined to become the company's flagship vehicle. "We are trying to create a new market to replace the one for minivans," company President Masamichi Kogai said at a press conference on Sept. 14.
The CX-8 is Mazda's highest-grade vehicle in Japan, and set for launch on Dec. 14 in Japan. The automaker will consider expanding the vehicle to other Asian markets, including China -- the world's largest auto market -- where SUVs are highly popular among younger customers.
A distinct characteristic is that the CX-8 will be powered by a 2.2-liter diesel engine. At a time when governments around the world have begun contemplating banning diesel engines, and automakers accelerate their shift to electric vehicles, Mazda's choice seems to go against the grain.
Yet, the company believes that such a large SUV can only work with a diesel engine. It also believes that demand for engine-driven automobiles will continue to be solid for the foreseeable future.
Mazda plans to price the CX-8 -- available in six- and seven-seat models -- between 3,196,800 yen and 4,190,400 yen ($28,530 to $37,400). The second row of seats can be equipped with drink holders and a USB charge port.
Currently the automaker offers two minivans. It plans to stop producing its Biante this month, with the Premacy scheduled for phase-out by the end of the fiscal year. Existing orders and inventories at the time will determine when sales end.
"Consumer values are changing," Kogai said. "We designed a model that makes you not only want to go for a drive with family and friends, but also alone."
The CX-8 is Mazda's first new model for the Japanese market in about two years, since the launch of its CX-3 small SUV in 2015. It aims to sell 1,200 units a month.