GUANGZHOU, China -- More than a decade after its release in China, the Mazda6 sedan is more popular than ever there. The Japanese sports car is in such high demand, in fact, that even after undergoing two upgrades, the original 11-year-old version is still being displayed in showrooms as a "new car."
Sales of the car -- known locally as the Maliu, from the Chinese words "horse" and six" -- have been growing steadily since its release in April 2003. That is amazing staying power in such a fast-growing, rapidly-changing market. The car is produced by FAW Mazda Motor Sales, Mazda Motor's joint venture, based in Changchun, Jilin Province.
Further boosting the popularity of the Mazda6, sold in Japan as the Atenza, was a video that vent viral two years ago showing it winning a highway "battle" with an American sport utility vehicle. Chances are that most young male Chinese have heard of the Maliu, even if they do not know it is a Mazda.
First-year sales of the original Mazda6 reached about 23,000 vehicles. More than a decade on, the car is still a hotseller, with nearly 94,000 units sold in 2013, an all-time high. Cumulative sales in China have surpassed 770,000 vehicles.
Gotta have the original
The second-generation Mazda6 was rolled out in 2009, and the third-generation model was put on the market earlier this year. Nevertheless, the original Maliu is still displayed in Mazda showrooms for new cars. For Chinese sports car lovers, the 2003 Mazda6 has a special magic.
Given that China's auto market is packed with more than 100 makers, domestic and foreign, the Mazda6's strong sales are all the more impressive.
When the Maliu made its debut in 2003, the local market was still relatively small, with annual sales of 4.5 million vehicles, or a fifth of the current level. At that time, the roads were dominated by chunky, unstylish vehicles reminiscent of small commercial trucks. So when the Maliu broke onto the scene, its sharp looks created a stir. Many Chinese say they still have vivid memories of being enchanted by the cool looks of the first Maliu.
It also had an attractive price. When the Mazda6 was first launched in China, such popular Japanese cars as the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry were already available, but their price tags put them out of reach for most Chinese consumers.
The Maliu, in contrast, hit the pricing sweet spot. It was at the upper end of the affordable range, winning it serious attention from people keen to own a sports car. Today, it goes for a relatively low about 120,000 yuan ($19,500).
But Mazda paid attention to more than just price and design with the Mazda6; the Japanese company made sure the car was fun to drive.
BMWs and Audis are hugely popular among wealthy Chinese because of their attractive looks and sporty rides. But some models are made larger to impart a greater sense of luxury, a design touch that can make them less nimble. Mazda has no intention of following this strategy.
Take that, GM
Two years ago, the Maliu got a further bump in popularity thanks to an online video showing the car "humiliating" a Hummer, the massive General Motors SUV.
On a highway near Shanghai, a group of 19 Malius were traveling in a convoy when a Hummer came along and raced past them in a provocative manner. Miffed, the drivers of the Mazdas stepped on the gas and surrounded the SUV, forcing it to slow to a relative crawl of just 20kph for the next half-hour.
This episode enhanced the Maliu's already-solid reputation, said a male 30-something who saw the video. "The Maliu beat the Hummer," he said.
On Nov. 20, Maliu fans were in abundance at the Guangzhou motor show, where many new cars were displayed against flashy backdrops. Mazda's booth was swarmed by people, mostly men born after 1980, interested in purchasing the popualr car.