MAZDA Australia’s just-retired managing director Martin Benders believes the Australian new-vehicle market has plenty of growth left in it but that car companies will need to increase their use of technology at a retail and marketing level to better engage with consumers.
In his final media interview in the top role at Mazda, Mr Benders – who stepped down after 32 years of service at the end of last month, the past four as managing director – told GoAuto that continued population growth would ensure a healthy industry well into the future.
Discussing what the Australian automotive landscape could look like in 10 years, Mr Benders said: “I think the industry’s still going to grow because I think the population is still going to grow.
“I don’t think we’ve cracked the high density of living thing so the spread of the population automatically requires motor vehicles, at least to some extent. I’m not one who believes that full autonomous driving of Level 5 will be in place within 10 years, so I think people will still own their cars in the majority of cases.”
Mr Benders said he believed that automotive customer service would be further impacted in the next decade by the latest technology and social media trends, forcing car-makers to keep up with consumers.
“What I think we do have to do is get up to the same level as customer expectations and that’s the difficult one, where customers are using social media and technology to know about things a lot faster than companies do,” he said.
“I think we have to get up to that speed or a similar speed, because I don’t think you can deliver the right customer experience without being able to have all the information at your fingertips.
“Customers can pick out pretty quickly that you’ve given me one answer and you’ve given me another. So that’s the trick – how do we get our systems up to speed of what the customers expect from a technology perspective?”
In terms of consumer trends, Mr Benders said he expected Australian buyers to continue to favour SUVs over traditional passenger vehicles.
“I think SUVs have a role with the modern car owner because they still want a good-looking vehicle but they’re more interested in the pragmatics as well. The car has to do certain things as well, so I think that’s why SUVs are becoming more popular. Maybe they’re a little bit less interested in the pure handling parts of it. But I think current trends probably will just pan out the way they are.”
Mazda sells more SUVs than any other brand in Australia except Toyota, and the CX-5 – which has just entered its second generation – has been the country’s most popular SUV for the past four years.
Mr Benders also predicted that the adoption by consumers of electric vehicles would remain low in Australia, until the government stepped in to offer incentives and make them more financially appealing.
“If you think about electric vehicles, I still think they require government support to get off the ground, and to be maintained. I mean there’s certainly evidence in Europe where governments put money into their electric vehicles and they take off, and when they take the support off, they go down,” he said.
“Ultimately, governments can’t afford to support any one product or one technology and they really do need to get to a point where they … set the rules quite clearly in terms of what they want to achieve, whether it’s lower CO2 or whatever, and then let the industry work out how to get there, because if they try and back one they’ll just distort the market and then they won’t be able to support it forever.
“And it bounces around too much. The development of the car, whether it’s electric or not, still takes a long time. So just set the rules.”
While Mazda is the number-two car brand in Australia, there is still a big gap between it and the country’s top-selling manufacturer, Toyota. Brand T sold 209,610 units in 2016 for a 17.8 per cent share of the market, against Mazda’s 118,212 sales and 10 per cent share.
When asked if Mazda could become Australia’s favourite automotive brand, Mr Benders said it was unlikely that it could overtake Toyota’s sales, but he highlighted the company’s success in private sales.
“If you mean by the largest volume brand, probably not, because there’s certain business out there that Toyota does that we don’t do, we don’t even look to do it. We don’t have as big a range as they do, so we can’t get into certain niches that they do. But if you look at private buyers as a group, we’re already beating Toyota on occasion in that group.
“So our focus is on people that choose their car. Now that can be some small businesses because they are user-choosers and what have you, but we don’t do the huge stuff. We don’t do the taxis, we don’t do the mining industry, we don’t do those guys that buy bulk vehicles.
“We basically are only interested in the people that have a choice in their car, however they finance it, however they get hold of it. And that’s our strength, that’s where our dealers are comfortable, that’s where we’re comfortable, and that’s what we built our business model on, and I don’t think we have any intentions to change that at all.”
Mr Benders said while the remaining local car-makers might change their strategy and focus more on private buyers once they close their manufacturing operations, Mazda would continue to concentrate on retaining its private buyer base.
“With local manufacturing disappearing you might argue that those guys (Toyota, Holden) want to focus more in that area as well (private buyers) because they’re going to be importing, but it takes a while to build up that sort of focus throughout your pipeline, through your dealers, through everyone.
“So I don’t know whether they’re going to be successful or not. Our job’s not to worry about whether they’re going to be successful, our job is to be as successful as we can so it’s harder for them to grab share off us.
“My vision would be that anybody who owns a Mazda couldn’t imagine why they would want to change, because it’s such a good brand to deal with. That would be my vision.”
By Tim Nicholson