Every few years, an automaker churns out a TV ad that strings together some grainy footage from the recent past, showing the cars of the last 30 years being passed from generation to generation, usually with a pastel sweater-wearing parent grudgingly handing the keys to a round-eyed teenager who accepts them with the same mix of excitement and nervousness as a young Jedi receiving the family lightsaber. Subaru has perfected this genre, and you've probably seen a collective 40 hours of these ads in the last decade.
The Mazda Navajo is not a vehicle we'll admit to seeing in any "Zoom-Zoom" Mazda ad on TV, using a retro pitch for a new CX-9, despite winning Motor Trend's Truck of the Year award in 1991. Also, we won't admit to seeing the Navajo in the last couple of years at all.
So how did this short-lived two-door Ford Explorer twin get the green light?
Built in the same factory as the all-new 1991 Ford Explorer, the Navajo was only available in two-door form and only for the first generation of its Explorer twin. At the time, Mazda and Ford were sharing more than just platforms and tech; Ford held a 24.5 percent stake in the automaker since 1979, and Mazda went on to produce many Ford-badged vehicles for a number of world markets. Mazda participated in the development of the 1991 Explorer and offered a lightly altered two-door model to beef up its range of small trucks.
Inside and out, the Navajo differed little from the 1991-generation Explorer.a href="/article/classic-cars/7-suvs-1990s-you-just-dont-see-anymore"">>
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The Navajo debuted as a 1991 model paired exclusively with four-wheel-drive, but a rear-wheel-drive version landed a year later. On the outside the model differences were on the skimpy side: the truck-like black plastic grille, different plastic trim, wheels and taillights set the Navajo apart from its Explorer twin. A 4.0-liter V6, the only powerplant offered in the Navajo, churned out 160 hp, and was paired with a choice of a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual. Just two trim levels were on the menu, with a few luxury goodies thrown into an optional premium package including a moonroof and cruise control.
Even though the differences on the outside were slim, the success experienced by the Explorer and the Navajo in the U.S. was very different. The Explorer quicly became a best-selling SUV, effectively becoming the stereotypical SUV of the decade, but Mazda's version did not capture a great number of sales even with the popularity of Mazda's trucks and SUVs in general at the time.
What caused Mazda to drop the Navajo?
Part of the reason was arguably marketing; Despite the Cherokee-inspired Native American tribe name, Mazda could not change the fact that it was not known as a seller of SUVs (with the possible exception of the four-wheel-drive MPV), and could not make its two-door model stand out in the marketplace alongside small B-series trucks. The name was not easily remembered or well-recognized even in the modest-sized SUV segment of the early 90s, at the time populated by models that had been around in some form since the 1980s.
1994 was the last year for the Navajo.a href="/article/classic-cars/7-suvs-1980s-you-just-dont-see-anymore"">>
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The design was also on the utilitarian side with plenty of black plastic all around and no chrome elements to lend it some distinctiveness. The Navajo was also not differentiated enough in price from its Explorer twin, which had a deeper stack of trim levels and luxury options during its first generation, in addition to a four-door model.
The lack of a four-door model during its four years of production, at a time when four-door SUVs quickly started outselling their two-door twins, also hurt Navajo sales. This was a time when SUVs were quickly rushing upmarket and when it greatly helped to have a wide variety of engines, bodystyles and luxury options on the menu to offer buyers. The two-door Ford Explorer sold in decent numbers, but it was really the four-door model that buyers wanted. And if they wanted a two-door model, they tended to buy the Ford version.
1994 was the last year for the Navajo, and Mazda stayed out of the SUV segment in the U.S. all the way until the 2001 Mazda Tribute -- a very lightly disguised Ford Escape twin. The Explorer itself received a significant redesign in 1995, gaining plenty of new luxury items in the process, and a couple of years later spawned the more upmarket Mercury Mountaineer.
The Mazda Navajo remains the answer to the "Jeopardy" question of "It was Mazda's first SUV in North America," one which we have a hard time picturing "Jeopardy" champion Ken Jennings knowing offhand.
Jay Ramey - Jay Ramey is an Associate Editor with Autoweek, and has been with the magazine since 2013. Jay also likes to kayak and bike.
Source : http://autoweek.com/article/classic-cars/rare-anywhere-mazda-navajo1276