BOUNTIFUL, UT — Mazda North American Operations (MNAO) is trying to make its vehicles more exciting, and now wants to do the same thing to its dealerships. That's evidenced by a first-of-its-kind store here just outside Salt Lake City.

Bountiful Mazda is the nation's first dealership off Mazda's “Retail Revolution” designs of how a modern Mazda store should look. Twenty more facilities like it are in the works, says Jim Hoostal, MNAO's director of dealer development. He's hesitant to say how many in all will be built in Mazda's 700-store dealership network.

The design features a clean building-block “industrial” look with bright green, orange and blue accents inside and out. The interior is open and airy. That's intended to convey a feeling of trust and “full disclosure,” says Hoostal.

Wireless technology and computer terminals throughout the sales floor let shoppers, with or without sales personnel, interactively configure cars, review vehicle specifications and click on product and pricing comparisons.

“About 70% of Mazda shoppers do research on line before entering the dealership,” says Hoostal. “We don't want that Internet element to end there. We want a seamless website-to-store experience.”

A committee of dealers, Mazda executives and information technology staffers worked two years on the plans for the new dealership design.

“We asked, ‘If cars are so fun, why can't the buying experience be?’” says MNAO President and CEO Charlie Hughes. “So many of our customers are on line, yet there was a disconnect when they got to the dealership. A dealership like this addresses that. It's high tech and high touch. It's a neat, warm place to buy a car.”

Hughes attended the Jan. 23 grand opening of the store owned by Michael MacDonald. He's in the third of four generations of dealers. They date to his grandfather, Gordon Wilson, who owned Trumbull Chevrolet across from the old Tiger Stadium in Detroit. Both closed in the 1980s; the stadium abandoned for a new one, the dealership a victim of what became a poor location in a rundown area.

MacDonald moved from Detroit to Utah in 1978, fell in love with the place and worked for and with notable mega-dealers such as the late Ken Garff and Jerry Steiner, another Michigan native who found dealership success in the Salt Lake City area.

MacDonald ran an original Mazda store from 1993-98. But that was closed and the franchise melded into a Lincoln Mercury dealership when Ford Motor Co. launched its ill-fated “Ford Collection” in metropolitan Salt Lake City and elsewhere.

When Ford aborted that mission in 2001, MacDonald — who worked for the 13-store Collection in Salt Lake City as vice president of fixed operations — got his Mazda franchise back. He proceeded to build the new store two doors down from his original Mazda dealership (now a tire store).

MacDonald runs the brand-new Bountiful Mazda with his wife, Louise. She's the daughter of a dealer and a veteran dealership comptroller in her own right. Son Michael Jr. works in Bountiful's sales department. Michael Sr.'s brother Paul, a former Kansas dealer, is a partner.

The new 19,000-sq.-ft. store cost $2.3 million and employs about 32 staffers. During construction, the MacDonalds ran a makeshift car lot on the site, operating from two trailers.

Says Louise MacDonald, “A year ago we held our first employee meeting in one of the trailers, and the wind was blowing and it was dark and snowy.

“Despite that, we tried to share our vision with our employees. As the weeks and months went by, we watched an empty lot transformed into this beautiful state-of-the-art facility.”

Bountiful Mazda was selling about 40 new and as many used vehicles a month. MacDonald expects the new store will increase those numbers by close to 50%.

“We're thrilled to be the first Mazda facility in the country to be designed from the outset to deliver Mazda's vision of the future buying experience,” he says.

An important part of Mazda's new “Retail Revolution” occurs off the dealership site. It's a new approach to the traditional customer test drive.

Rather than three or four right turns and then back to the dealership, Mazda wants test drives to feature carefully selected routes, traffic patterns and road conditions that best show vehicle capabilities.

Customized routes will be specific to each dealership location. Sales persons are well versed on what to say and do on each leg of the drive.

“The Retail Revolution is not just about the facility. A huge part of it is the process,” says Greg Silvestri, MNAO's director-dealer affairs.

MacDonald says Mazda customers in the Salt Lake City area are young, educated and Internet savvy. “That fits Mazda's demographics perfectly,” he says.

Mazda has been juicing up its lineup with fresh offerings such as the Mazda6 sedan and the upcoming RX-8 sports cars due in June.

“In the 1990s, some people said Mazda lost its way by trying to be too mainstream,” says Hughes. “We stepped back and said we should be what we were: stylish, sporty, fun and a good value. That's what we want to return to.”

Some municipalities are notorious for giving a hard time to dealers' building plans. But MacDonald says the City of Bountiful was so cooperative it even sold him two parcels for the assemblage of his dealership site and allowed him to stow auto parts in an old city skating rink during construction of the new store.

“Bountiful is pro-business and we got a lot of cooperation from them,” says McDonald. “We'll also be paying them a lot more in taxes because of the new dealership.”

Bountiful City Manager Tom Hardy says, “When Mike told me he had a vision, I wondered. But he did what he said he'd do. We love successful business people.”