In what was supposed to be the "year of the car," Ford (NYSE:F) has gotten off to a rough start. Overall, U.S. sales were up 3% in March on the strength of the F-Series truck, but sales of Ford's passenger cars fell 7% from last year. Don't be completely discouraged: Ford's real bright spot isn't even included in those numbers.

North American sales for Mazda, which is 33%-owned by Ford, climbed an impressive 36.6%. Although truck sales declined, a sporty new lineup and strong marketing helped drive Ford's second-best selling brand to its sixth consecutive month of double-digit sales growth.

The flagship Mazda 6 sedan led the way with a 60% jump in vehicle sales, while the new sport compact Mazda 3 improved on last March's sales of the discontinued Protege by 23.6%. Sales of the Miata roadster, meanwhile, climbed 33.3%, while the brand new RX-8 -- a four-door sports car powered by Mazda's unique rotary engine -- chipped in with sales of 2,373 cars.

With its wide range of sporty cars, Japan's fifth-largest auto maker is making a push. Mazda is still smaller than Toyota (NYSE:TM), Nissan (NASDAQ:NSANY), and Honda (NYSE:HMC), but it's inching closer with some strong offerings and impressive marketing. The familiar "Zoom-Zoom" slogan is echoed in Mazdaspeed, an in-house, performance-tuning department that caters to enthusiasts with high-performance versions of the Mazda 6, the Miata, and the RX-8.

On Disney's (NYSE:DIS) ESPN, the winner of Dream Job drove off in a brand new Mazda 3. A Fear Factor winner on General Electric's (NYSE:GE) NBC took home an RX-8. There's also Mazda Rev It Up 2004, a 15-city cross-country tour where anybody can sign up and race a Mazda 3 in a time trial, while getting a showcase of Mazda's cars and Mazdaspeed performance parts. That's solid product placement.

Ford's second-best selling brand, Mazda is unique in that its Miata and rotary-powered vehicles (most recently the RX-7 and the RX-8) sport devoted followings. Through Mazda, Ford is again becoming a force among people who like to drive. Zoom zoom.

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Fool contributor Jeff Hwang doesn't own any of the companies mentioned in this story, but he does own a Mazda RX-8.