The Truth About Cars » Mazda The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Thu, 17 Apr 2014 14:00:20 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Mazda Japanese Automakers Find New Export Base, Opportunity In Mexico Tue, 11 Mar 2014 14:45:26 +0000 Mazda3s Loading Onto Three-Tiered Train Car

Within four months of each other, Honda, Mazda and Nissan have opened new factories in Mexico, taking advantage of the opportunities within the nation’s automotive industry to grow a new export base into the United States, Latin America and Europe while also gaining ground in the rapidly expanding local market, all in direct challenge to the Detroit Three and other automakers on both sides of the border.

Automotive News reports Mexico will become the No. 1 exporting nation to the U.S. by 2015 at the earliest in large part due to the 605,000 units per year added by the three Japanese automakers. Meanwhile, Toyota will begin production in 2015 at Mazda’s newly opened Salamanca plant prior to deciding whether or not to build a new factory of their own. Nissan’s premium brand, Infiniti, may also set-up shop in Mexico.

In turn, the Japanese will see benefits from the move, from mitigating losses from a weaker yen in exports from home and greater profit due to cheap labor, to no tariffs on exports to the U.S. due to the North American Free Trade Agreement and improved product availability resulting from shorter distances between markets.

Speaking of free-trade agreements, Japanese automakers will also have access to some 44 countries and up to 40 million sales annually as a result of Mexico’s many agreements, allowing them to take on competitors in Latin America and Europe.

Finally, the Japanese have taken market share away from the Detroit Three in Mexico’s own automotive market, holding a collective 42 percent over Detroit’s 35 percent in 2013, when just four years earlier Detroit dominated with 57 percent of the market over Japan’s 23 percent.

]]> 26
Toyota To Receive SkyActiv Engines For Upcoming Subcompact Fri, 07 Mar 2014 15:33:51 +0000 Mazda3 SKYACTIV engine, photo courtesy Michael Karesh

Toyota’s line of engine/body mashups continues, this time with their upcoming Mazda2-based subcompact powered by Mazda’s SkyActiv engine family.

Automotive News reports the subcompact, set to replace the current Yaris by 2016 at the latest, will be assembled alongside the new Mazda2 at Mazda’s newly opened Salamanca, Mexico factory. Approximately 50,000 of the factory’s total annual output of 230,000 units will be allocated to Toyota for the subcompact, with the SkyActiv transplant assembled on-site.

Though few details regarding either subcompact have been released, Mazda’s partnership with Toyota will allow the former to achieve greater economies of scale for the factory by supplying engines and possibly other SkyActiv-related components to Toyota.

Production for Toyota’s subcompact is set to begin next year, while Mazda2 production may begin as soon as the second half of 2014.

]]> 82
Fiat, Abarth Likely To Receive Mazda-Based Roadster Over Alfa Tue, 04 Mar 2014 19:19:50 +0000 2011_Mazda_MX-5_PRHT_--_04-28-2011

Long rumored to wear the Alfa Romeo badge, the next-generation Mazda MX-5 may instead don a Fiat or Abarth necklace in 2015 if Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne has the last word.

Automotive News reports sources close to the project stated product planners from Mazda and Fiat met recently to discuss a roadster based upon the MX-5. Fiat’s planners are looking for a way to maintain the supply partnership deal with the Japanese automaker, lest the break-up leave Fiat in the red through 2016, when they hope to return to the black in their native Europe.

As for why, Marchionne has proclaimed that no Alfa will be made outside of Italy so long as he is CEO, a statement reinforced as recently as the 2014 Detroit Auto Show; Marchionne plans to head FCA until 2017 at the earliest.

The so-called heir to the throne abdicated by the Fiat Duetto Spider made famous by the film “The Graduate,” the Italo-Japanese roadster may find a home with Fiat or Abarth, too underpowered be paired with Ferrari or Maserati, while Lancia retreats into its home market as a one-model brand by the end of 2014.

]]> 35
Yamanouchi: Mazda’s Mexico Factory Key To Global Strategy Fri, 28 Feb 2014 16:15:21 +0000 Takashi Yamanouchi

Mazda Chairman Takashi Yamanouchi opened his company’s sole North American factory in Salamanca, Mexico, proclaiming the new factory the key to a global strategy “upon which the very future of [the] company hinges.”

Automotive News reports the strategy with the factory — Mazda’s Structural Reform Plan — follows a three-pronged approach: a hedge against currency exchange disruptions, provide Mazda with a low-cost manufacturing base, and give the automaker access to new markets. The factory’s location allows the automaker to gain more profit for the Mazda3s destined for the United States, than those exported from Japan, while also providing an export base to Europe and access to new markets in Latin America. In turn, Mazda’s new access through Mexico’s free trade pacts provides to markers worth a combined 35 million to 40 million vehicle sales annually.

Though the yen is weakening against the dollar at the moment, Yamanouchi said the factory will act as a hedge against unpredictable currency fluctuations that could bring down profits for his company at any time:

When the yen becomes stronger, we have the Mexican plant, therefore we will never again go into the lost position. But when the yen gets weaker, we will further cost reduce the Mexican plants so it will contribute to our total profitability. Our philosophy is that we will strike the balance of business so that we won’t go into the very difficult times of the past that we have experienced. Never.

The factory is expected to employ 4,600 workers once at full capacity of 230,000 units/annually. Currently, 3,000 employees assemble Mazda3s for the North American market, which will be joined by the Mazda2 and a Mazda2-based vehicle for Toyota. An engine machining plant will also set up shop in the factory by October 2014.

]]> 41
A Bi-polar Review of the 2014 Mazda 6 GT Thu, 27 Feb 2014 17:03:31 +0000 2014 Mazda 6 GT SkyActiv

I’ve been driving the 2014 Mazda 6 GT w/ Mazda’s SkyActive Technology Package for about a week now. It’s a stunner, looking for all the world like the kind of sports sedan Aston Martin would build if it had any stones. On top of that, the car has some seriously trick fuel-savings features and, I must admit, handles brilliantly (even on my tester’s Blizzak winter tires). For each of the Mazda’s highs, however, there is a low, and I will do my very best to remain objective as I share these, leaving you, dear reader, to decide whether the highs outweigh the lows.

Get comfy, then. We’re about to get weird.

2014 Mazda 6 GT: Highs and Lows

The 2014 Mazda 6 GT is a study in compromises. As I alluded to above, the Mazda is the best car I’ve tested in some ways. In other ways, it’s the very worst. Let’s start, then, on a high note: the Mazda’s muscle-car styling.

The 2014 Mazda 6 is, simply, one of the best-looking cars ever built. That may sound like it’s one of those “opinion” things, but it’s not. It’s a fact, and anyone with even the slightest hint of soul will see it immediately. The 2014 Mazda 6 GT combines the same sort of long hood/short deck sort of rear-drive proportions that made the original Mustang a classic, and combines those with a sexy, flowing curviness that is both subtly European and very, very Japanese in the best possible sense of the word.

There is only 1 (one) thing wrong with the Mazda’s look: it’s fake.

Granted, being 1 step away from perfection seems pretty good on paper, but the fact that the car draws you in with a long-hooded Muscle-car vibe then sticks you with the same basic mechanical front drive layout as a minivan is, at best, disappointing.

Let’s move on to the next “good” thing, then, shall we?

My 2014 Mazda 6 tester was equipped with the company’s highly lauded SkyActiv Technology Package. That includes Mazda’s i-ELOOP energy recovery system, active grille shutters, and radar-assisted cruise control, along with a few other goodies. The system is supposed to give back 28 city and 40 highway MPG and do all kinds of cool things like maintain a distance from the car in front of you, matching speed, accelerating back to your set speed once the “blocking” car moves, etc. It works amazingly well, and is almost totally invisible. It works so well, in fact, that I would almost suggest Mazda’s Technology Package be held out as the “gold standard” by which automotive electronics are measured by.

Almost, that is, because as well as the Mazda 6′s Technology Package worked, I didn’t get anywhere near 40 MPG. On several drives, even re-tracing the same route that gave back 51 MPG in the Toyota Corolla I tested earlier this month, I never saw more than 29.5 MPG, according to the car’s computer.

Mazda 6 MPG

Worse than the fuel economy letdown, however, was the Mazda’s infotainment system. It is, without question, the worst part of this, or any other car I have ever driven. Keep in mind, that list includes a Renault 5 (LeCar) that required me to, more than once, spray the fusebox with a fire extinguisher while driving.

What, exactly, made the infotainment system in the 2014 Mazda 6 so infuriating? It’s hard to explain, I think, but I’ll give it a try. Take a look at the photos of the system in in play, below, then read on as I explain the issues I had.

Mazda6_radio4-620x350 Mazda6_radio2-620x350 Mazda6_radio3-620x350 Mazda6_radio1-620x350

I was listening to the radio on a drive from my home in Oak Park to see a man about a guitar out in Plano, and wanted to change the station. Not wanting to take my hands off the wheel or my eyes off the road, I pressed the button on the left of the steering wheel that looks like it would have a “seek” function. Rather than going to the next station, it went to the next pre-set station.

“OK,” I thought. “That’s not what I expected, but it’s not the end of the world.

Next, I tried the BMW iDrive-syle knobule in the center console- and that’s when things really went sideways between me and the Mazda. Literally not a single input produced a sensible response. Turning the knob, pushing it left or right, pressing down on it, all seemed to have different functions depending on what screen I was in. In Nav mode, for example, I turned the knob thinking that it would take me back to audio or, at least, allow me to select a Navigation menu.

No dice.

Instead, turning the knob on the center console in the Mazda’s Nav screen zoomed in and out. Quickly. Distressingly quickly, in fact, going from “this is what is in your pores” close to “see what Lake Michigan looks like from deep space” far in seconds.

I’m sure I would, eventually, figure out the radio’s controls- but after nearly two decades of driving all manner of different cars, I’d like to think I’m pretty good at figuring out how an infotainment system works. In the 2014 Mazda 6, however, I was no closer to intuiting any of its supposed “features”, even after a week of trying. On the bright side, however, the Mazda’s sound system delivered fantastic sound quality- a fact I discovered after giving up entirely on the radio and playing songs through my phone’s BT connection. It was crisp, clear, and had decent bass.

So, where does that leave the Mazda 6?


2014 Mazda 6 GT: the Verdict

I couldn’t decide how I felt about the thing. In fact, the 2014 Mazda 6 GT seemed a little like a woman I used to date years ago- which is to say “beautiful, but incredibly frustrating”. Like the car, I used to love looking at her. She was an excellent playmate, too, but I couldn’t really figure her out and never managed to convince her to do anything productive with herself. In my twenties, that seemed OK- in my thirties?

Utterly stymied by the Mazda and unable to decide what I thought of it, I turned to the wife. While highly educated and extremely intelligent, the wife has almost no knowledge of car culture. She was, then, totally unaware of the fact that, as an automotive journalist, I am “supposed to” love the 2014 Mazda 6 GT. I asked her about the car, and she had generally positive things to say. Good-looking, roomy, yadda-yadda. It was when I asked her what she thought a car like the 2014 Mazda 6 GT might cost that she dropped a bomb on me: “I think more than the Corolla,” she said, referring to my last tester. “So, I dunno, $18,000 or $18,500.”


My wife is pretty good at guessing prices. She was within 10% of the sticker of both the Toyota Avalon and Lexus CT200h we tested, and nailed the Chevy Sonic with such precision that I’m convinced she peeked at the sticker while I wasn’t looking. Still, the price she put on the 2014 Mazda 6 was nearly $15K shy of the car’s $32,845 sticker.

So, where does that leave the 2014 Mazda 6 GT? I think it leaves it exactly where I have it, which is to say in a weird sort of “Why is this a thing?” limbo that it will never, ever escape- at least, not without some kind of massive infotainment overhaul, all-wheel drive, or a 35% price cut. There is, however, an alternative. A product that gives you all of the benefits of the 2014 Mazda 6 GT’s sexy curves, brilliant handling, and 40-ish (claimed) MPG fuel economy while getting fairly close to the car’s $18,000 “feels like” price.

That alternative? The 37 MPG 2014 Mazda 6 Sport with manual transmission, which stickers at just $20,990.

If you stick to your guns, drive a hard bargain, and show up at your nearest Mazda dealer an hour before closing time on the last day of the month, you’ll get to drive home the best looking $18,000 car cash money can buy.


Mazda6_1 Mazda6_2 Mazda6_3 Mazda6_4 Mazda6_5 Mazda6_6

Originally published on Gas 2.

]]> 267
Mazda CX-5 Closes In On 100,000 Sold Wed, 19 Feb 2014 16:15:20 +0000 2013 Mazda CX-5. Picture courtesy

Mazda moved nearly 80,000 CX-5s from the lot to the highway in 2013. If the automaker has its way this year, the C segment crossover may break 100,000 units sold.

WardsAuto reports Mazda North American Operations CEO Jim O’Sullivan his employer can hit the 100,000-mark again with the CX-5, placing the crossover alongside the Mazda3 within the company, and the Toyota RAV4, Nissan Rogue, Ford Escape and Honda CR-V in the overall C segment crossover record books.

Factors cited by O’Sullivan in his hopes for the CX-5 include a recovering United States auto industry, brand awareness among U.S. consumers, reduced fleet volume, a new plant in Mexico that will build the Mazda3 while allowing more capacity in Japan to be used for CX-5 assembly, and a growing enthusiasm for the C segment and small crossovers:

We’re seeing really good, organic growth from our current-generation Mazda3 customers that have bought maybe (the old compact) Protege, then Mazda3, (and) now (are) moving into crossovers and the CX-5.

Speaking of crossovers, O’Sullivan says Mazda is looking at entering the B segment with a subcompact crossover slotted under the CX-5. The so-called CX-3, expected to be based upon the Mazda2, would see production in Mexico beginning July 2015.

Finally, the CX-9 will undergo a new redesign for 2016, and will make use of the automaker’s SkyActiv brand of fuel efficiency technology upon introduction late next year.

]]> 48
Hyundai, Mazda Eyeing Small Crossover Market Tue, 18 Feb 2014 14:30:14 +0000 2011_Mazda2_Touring_--_11-30-2010_2.jpg

The growing small crossover segment, featuring the likes of the Nissan Juke, Buick Encore, Honda Vezel and Kia Soul, may soon find two new players in the game as both Hyundai and Mazda have their eyes on the prize.

Automotive News Europe and Automotive News report the two automakers are planning to release subcompact CUVs of their own down the road, with Mazda tying theirs to the newly redesigned Mazda2 due out later this year. The crossover would slot underneath the current CX-5 in Mazda’s home market, and would be priced between 1.5 million and 2 million yen ($15,000 – $20,000 USD).

Mazda also aims to bring the mid-size CX-9 to Japan as soon as 2015 following its next redesign; both new models would expand the automaker’s crossover lineup to three vehicles in their home market.

Meanwhile, Hyundai’s subcompact crossover is in the study phase according to Hyundai Motor America CEO Dave Zuchowski:

We’re always looking at segments that we’re not in right now that maybe we should be based on where the market’s going. We’re very intrigued by this B-segment CUV.

Zuchowski also announced that his employer may also bring a smaller luxury sports sedan within a couple of years, which would form a trinity with the Equus and Genesis sedans.

]]> 43
Birthwhistle: Mazda’s SkyActiv Program Influences RWD Design In FWD Vehicles Sun, 16 Feb 2014 19:15:19 +0000 2014 Mazda Mazda6 Exterior

As other manufacturers downsize their offerings to meet ever-increasing fuel economy milestones, Mazda’s SkyActiv program utilizes engine geometry to hit those marks, resulting in the automaker’s current offerings looking rear-wheel drive while feeling front-wheel drive.

In an interview with Automotive News Europe, Mazda Europe design boss Peter Birthwhistle explained that since the automaker’s SkyActiv technology allows for engine size to remain larger than the competition, the layout of the exhaust system results in the passenger cell being pushed back to accommodate a “sloped angle” where the pipes exit from the engine. In turn, the overall look is that of the traditional long hood/short deck RWD layout in spite of the power going toward the front.

Turning toward alternative power, Birthwhistle mentioned a few offerings in the works, including a hybrid variant of the 3, a rotary-powered range extender that may see use in a future plug-in hybrid, and a move into electric vehicles. That said, the designer sees a lot of continuing potential with the internal combustion engine:

There’s still a lot of potential in conventional engines. They remain very inefficient in terms of things like heat loss. Get that sorted out and there’s amazing potential in gasoline engines in terms of fuel economy.

Looking further into the future, Birthwhistle also believed that by 2100, most cars will be automated personal pods, with small cars made for weekend warriors to use on track days.

]]> 92
EPA Declares Mazda As Most Fuel Efficient Automaker Wed, 18 Dec 2013 10:30:16 +0000 2014 Mazda Mazda6 Exterior

Though Toyota and Nissan may be leading the charge to a hybrid plug-in future, it’s Mazda who, once again, leads the Environmental Protection Agency’s fuel economy list for the 2013 model year with an average of 27.5 mpg.

Not only does Mazda maintain its green crown in fuel economy — in part due to its SKYACTIV diesel and gasoline engines, which the automaker expects 80 percent of their 1.7 million units sold worldwide in 2016 to possess — but also has the lowest fleetwide composite carbon dioxide emissions for the outgoing model year with 324 grams per mile. Honda and Toyota make up the rest of the podium with 27 and 25.2 mpg, respectively, though Toyota’s CO2 emissions are 23 grams per mile higher than Honda’s 329 g/mi rating.

The Germans enter the list at No. 4 with VW netting an average of 26.2 mpg, while the Americans arrive with Ford at the No.8 position, rating just 22.6 mpg. Overall, the industry earned an average of 24 mpg and 370 g/mi. Kia and Hyundai were not included in this year’s EPA rankings.

]]> 35
Mazda Test Drive Ends in Crash Due to Automatic Brake Failure Tue, 12 Nov 2013 07:58:59 +0000 2013 Mazda CX-5. Picture courtesy

When the year 2025 comes around, and your sons and daughters purchase their autonomous commuter pod sans steering wheel, you may want to check the automatic brakes just to be sure they’re able to stop your children from smashing through the commuter pod in front of them, much like what happened to one customer during a test drive at a Mazda dealership in Japan over the weekend.

A customer and a dealership employee were putting a CX-5 equipped with the Smart City Brake Support through its paces when said braking system crashed through a urethane testing barrier, resulting in a severe neck injury for the hapless test driver, and a fractured arm for the employee. Normally, the braking system would have sounded an alert while applying the brakes and curbing engine power were the driver to approach a detected obstacle, all through automation.

The Smart City Brake Support was introduced in the automaker’s home market as an option for the crossover in 2012, only to become standard last month on all CX-5s in Japan for the 2014 model year.

]]> 33
First Drive Review: 2014 Mazda3 (With Video) Sat, 19 Oct 2013 16:17:22 +0000 2014 Mazda3 Sedan Exterior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

The mainstream compact car segment is the perfect example of the infamous “driving appliance.” The Corolla and Civic sell in enormous volume because they are the middle-of-the-road “white bread” option, not in-spite of the vanilla. Unlike many in the automotive press, I don’t find anything wrong with that. In fact, I love me some Wonder Bread. But sometimes you feel like a pumpernickel, and that’s where the 2014 Mazda3 comes in. Mazda was so excited about their new loaf that they invited me to spend the day with them in San Diego. Want to know if you should spend 5+ years with one? Click through the jump.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Accounting for 30% of Mazda’s worldwide volume, calling the Mazda3 their most important product would be putting things lightly. As a result 2014 brings a complete overhaul to every aspect of the 3 and the compact sedan now rides on a platform derived from the larger 6. The “Kodo” design language of the larger sedan has also been brought down to its smaller stablemate to astonishing effect. While the old Mazda3 was all smiles and bubbles, the new 3 is all grown up and aggressive with Mazda’s incredibly attractive grille. Before the 3′s release I was quite torn about who was the fairest of them all but now there is no contest.

2014 Mazda3 Sedan Exterior headlamps, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

The 2014 dimensions play a huge role in the way the 3 looks on the road. Mazda moved the A-pillar 3.5 inches to the rear making the hood longer, lengthened the wheelbase by 2.5 inches, dropped the height by 6/10ths and made the whole car 1.6 inches wider. So far so good, but somehow Mazda managed to slash the front overhang and increase the wheel-to-front-door distance to an almost RWD like proportion. That would probably have been enough in a segment dominated by slab sides, but Mazda puts two distinctive character lines to separate the 3 from the pack. Out back we have tail lamps that mimic the front styling and your choice of a hatch or a trunk. Opting for the hatch gives the Mazda3 a side profile reminiscent of BMW’s X1, not a bad thing to be reminded of.

The problem with pumpernickel is that people’s tastes are different. The same thing can be said of the new interior. Rather than scaling down the Mazda6′s dashboard, the engineers went for something slimmer without a “double bump” for the infotainment screen. Taking a page out of BMW’s playbook, Mazda sets the 7-inch touchscreen inside a thin housing perched on the dashboard. Think of an iPad mounted to the dash. The look turned off some but I find the style appealing because it maintains a high screen position while reducing dashboard bulk. Mazda’s new “fighter jet inspired” heads up display is similarly perched on the dash, however, instead of being fixed, it folds itself flat when you turn the feature off. The display is as functional as any other heads-up display I’ve seen but the pop-up trick stuck me as being more gimmick than feature. Mazda tells us the reason for not projecting on the windshield which makes sense if you check out how much HUD compatible windshields go for.

2014 Mazda3 5D interior, Picture Courtesy of Mazda

Mazda says they benchmarked the BMW 3-Series interior which, given that BMW’s 3 went downmarket in some ways makes the comparison valid in  a way that it would have been laughable in 2006. Except for a segment average headliner, the plastics and materials choices in the cabin are all top of the class. (A logical finding since it is the newest as well.) Seat comfort proved excellent with well positioned controls and more side bolstering than you would find in the competition’s non-performance models. Rear seat room was a problem for the last generation Mazda3 and, despite the stretch, this continues to be an area where it lags the competition. For the biggest back seats and the largest trunk, look to the Corolla. Toyota’s 2014 offering has more leg room than the mid-sized Mazda6.

Despite a long list of optional features and gadgets, real leather seating surfaces happen only in the sGrand Touring model with mid-range models sporting faux-cow and lower end 3s wearing fabric.  Some comment has been made in the press about the 3′s 1990s era headliner, but it failed to offend me and here’s why: This segment is all about value and value is about cutting corners. Want snazzy dash plastics and metal trim bits-and-bobs? That headliner is the toll you have to pay and it’s one I’m OK with.

MY2014 Mazda 3
Infotainment and gadgets
If you recall my review of the Mazda 6 a few months ago, you’ll know I reserved my harshest criticism for the infotainment and navigation system. Forget everything I said because Mazda has taken customer feedback to heart. The Mazda3 is the first vehicle to receive MazdaConnect. The system combines a bright 7-inch touchscreen with an iDrive/MMI-like controller knob and button array in the center console. Similar to Infiniti’s systems, you can navigate with either the controller, or the touchscreen, or both depending on what is easier at the moment.

The system is as intuitive and snappy as the Mazda6′s is slow and painful. High resolution graphics, a completely redesigned interface and vastly improved voice commands join to create a system that rivals uConnect, iDrive and MyFord Touch for best in the industry. In that comparison the only things MazdaConnect lacks is smartphone app integration and some form of crash-notifying telematics system. If you want to dive into the details, check out the video.

MY2014 Mazda 3

The minimum point of entry for Mazda Connect is $23,340 because you cab only get it in the iTouring model with a $1,600 option package. Ouch. All models that directly compete with the white-loaf get something that looks like a clock radio molded into the dashboard (see the picture above). The logic was to keep the controls high and in the line of sight for the driver to reduce distraction and it does work as intended even though it looks a little odd. If you’re a high roller Mazda offers a high level of tech for this segment with everything from blind spot monitoring and backup cams available to surround sound, radar cruise control, collision prevention systems that will stop the car below 19 MPH (just like Volvo’s City Safety system), parking sensors and automatic high beams.

2014 also brings Mazda’s new “it’s-so-mild-that’s-not-called-a-mild-hybrid” system to the 3. i-Eloop’s is a mild energy recovery system that uses a large capacitor, variable voltage alternator and a DC-DC converter to recover energy when decelerating. The goal of the system is to limit the parasitic loss of the alternator by charging the capacity when you’re braking so that the car can disengage the alternator and use that power while accelerating or cruising. The system can’t help drive the car, which is why Mazda doesn’t call it a hybrid system, but the claim is that it can give you around one extra MPG in certain city driving cycles. Why so little? Because the alternator consumes less engine power than your air conditioning. The system is only available as part of a technology package and only on the top-end sGrand Touring model.

2014 Mazda3 Drivetrain

Late in life, the old Mazda3 received a partial SkyActiv drivetrain. The reason it didn’t get fully implemented is obvious when you look at the Medusa below. That bundle of snakes is the Mazda “4-2-1″ exhaust manifold which is designed to prevent the start of cylinder 3′s exhaust stroke from interfering with the end of cylinder 1′s exhaust stroke. The convoluted pipes are there so that the catalytic converter, which is no longer “closely coupled” as is all the rage, heats quickly and less heat is lost on the way to the cat. This enormous contraption simply wouldn’t fit in the old 3 because of the shape of the engine bay and the firewall. To make the 4-2-1 manifold fit in the 2014 Mazda3, it was necessary to form an enormous bulge into the car’s firewall and chassis design, something only possible in a complete redesign process.

2014 Mazda3 exhaust manifold

With the final piece of the SkyActiv puzzle in place, Mazda cranked up the compression ratio on their new 2.0 and 2.5L engines to 13:1. Why not the 14:1 that Mazda advertises in Europe? Because in the USA all engines must operate “safely” on regular 87 octane gasoline by law. The boffins tell us that this results in a 5% loss of efficiency vs the higher compression EU engines that will grenade themselves on lower octane fuel.

The base engine for 2014 is a 2.0L 155 horse four-cylinder that’s good for 150 lb-ft of twist and 30/41/34 MPG (City/Highway/Combined) with the 6-speed automatic. If you have the cash you can upgrade to the 2.5L engine (shared with the CX-5 and Mazda6) which bumps these numbers up to 184 horses and 185 lb-ft while dropping fuel economy to 28/39/32.

The 2.0L engine comes standard with a slick shifting 6-speed transmission that is one of the best manuals in the ever shrinking compact segment. Engagement is precise, throws are moderate and the clutch engagement is linear and well-balanced in relation to the motion of the other two pedals. Sadly this transmission can’t be had with the more powerful 2.5L engine. Don’t shoot the messenger. Most Mazda3s rolling off the lot will use Mazda’s 6-speed automatic transaxle which chases efficiency and a direct feel by engaging the torque converter lockup clutch in every gear, as soon as possible, and as long as possible. While Mazda tells us this is unique to the compact segment, ZF’s 8-speed RWD transmission plays the same trick in the name of efficiency. Manual lovers and speed freaks should know that Mazda is cagey about a MazdaSpeed3 only saying that there would not be one “at launch.” Read between the lines if you like.

2014 Mazda3 Sedan Exterior-004


Being the mechanical geek that I am, one more thing caught my interest: the caster angle. That’s the angle that the steering mechanism acts upon the front wheel. Think of this like a clock with vertical being right at 12:00. Most cars out there have a slight caster angle of maybe 12:03 while the 2014 Mazda3 winds it up to 12:06. Why does it matter? Because we have electric power steering (EPAS). EPAS is the modern equalizer and has made all steering dull and lifeless. By dialing up the caster, you dial up the forces that come back up the steering column from the tires. This means that by the time EPAS dulls everything down there’s the hint of something left. I’d like to say it turns the Mazda3 into a Mazda Miata but I’d be lying. Instead what you get is a hint of feedback in corners and a tiny touch of road feel at other times. Because we’ve been living in a feedback-desert, the taste has overly excited some. No it isn’t your 2007 Mazdaspeed3, but it is livelier than the Focus or Civic.

Zoom-Zoom is more about handling than 0-60 times, made obvious by our 7.6 second run to 60 in a hatchback with the 2.5L engine. If you want more speed in the “non-hot hatch segment”, wait for Kia’s turbo Forte  I didn’t get a chance to test the 2.0L model during the event but my “butt-dyno” tells me it should be about 2 seconds slower and right in line with the competition. It’s when the road starts to curve that the difference is obvious. This 3 can dance. The Mazda is quite simply the best handling and best feeling compact car in stock form. Yes, the Civic Si is a hair more fun but it’s not a main stream car, doesn’t have an automatic and still doesn’t feel as connected as the Mazda. With road manners like these, I’m looking forward to a Mazdaspeed3 vs Focus ST shootout, I suspect the 3 might dethrone Ford’s hot hatch.

2014 Mazda3 Sedan Exterior-009

What about daily driving? It’s all well and good to be the best handling compact, but in order to be a sales success you have to be able to sway some white bread buyers. Sound levels at 50MPH rang in a 73db, below the Corolla but above the Civic. No worries there. The sedan’s ride is on the stiffer side of the segment but quite similar to the Focus, that might be a problem for the average Corolla shopper. The big selling point for most cross-shoppers will be the fuel economy. The sedan with the 2.0L engine and automatic is the volume model and snags 30/41/34 MPG (City/Highway/Combined). That’s one MPG better than Sentra, two better than Civic or Corolla and three better than Focus.  While that doesn’t translate into much cash saved on an annual basis, it is one of the largest purchase factors shoppers site in this segment. I should mention however that the last time we had the Sentra it scored better than it’s EPA rating while the Mazda3 was fairly close to the EPA score. My big take away from this is that Mazda managed to beat the CVT equipped competition’s fuel economy with a more traditional feeling automatic. White bread buyers won’t care about the feel, but the numbers might cause them to take a second look.

With pricing that ranges from $16,945 (sedan) to a hair under $30,000 (loaded hatch) if you check all the option boxes on a Mazda3 hatch, it’s obvious the Mazda spans the price spectrum from white bread in a bag to a paper-wrapped organic artisan cheesy sourdough. Like the Ford Focus, this large price span means the $19,495 iSport and $20,645 iTouring compete with the bulk of Corolla/Civic shoppers while the upper level trims compete with the Ford Focus, Acura ILX, Lexus CT200h, Buick Verano, and the few that shopped Volvo’s defunct C30.

Compared to the Civic and Corolla, the Mazda3 delivers superior dynamics and more premium dash materials in exchange for less tech and no touchscreen infotainment. This is a dangerous trade in a segment known for placing features before fun. On the flip side, the Mazda3 has everything it needs to compete with the Focus, ILX, Verano and CT200h. Mazda’s chassis tuning makes the Mazda the most fun to drive (even considering the ILX 2.4′s Civic Si roots), the infotainment system is entry-level luxury worthy and 2014 brings all full-speed range radar cruise control and ever gadget the Buick and Lexus shopper could want. So is the Mazda3 the perfect pumpernickel for Wonder Bread prices? As good as. Civirolla shoppers who can be convinced to cross-shop will be pleased with Mazda’s sexy exterior, comfortable seats and road manners, but those after large seats and large trunks will return to the white bread alternative. I suspect the near luxury shoppers are the ones that will miss out the most however thinking that nothing this tasty could come in a package with a Mazda logo on it. Their loss.

Mazda flew me to San Diego, put me up in a hotel and fed me stuffed mushrooms.

Specifications as tested

0-30: 4 Seconds

0-60: 7.6 Seconds

Interior sound level at 50 MPH: 73 db


2014 Mazda3 Sedan Exterior-007 2014 Mazda3 Sedan Exterior headlamps, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Mazda3 Sedan Exterior-009 2014 Mazda3 Sedan Exterior 2014 Mazda3 Sedan Exterior-010 2014 Mazda3 Sedan Exterior-001 MY2014 Mazda 3 2014 Mazda3 Sedan Exterior-002 2014 Mazda3 Sedan Exterior-003 2014 Mazda3 5D interior, Picture Courtesy of Mazda MY2014 Mazda 3 2014 Mazda3 Sedan Exterior-004 2014 Mazda3 Sedan Exterior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes MY2014 Mazda 3 2014 Mazda3 Sedan Exterior-006 ]]> 190
Toyota Recalls 870,000 Units Due To Arachnophobia Sat, 19 Oct 2013 16:07:23 +0000 2012 Toyota Camry

One blah Monday morning, you’re commuting to the anonymous office park some 90 minutes away from the bedroom community you call a home in your equally anonymous Toyota Camry Hybrid, listening to yet another story about Congress kicking cans down roads and/or some wacky antics your favorite DJs had the past weekend while you take another swig of that mermaid-branded caffeinated goodness.


You’re not ready to deal with the myriad of reports you have to work on when you arrive at the office, and you’re certainly not ready for your colleague to rant about how his fantasy football team lost because one of his players sustained a career-ending injury on the first snap, but at least the piling traffic ahead of you seems to be delaying the inevitable, much to your mix of relief and chagrin.

Tired of being stuck behind the Dunkin’ Donuts truck (reminding you that you really need to hit the gym someday), you edge over to the (not really) faster moving lane on your left while wishing you could use the HOV lane at times like this when suddenly your airbag explodes, causing you to bash your alleged green machine into a Greyhound bus, kicking off a chain reaction that will take hours by the state police and first responders to sort out. You also make the news when the strangely chipper real-time traffic reporter chimes in about the wreck, which then leads to how Rockin’ Robin DeCradle “got totally wrecked” at the Waffle House of Blues this weekend.

Turns out the cause of your airbag going off was spiders, which you find out later that day when the local news reports that Toyota has issued a recall (again), affecting 870,000 vehicles including the one now residing in an insurance salvage yard that you, no doubt, are going to have a hard time collecting anything upon.

According to CNN Money, the 870,000 Toyotas are Camrys, Venzas and Avalons screwed together and sold for the 2012 and 2013 model years, hybrids included. The recall notice states that the webs spiders make within the confines of a drainage tube attached to the car’s AC unit could force water to drip onto the airbag’s control module, creating a short circuit followed by the airbag warning light (and the driver’s side airbag itself) going off. To make matters worse, the same issue can lead to loss of power steering, as well.

Toyota spokesperson Cindy Knight said that the company was aware of the spider issue, noting that 35 cases of the lights coming on and 3 airbag deployments have come to pass thus far, and the consistent cause of the problem were the eight-legged freaks who, for some reason, love making webs in AC drainage tubes.

The recall recommends owners take their cars in to their nearest dealer, who will then make the necessary repairs (and calls to the Orkin Man) to prevent water from causing unintended airbag deployments. The notice will be sent by mail, and the repairs will be on the house.

A similar issue affected Mazda back in 2011, when spiders set up shop in the vent lines of many a Mazda6′s gasoline tank, proving once again that nature is so fascinating.

]]> 36
Capsule Review: 2014 Mazda3 Tue, 24 Sep 2013 17:42:18 +0000 MY14 Mazda3 Sedan

For a car company that seems to have a perpetually precarious existence, things are going well at Mazda. Sales of their new range of products, like the CX-5 and the Mazda6, are relatively strong – I say relatively because the Mazda6’s volumes are about 10 percent of the Toyota Camry, and the whole brand sells fewer cars than Honda does Civics. But Mazda is banking on the new Mazda3 to help them get real traction in the market place. Not only is there a new car, but a new factory in Mexico as well, which will help insulate Mazda from then yen’s penchant for yo-yo’ing, as well as any future Fukushima-like disruptions.

MY14 Mazda3 Sedan

The old Mazda3’s biggest flaw was its looks. Its visage was hideously unattractive, wearing the “Nagare” design language that some executive must have signed off on after a long night in Roppongi. The car you see above has a whole new look, and the result is one of the best “ugly duckling to beautiful swan” transitions in recent memory. The sedan still retains the same basic horizontal teardrop shape that plagues all modern compacts in the name of fuel efficiency, but the details were done right. It reminds me of the Lexus IS, and even the smaller wheels make the car look good, a rarity today. The hatchback looks like a CX-5 crossed with a Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback, and while I have traditionally preferred this bodystyle on previous generations, I think I have to give the aesthetic nod to the sedan.

MY2014 Mazda 3

The interior has undergone a major improvement since the last generation, but in typical Mazda fashion, there is still some corner cutting evident here. There was no evidence of Cherokee-esque fit and finish issues, but some of the supplied parts were subpar. Namely, the headliner it the definition of nasty. It feels like it was made out of egg cartons, and crunches when pressed with one’s fingers. Your college drinking buddy may not notice, but it stood out to us as a notably cheap spot on an otherwise nicely finished interior. Higher trim models have a pseudo-heads up display that flips up from the top of the gauge cluster (above), capable of displaying one’s speed, navigation turns and other features. It seems redundant given the voice prompts from the navigation and the basic ability to glance at the speedometer, and to top it off, it looks like it was stolen from a Nerf gun and is prone to breaking off with even the slightest disturbance.

MY14 Mazda3 Sedan

Most functions related to the entertainment system are handled by the new MazdaConnect system, which replaces the Atari-esque system used in the new Mazda6 with a fresh, modern looking interface. Of course, it’s all displayed on a 7 inch screen that looks like an off-brand Made In China Android tablet that’s been glued to the top of the dashboard, which saps some of the premium feel out of the cabin.

MY14 Mazda3 Sedan

MazdaConnect is controlled by an iDrive-like knob and is relatively easy to use, but has some annoying quirks. Looking for a satellite radio station, for example, is highly frustrating, if not distracting. Once you’ve selected a station, you can’t change the station unless you manually go back through the menus and select a new one. Scrolling through is not an option, and the steering wheel controls only allow you to move through presets, rather than the entire band. It is more distracting than texting and drive. The volume knob has also been placed next to the MazdaConnect wheel on the center console – an intuitive location but highly unconventional and one that takes some getting used to, since every other car on earth has it placed  in its traditional spot on the center stack.

In return for these annoyances, the Mazda3 delivers one of the best driving experiences money can buy. Other compacts, like the Dodge Dart, the Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra GT are “good” to drive, but the Mazda3 is in another class, closer to the BMWs of a past era than anything else in the segment. The dynamics of the car will be instantly familiar to anyone who has driven a Mazda6 or CX-5, but even sharper. The heaviest Mazda3 is about 170 lbs lighter than the lightest Mazda6 (3172 lbs), with base versions coming in at around 2800 lbs. In today’s car market, this is fairly svelte, and it translates into a rewarding drive. There is very little body roll, while the suspension is composed over rough pavement. The steering is sharp, direct and nicely weighted. Mazda engineer Dave Coleman told us that his target was his LeMons car, which uses a manual Miata steering rack. It’s tough to compare a contemporary electric power steering system with a 25 year old Miata unit, but certain things, like the high degree of caster dialed in to make it self-center quicker, will be familiar to anyone who ever owned a Miata and tinkered with the alignment settings. There is a level of engagement with the Mazda3 that is absent in every other car in this class. It’s not a merely A-B commuting tool, but a car that encourages you to drive as if you really cared about having fun behind the wheel. It’s a difficult quality to find in any car nowadays, let alone a C-segment economy car.

MY2014 Mazda 3

Two powerplants are offered, though only the base 2.0L Skyactiv engine will offer a 6-speed manual alongside a 6-speed automatic. The bigger 2.5L engine offers more horsepower (184 versus 155) and more torque (185 lb-ft versus 150 lb-ft), and feels a lot gutsier on the open road, though in true Mazda fashion, the engines aren’t particularly brimming with character like the better Honda twin-cams. Then again, a naturally aspirated motor is becoming a rarity in new cars, and fuel economy is the chief order of the day. In this aspect, Mazda does not disappoint. Our 2.5L hatchback, with Mazda’s capacitor-based i-Eloop regenerative braking system, is good for 29 mpg in town and 40 mpg highway. Neither motor is particularly stirring, emitting rather muted grunts and groans. Just like the pre-NC Miatas, the chassis is the jewel of the package here, but at least the Skyactiv motors are tuned for economy and efficiency, unlike the thristy boat anchor of a 1.8L engine fitted to most early Miatas.

Where the 2.0L feels just a bit strained (particularly when merging or passing on highways), the 2.5L is always ready with adequate grunt, and the 6-speed Skyactiv automatic is even better than the excellent manual. It feels more like a dual clutch gearbox than a conventional automatic, in part because the torque converter isn’t even used past 5 mph. In spirited driving, the automatic will hold gears until redline and match revs when the paddles are used to manually change gear. Mazda has been coy about whether the 2.5L will actually get a manual, stating that only the automatic will be available “at launch”. Perhaps this leaves the door open to the possibility of a manual in the future. The i-Eloop system is as transparent as its name is silly. The only way we knew it was working was when a display screen showed it re-capturing energy under braking. If only Mazda’s marketing department could come up with such clever monikers.

For all the complaints about the anesthetized nature of modern cars, here we have a vehicle that brings a truly engaging driving experience to the masses at a price-point accessible to most new car buyers. Despite a couple of cut corners here and there, the car’s big flaws, namely its exterior styling, spartan interior and poor fuel economy in the larger engine variants, have all been remedied beyond mere correction. It may not be the choice for your grandmother, or anyone looking for a simple, dead-nuts reliable appliance, but the new car is a significant leap forward, and the only choice in the segment for anyone interested in spirited driving. And finally a candidate for best in segment.

Mazda provided airfare, accommodations and meals for this press drive


]]> 195
In Japanese Bondage: The Honda Freed Hybrid and the Mazda MPV Wed, 14 Aug 2013 16:21:20 +0000 2011_Honda_Freed_Spike_Hybrid_002_6105

Yesterday, I took a look at the Mitsubishi Delica Space Gear and the Toyota Hi-Ace, the “size queens” of the Japanese market. Today, I decided to look at the odd men out, so to speak, those mini-vans that hit the sweet spot in the market and offer seven seats in a small or mid-sized package. Sticking with that earlier theme, both of these are only available outside of the United States so, sorry, you can’t get them here. But it’s fun to see how other people live so let’s take a look.

As my young family has grown in size and number over the past few years, my in-laws have been absolutely wonderful. When we lived in Japan we saw one another frequently and even today, thought we are half a world away, my wife and her parents Skype at least once a week and we are blessed with their presence in our home usually two or three times per year. Last summer we decided to bless their home with our presence and the whole Kreutzer clan picked up and headed across the Pacific. In preparation for our arrival, my in-laws ran out and purchased a new seven seater and wisely, with an eye towards the fact that most of those seats would be empty most of the time, they went small and they went hybrid.


The Honda Freed is a “compact seven seater” with sliding side doors that is similar in size and function to the Mazda 5 we get stateside. In person it bears a striking resemblance to the most recent incarnation of the Honda Fit, with a steeply sloping nose, a long curving windshield, and a rectangular back half that ends so abruptly it looks like it was cut with a knife. As a Star Trek nerd, the little Freed reminds me very much of one of the small shuttles used in The Next Generation from the outside and on the inside, if it is not overly spacious, it is at least futuristic.


The Freed offers three rows of seating with each of the back two rows slightly elevated in a way that makes the vehicle’s cabin appear to have stadium seating. The third row is even with the rear wheels and my guess is that this arrangement was necessary to fit atop them, but the effect is generally nice and gives the rear passengers a chance to look over the front seats and catch a glimpse out the windshield. I understand that there are second row captain’s chairs available, if they can be called that, but my in-law’s car was outfitted with a three person bench seat. The back row is cramped and only offers space for two. Because the rear seat is so far aft, there is no additional cargo space and no place for a fold-flat seats. To allow space for cargo, the rear seat is split in two allowing each side can be folded and then swing up into a position where they block the rear quarter windows. Personally, I don’t like this arrangement.

I don’t spend a lot of time in Hondas these days so stop me if you already familiar with the two level dash the Freed mounts. It is an odd looking piece at first, but it fits in well with the car’s overall styling. The top of the dash incorporates the instrument bezel and a place for the car’s navigation system while beneath its rounded leading edge a second almost flat shelf comes out and provides space for the climate controls and the gear shift. It is, I think, a little odd but quite refreshing given that the alternative would have simply been a flat panel with a glove box.

hondaFreedhybrid dash

Although I had the opportunity to ride in the Freed on the expressway, where it seemed to do just fine, I did not get to take the wheel until we were safe at home in Kyoto and then my trips were mostly confined to the local area. Around town it was a competent little car that handled the city streets well and accelerated without any kind of drama whenever I hit the gas. All in all, not bad.

But not all of the hybrid systems were so seamless. In order to save gas, at lengthy stoplights the engine would shut itself off if I held my foot on the brake too long and, of course, when the engine turned off so did the air conditioning. That’s a problem on a hot summer day so I began to use the hand brake to hold my position in order to keep the engine running and the air conditioning pumping. Not horrible, but annoying. The other “eco” effect I noticed was how the car acted while coasting. It seemed to me that whenever I took my foot off the gas they car would begin to slow more rapidly than a normal, non-hybrid car might and it the overall effect was that the car seemed as though it was especially heavy for some reason. That said, the effect was predictable and never caused any issues while driving even if I never quite acclimated to it entirely.

I generally liked the Freed well enough but I think there are a lot of other cars on the market I would probably go to before I actually purchased one. With four adults and three children in the cabin, the little car was quite cramped and with all the seats in action there was virtually no space for any kind of luggage. Even without the grandparents, the car was still crowded with my wife and me up front, two kids in the middle and another in the third row. To facilitate a trip to the grocery store we would have to fold up one of the rearmost seats, and I really hate the way they fold up where they block a window and create a possible problem should they somehow, say in the event of a side impact, come loose and fall onto any body parts that might end up in that space in an accident.


I like the idea of a smaller mini-van, but I think we need to acknowledge that larger families need larger size vehicles. In my in-law’s case, the Freed makes a great deal of sense as it offers good economy in a small, easy to drive package while having the extra seats for those times my wife and kids decide to head home for the summer. For daily use, however, about the smallest I would be willing to buy for my own family is another van we can’t get here in the States, the new Mazda MPV.

In the interest of full disclosure, I want to start this part of the article by stating right up front that I owned a 2002 JDM Mazda MPV with the 2.3 liter 4 cylinder for the entire three years we lived in Okinawa. Prior to purchasing it, my wife and I spent some time in the then brand new 2006 MPV and I was quite taken by it. It was that experience that sent me to my local Mazda dealer to seek out a used version and it was my inner cheapskate that caused me to end up purchasing a slightly used 2002 for a fraction of the price the redesign was fetching. Regardless of the fact that the design was already “day old bread,” I loved that van and sold it to family when I left just so I could see it when we go home.

2002 mpv

It’s funny how the mind works, because when I was in Japan my MPV seemed like a reasonably large, reasonably well powered vehicle. Back in the United States, however, I soon saw just how small the MPV actually is when compared to other vans and the especially so when compared to the even more giant SUVs that prowl this side of the Pacific. Even so, the earlier generation of MPVs did well in the United States, but I will note that to help satiate the American’s desire for more of everything the smaller 4 cylinder was not available here and only V6 MPVs were sold on our shores.


The 2006 MPV I drove, and yes I know that Mazda still sold MPVs in the USA in 2006 and so I want to stress here that the US got the old version while the Japanese stopped selling that design domestically in 2005, was a handsome, long nosed, low profile vehicle that appeared more like a tall station wagon than a typical mini-van. They came in two flavors, both 2.3 liter four cylinders, one turbo charged, the other not and had any number of features that were typical at the time but, as one commenter who lives in Hong Kong rather astutely pointed out when I mentioned the JDM MPV in some remarks a week or two ago, lack a lot of the more modern electronic and interconnectivity features found in many of the newest vans. Our Canadian enthusiasts, who waxed rhapsodic about the previous model’s four wheel drive capability, will be thrilled to know that the current redesign also features both front and four wheel drive versions.

As those of you who have them in your cars probably know, the Mazda 2.3 liter is a smooth running little engine that does pretty well on the road. The extra weight of the MPV and a load full of passengers does affect the engine, however, and there are times when I found myself working the engine harder than I would normally like. In general, it was serviceable on the highway but I would have enjoyed trying the turbo. Around town, as with virtually all Japanese minivans, the engine was more than sufficient.


Inside, the MPV was a good combination of “get the job done” practicality and pure class. I liked that the gear selector was not on the dash next to the wheel but was located below it on a small protruding console on the lower part of the dash. Above that, the climate controls were prominent and intuitive and, topping the center stack and tucked neatly between a pair of vents, was the navigation/audio screen. In front of the driver, in a blatant display of Mazda’s Zoom-Zoom philosophy, back lit analog gauges included a large, easy to read tachometer alongside a matching speedometer. There are several seating options available and they run from the totally practical cloth covered three row bench to the highest-end full leather recliners you can get. There is no doubt in my mind that the MPV’s primary mission is to move people in comfort and style and that utility, which is still present thanks to a fold-flat rear seat and the well in the floor that swallowing that seat necessitates, comes in a close second.

mpv seats

On the road, the current MPV is not as easy to drive as many of the larger, taller JDM vans currently on the market. Because it is has a longer nose, the driver sits well behind the front wheels and the overall driving dynamic is quite car-like. Also, thanks to a lower greenhouse, the windows too are slightly smaller than the enormous ones available on more typical high-end JDM people movers like the Elgrand and the Alphard and that makes it slightly more difficult to see out of. Handling and the ride is good and the driving experience is reminiscent of a large, full size luxury car. I like it.

The MPV is all about compromise and, unlike many compromises I have been forced to make during my life, the trade-offs made in its design do not end up giving away all the good in favor of all the bad. The design offers seven seats and sliding doors with the handling dynamics of a large car. It gives up overall height, which is bad because it limits the driver’s view but also good because it eliminates the sail area that sends most mini-vans skittering across the freeway on gusty days. It sits the driver further back in the cabin than most vans, which I think makes it more difficult to drive in tight situations but gives an added sense of comfort and control. I think the MPV would do wonderfully on the American market and I would purchase one in a heartbeat.

It’s a shame we don’t get either of these wonderful people movers stateside. They both strike a perfect balance by being big on the inside and small on the outside and, in doing so, are exactly what a mini-van is supposed to be. To wrap up, both of these mighty minis are decent vehicles that would probably draw people into showrooms in the United States, but only one, the Mazda MPV, would make my short list of mini-vans. If only they were sold here. If only…


Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

]]> 24
Review: 2014 Mazda6 (With Video) Thu, 08 Aug 2013 17:20:17 +0000 2014 Mazda Mazda6 Exterior

Whenever I talk to car shoppers, the Mazda6 comes up. No, it’s not because people are confused if it’s a “Mazda 6″ or a “Mazda6″ or a “Mazda Mazda6.” Although, it does top the Land Rover Range Rover Sport Autobiography for the strangest name on the market. (I prefer to call it a Mazda6.) The reason Mazda’s mid-sized sedan comes up, is because it seems to be a car often shopped, but rarely purchased. In June, it scored 14th in sales for the segment. Surprised? I was. Even the Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger (9th and 12th place) outsold it by a wide margin. The low sales numbers piqued my interest enough that I hit Mazda up for a cherry red model to see why.

Click here to view the embedded video.


2014 brings Mazda’s new corporate grille to the Mazda6, and I have to say, it’s a beautiful schnoz. I was a little worried the gaping maw would be too large in person, (in pictures it looks enormous) but up-close-and-personal it has to be the second most attractive front end after the Fusion. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but during the week I was unable to find anyone who disagreed with me. So my opinion reigns supreme. I’m worried however, the proportions look perfect on the Mazda6, so what will the Mazda3 be like? Why am I worried? Because if you park the Mazda6 next to a CX-9 or CX-5, the crossovers look more cartoonish than if they park alone. Just like your girlfriend seems pretty until you park her next to Megan Fox. Although the 2014 model looks longer than the outgoing Mazda6, overall length has been cut by about two inches. Adding “visual length” as well as much-needed rear seat room, the wheelbase has been stretched by two inches to 111.4.

2014 Mazda Mazda6 Exterior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

Mazda’s nose may be a notch below the Ford in my style-guide, but out back it’s a different story. I find the Fusion’s rump to be a little awkward. It’s almost as if Ford ran out of time and “hurried” the back end of their family hauler. Not so with the Mazda6 which has a finished look from the “raised eyebrow” tail lamps to the twin chrome exhausts. Thanks to the best butt in the business, I call the Ford v. Mazda beauty contest a tie. How about the Koreans? I never warmed to the Sonata, but the Optima is aggressive and attractive, just not as emotional as the Mazda6. Thanks to the low sales volume, the Mazda is also a step outside the ordinary, something that attracts me.

2014 Maxda Mazda6 Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

The British would have called the old Mazda6′s interior “cheap and cheerful” with shapes that failed to offend, but plastics that were far from premium. For 2014, Mazda increased the plastic budget and coated the interior with soft injection moulded material. Bucking the latest trend, Mazda skipped the stitching treatment on the dash, although you will find sewing machine tracks on the doors. ZoomZoom also nixed the faux-tree in favor of a black-cherry (or just black) plastic trim panel that bisects the tall dashboard. Aside from the infotainment binnacle that seems a bit too large for the screen, this is the most harmonious and simple dashboard in this segment. I hate to beat on the old Mazda6, but “simple and harmonious” is not a phrase I would have used.

Front seat comfort was excellent for my average six-foot frame, regardless of the trim level. In an interesting move, Mazda chose to make the base manual seat adjust in all the same ways as the optional powered seats. The inclusion of manual lumbar support on base seats is a nice touch as well, something the competition often skips in “stripper” models. In keeping with Mazda’s self-proclaimed sporty image, the front seats feature aggressive (for a Camcord segment car) front seat bolsters and are therefore quite different from the Barcaloungers in the Camry, Accord and Altima. The bolsters aren’t as pronounced as a C63 AMG, but the “like a glove” fit was a huge selling point for me. On the down side, seats like these are less comfortable for larger folks as they provide precious little muffin top accommodation.

Rear seat legroom is up thanks to the increased wheelbase and is now competitive with the CamFusCord. Because the way that car companies measure leg room varies it’s hard to go by the published numbers. According to the numbers the Mazda6 delivers the same rear legroom as the meat of the competition but skimps on front legroom. In reality the Mazda6 felt roomier than its old cousin the Ford Fusion while the Camry still feels larger somehow. Some of that is thanks to the Camry’s generous rear headroom, something that sexy sedan profiles take a toll on. Thankfully Mazda didn’t cut the rear doors as low as Ford did making it easier to get in and out of the Mazda. With more room on the inside and a shorter overall car, it’s no surprise that the looser in this battle is the trunk. At 14.8 cubic feet the 2014 model looses two cubes compared to last year shifting it from one of the larger trunks in the segment to among the smallest.

2014 Maxda Mazda6 Interior, Infotainment Control Knob, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

Infotainment & Gadgets

Mazda’s limited budget is readily apparent when you look at the Infotainment system. I’m not talking about the base 6-speaker AM/FM/CD system that you will only find in the most basic trim Mazda6 with the manual transmission, that one is lovely, I’m talking about the 5.8-inch touchscreen. Simply adding the automatic transmission bundles the touchscreen infotainment system on the base model and it’s standard on all other models meaning you can’t get away from it. If you’ve read my reviews before, you know that I love me some touchscreen infotainment, but Mazda’s leaves me scratching my head.

First off, the screen is small. With the Accord boasting two ginormous LCDs in the dash, 5.8-inches is nothing to brag about. The size of the screen’s binnacle makes me hopeful a mid-cycle refresh will being some 8-inch touch-love, but that could be a pipe dream. The software’s graphics are suitably slick and the interface is easy to navigate via the touchscreen or the Audi MMI style knob in the center console. Alas the lord giveth and he taketh away. The software is sluggish at best, some of the control screens are half-baked and the integration of TomTom navigation is clunky. I’m not a huge fan of Chrysler’s uConnect with Garmin software, but at least that system has the screen real estate allowing you to read the awkward menus and stab what you need, not so in the Mazda. When using the control dial it’s difficult to distinguish between the option that’s selected and the cursor position since they are the same color and nearly the same shape.

2014 Mazda Mazda6 Infotainment, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

Plug in any music device and you’ll encounter my other beef, and something Mazda forum posters have been complaining about as well. The media interface is incredibly slow. I n c r e d i b l y  s l o w. So slow that at first I assumed the head unit had frozen so I plugged, unplugged, plugged, unplugged to no avail. Then I gave up and listened to the radio. (Gasp!) A full 4 minutes later, the system switched to the iDevice and started to play my tunes. (Yes, I tested it with USB sticks and it did the same thing). If you think this is a momentary aberration, think again. The system has to fully index your entire USB/Android/iDevice music library before it starts playing. It does this whenever you unplug/plug or when you stop/start the car. Every. Single. Time. The larger your library, the longer it takes. Users on the Mazda forum reported a 10+ minute delay when playing larger devices while I averaged just over three minutes. Want tunes on a short journey? I hope you enjoy AM Gold. Mazda hasn’t confirmed a software update, but I pray one happens soon. This was so aggravating it colors my whole opinion of the interface, if Mazda fixed this one thing I could forgive the small screen and quirky menu system.

On the gadget front, Mazda lags behind Ford but does offers most of the gadgetry you’ll find in the competition and a few things you won’t. Our tester had the optional adaptive radar cruise with collision warning, xenon headlamps, blind spot warning, rear cross traffic detection, rain sensing wipers and keyless entry/go. Also available as part of the $2090 Technology Package on iGrand Touring models is lane departure warning and an auto high beam system bundled with Mazda’s i-ELoop micro hybrid system. Notably absent on the Mazda6 are lane departure prevention and self-parking, features starting to trickle down into this segment.

2014 Mazda Mazda6 Engine, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes


SkyActiv is Mazda’s fuel saving “brand,” but it’s more than just a set of engine tweaks. Mazda’s fuel sipping umbrella includes weight savings, aerodynamics, optional energy regeneration and a slick new transmission. Lets start with weight savings. At 3,232lbs (automatic transmission) the 2014 is  about three hundred pounds lighter than the old model, 200lbs lighter than a Fusion, and a hair heavier than a Camry or Optima. Under the hood you’ll find the latest 2.5L Mazda four-cylinder engine with direct injection and variable valve timing. Mazda uses a 13:1 compression ratio in the American bound models to allow it to run safely on regular unleaded, so this isn’t exactly the same engine in other markets. Power output is 185 HP and 184 lb-ft which stacks up well against the competition especially when you look at the torque curve which is lower and broader than most of the competition. While Ford offers no less than four engine options in the Fusion, the 2.5L is the only engine available until the SkyActiv diesel appears.

Something that has confused reporters in the past is Mazda’s new transmission. Some describe it as a hybrid between a dual clutch and a traditional automatic, some have even suggested that it can “disable” the torque converter. In addition to the 6-speed manual transmission you can opt for the SkyActiv branded traditional automatic transaxle. Traditional? What about the fancy clutches? Here’s what Mazda did.

Lock-up torque converters are nothing new, having been introduced in 1949, but in our age of efficiency companies are using them more aggressively. By locking the impeller and turbine (input and output) of the torque converter, you increase efficiency by cutting most of the impelling losses in the torque converter (there are still some because it’s still spinning, but it’s greatly reduced). Old transmissions only did this in their final gear and relatively infrequently. Modern automatics like GM/Ford’s 6-speed transaxle spend about half their time in lock-up and will engage the locking “clutch” in most gears. Mazda’s new slushbox is programmed with an aggressive lockup agenda and will lock in every gear. In addition, it spends more time in lockup (80% or more) than a competitive unit on the same driving cycle. The result is a more connected 1:1 relationship between the engine and wheels than you find in a CamFusCord.

2014 Mazda Mazda6 Exterior-002


The aggressive lockup is noticeable out on the road, especially in hill driving where the Mazda6 feels more connected to the drivetrain than the competition. “Connected” is a word that repeatedly came to mind when driving the Mazda6 in the real world and during an event at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca where Mazda had the guys to let a writer’s group flog a sedan on the track. The Zoom-Zoom brand has long been known for an emphasis on handling, so it shouldn’t surprise you that the Mazda6 is one of the most enjoyable front wheel drive cars on the road, but it also proved amusing on the track. No, not as amusing as the BMW X1 that was on hand, but the Mazda delivered surprising agility, well controlled body motions, little roll and just a hint of brake fade after 6 laps. For a CamFusCord competitor, there is no higher praise. Ultimate grip is easily the equal of the new Ford Fusion, the only other entry in this large segment with any handling prowess at all. Another feather in the Mazda6′s cap is steering with the vaguest hint of feeling, a quality that would have been laughable a decade ago, but in our age of electric power steering even the suggestion of feedback is welcome.

I was a bit less impressed with the Mazda6′s manual transmission, yes it has possibly the best shift feel in the segment, but is that saying much? The clutch pedal feel is superior to the new Accord as well, but with only 184HP on tap and 3,200lbs to motivate the automatic does a better job on the average commute. Boo! Hiss! Another manual hater?!? Not at all, I love the fact that Mazda builds most trim levsls of the Mazda6 with a manual. The problem is the slushbox is moderately engaging and gets 1MPG better mileage (26/38 for the auto). It’s easy to see why the average shopper would let the car row the gears. At the stop-light races, the 2014 model feels stronger than the outgoing model despite the modest bump in power, this is thanks to the improved torque curve, weight reduction and that SkyActiv transmission. Proving that CVTs are the performance king (seriously) the four-cylinder Accord spanks the ZoomZoom to 60 MPH with a 6.83 second score to the Mazda6′s 7.4 but both of those are faster than the Fusion’s base or 1.6L Ecoboost options by over half a tick.

2014 Mazda Mazda6 Exterior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

The i-ELoop micro hybrid system is part of a $2,090 option pack on the top trim of the Mazda6. This is similar to BMW’s active alternator, in that the system is only capable of recovering a portion of the kinetic energy and provides no motive assistance. When braking, a variable voltage alternator charges a large capacitor, the system uses this to power vehicle systems. When accelerating, the system disengages the alternator to reduce the load and runs the accessories on the reserved charge. Mazda claims the system is good for an extra 2MPG on the highway bumping the mid-sized sedan to an impressive 40MPG. I was unable to get my hands on one for testing, but I easily beat the 30 MPG combined score despite driving it more aggressively during the week than the competition.

So if the Mazda6 handles well, delivers decent fuel economy and is priced and featured in line with the competition, why are the sales so slow? After a week with the 2014 incarnation I’m no closer to answering this automotive enigma. Many have conjectured the ZoomZoom brand lacks the advertising resources to push their wares, that is certainly true when you compare their marketing budget to Toyota, but then again Kia and Hyundai have raised themselves from obscurity on budgets that started small. Some posit the lack of a stout V6 option is to blame, but 90% of the cars in this segment are four-bangers, so toss that logic out the window. Even with the most aggravating infotainment system sold in America, the Mazda6′s other attributes compensate enough to put it near the top of my list, just under the gadget loaded, 2.0L Ecoboosted Fusion and the four-cylinder Accord. Why doesn’t the Mazda6 sell? Will the diesel engine turn the Mazda6 into an oil-burning Passat killer? These are questions we may never have answered. What do our readers have to say?

Hit it or Quit It?

Hit it

  • One of the best looking cars in the segment.
  • Excellent fuel economy.
  • Turbo diesel dreams.

Quit it

  • Aggravating infotainment system.
  • No turbocharged four and no V6 option for “performance” shoppers.

Mazda provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.

Specifications as tested

0-30: 2.75 Seconds

0-60: 7.4 Seconds

1/4 Mile: 15.786 Seconds @ 88.5 MPH

Average Observed Fuel Economy: 30.5 MPG over 534 miles

2014 Maxda Mazda6 Interior 2014 Maxda Mazda6 Interior-001 2014 Maxda Mazda6 Interior-002 2014 Maxda Mazda6 Interior-003 2014 Maxda Mazda6 Interior-004 2014 Maxda Mazda6 Interior-005 2014 Maxda Mazda6 Interior, Infotainment Control Knob, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Maxda Mazda6 Interior-007 2014 Maxda Mazda6 Interior-008 2014 Maxda Mazda6 Interior-009 2014 Maxda Mazda6 Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Maxda Mazda6 Interior-011 2014 Mazda Mazda6 Engine 2014 Mazda Mazda6 Engine, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Mazda Mazda6 Exterior 2014 Mazda Mazda6 Exterior-001 2014 Mazda Mazda6 Exterior-002 2014 Mazda Mazda6 Exterior-003 2014 Mazda Mazda6 Exterior-004 2014 Mazda Mazda6 Exterior-005 2014 Mazda Mazda6 Exterior-006 2014 Mazda Mazda6 Exterior-007 2014 Mazda Mazda6 Exterior-008 2014 Mazda Mazda6 Exterior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Mazda Mazda6 Exterior, Rear, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Mazda Mazda6 Infotainment, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Mazda Mazda6 Instrument Cluster 2014 Mazda Mazda6 Trunk 2014 Mazda Mazda6 Trunk-001 ]]> 163
Rental Review: 2012 Mazda5 Tue, 06 Aug 2013 13:00:21 +0000 photo (8)

My last Rental Review re-ignited one of TTAC’s “third rail” debates, that of compact pickups versus their full-size brethren. For the uninitiated, this topic is only slightly less contentious than discussing the merits of Roe v. Wade on a 1970′s college campus. User krhodes1 commented that when it comes to small trucks versus an equivalently priced full-sizer “Sometimes paying more for less is worth it.” I’m not entirely sure I agree with this sentiment across the board, but I know someone who does when it comes to minivans: my mother.

My family has owned two minivans: a 1995 Honda Odyssey and a 2002 Kia Sedona. The Odyssey stayed with us for 7 years, taking trips to Florida, Upstate New York, Philadelphia and other locales on the Eastern Seaboard while surviving a maelstrom of vomit, spilled popcorn and the various flotsam and jetsam of childhood prior to the invention of cheap portable digital media devices. Despite being horrendously underpowered and lacking sliding doors, the Odyssey was adored by my mother, which made her the sole person without a New York City taxicab medallion to ever express such feelings.

Her love for the Odyssey (and her disdain for the Sedona) came down to its footprint. At 187 inches long, the Odyssey was quite compact for a minivan, easy to park on city streets and maneuver in traffic. Since it was largely designed with the Japanese market in mind, the small size and powertrain were considered adequate for Japan, and the formula certainly worked for her. But the car was decidedly not a hit in America and the next generation Odyssey morphed into a full-size van with a V6 engine, sliding doors and acres of room inside.

Small minivans have never been a hit in America, but Canadians, with their denser urban areas and higher gas prices, do tend to gravitate towards them. Not only do we get the Mazda5, but we also get the Kia Rondo and Chevrolet Orlando, which are not sold in America. The Orlando is a pseudo-van in the same vein as the original Odyssey, with a not very powerful 4-cylinder engine and conventionally hinged doors. Like the Odyssey, it’s also not that popular in Canada. But it is more popular than the Mazda5, despite the Mazda possessing supposedly superior sliding doors, which minivan owners seem to favor by a significant margin.

photo (3)

For TTAC readers looking for a true minivan (rather than a not-so-mini-van), the Mazda5 is about as perfect as can be. It’s even available with a manual transmission! Just like the CX-5, this is a utility vehicle that happens to drive very nicely. If there were some kind of way to administer a blind test drive without the possibility of maiming or killing anyone, you would swear that you are driving a Mazda3 but sitting slightly higher. The precise, properly weighted steering feels like it was lifted directly from the rest of the Mazda lineup, the brakes were strong and the 2.5L powerplant felt as taxed as one would expect a 157 horsepower motor to feel in a 3,457 lb minivan. It was very slow. In other words, a lot like a CX-5, but without the intelligent 6-speed automatic attached to the new 2.5L SKYACTIV powertrain. Hopefully the next generation Mazda5 will benefit from this, along with a weight loss regimen.

photo (1)

As nice as the car is to drive, even something as mundane as getting groceries led me to recall the “big truck vs. small truck” debate. A modest grocery shop at Costco necessitated having the third row folded (shown above). The third row folds more like a traditional car seat than a minivan, which tends to flip backwards and fold completely flush into the floor. On this particular trip, it wasn’t such a big deal, but in the event that larger objects needed to be hauled, it’s conceivable that the lack of a Caravan style “Stow N Go” system would be a demerit rather than a credit to this car.

photo (2)

Despite Canadian sales figures showing that the Mazda5 is a relatively unpopular vehicle, they are ubiquitous on the streets of Toronto, whether privately owned or in hourly rental fleets like the horribly abused Zipcar you see here. Their small size, sharp dynamics and the correct badge (Mazdas are very popular) make them well-suited for this particular metropolis. But it’s also easy to see why, nation-wide, the Caravan is the runaway winner, outselling the Mazda 10-to-1. The extra length that makes the Mazda easy to parallel park also means that carrying two kids and two hockey bags (don’t laugh, it’s a serious requirement here in Canada) will be a real challenge. The Caravan does have that extra room, along with a V6 engine and a $19,995 base price. An SXT with Stow ‘N Go can be had for $21-$23,000 by the time discounts are factored in (Chrysler Canada officially lists the Caravan as starting at $27,995 but this appears to be a recent change, as it has long been advertised at $18,995. This may be due to the massive incentives being offered on the car, allowing Chrysler to effectively sell it for the same price but officially offer it for more). Canadians have voted with their wallet on this subject; the Caravan is Canada’s 4th best-selling vehicle.

Given my preference for small cars and my affinity for Mazdas, I should be inclined to favor this car. And as much as I love its engaging handling and familiar Mazda feel, I perfectly understand why Chrysler sells so many minivans every single year. Few people actually want to pay more for less, especially families, who must make financial sacrifices in the name of spending money on their children. It’s not merely a matter of “buying cars by the pound” either. It’s difficult to see where the 5 makes sense in the marketplace, unless you are like my mother, who would not be caught dead behind the wheel of an American minivan or someone who prioritizes the driving experience over all else – which is equally rare in this segment. <ost minivan buyers are not looking for that – quite the opposite. In this context, the Mazda5 is a bit of a misfit in the market, but I am certainly glad it exists. If nothing else, it makes the occasions where I do need to rent a minivan feel less alien for someone who drives a Miata the other 364 days of the year.

TTAC arranged for the hourly rental of the Mazda5 via Zipcar. Despite having roughly 22,000 miles on the clock, the car appeared to have weathered twice that. The front end of the car was horribly bashed up, and the interior appeared to be well-worn. It also smelled like wet dog.

photo (1) photo photo (8) photo (3) photo (2)


]]> 62
Review: 2003 Mazda Protege5 Thu, 14 Feb 2013 18:20:26 +0000

I started contributing car reviews to TTAC back in 2006. Today’s is my last. But which car should I cover in my final TTAC review?

The 2013 Audi S5 I drove last summer in Colorado? Great car, but the reason I didn’t write it up then remains valid: it’s essentially the same car (minus two doors, plus sexier curves) as the 2011 Audi S4 I drove to West Virginia and back. The biggest news is that there isn’t any big news. Despite a change from hydraulic to electric assist, steering feel (or lack thereof) remains much the same.

Why not write the review TTAC founder Robert Farago wouldn’t let me write? RF had a rule against reviewing our personal cars. But my 2003 Mazda Protege5 has been mentioned in quite a few of my reviews, and has been implicit in nearly all of them. RF’s rule went by the wayside some time ago, but the thought of reviewing the P5 didn’t cross my mind again. Until now.

When I bought my Protege5 back in November 2003, it was already at the end of its run. I got a great deal ($18,900 MSRP, paid $13,400) because the new Mazda3 was in transit. So the P5 was designed and engineered back in the mid-nineties. How does it possibly remain relevant today?

The Protege5 remains relevant for the same reasons I still own it. First of all, despite a 2,800-pound curb weight, the car’s reactions to steering inputs are quicker than in any compact hatch I’ve driven since buying it. Though the low-effort steering can have an over-assisted, rubber-band feel at modest lock under light loads (a trait shared by the current Civic Si), both on-center and when you’re tossing the car precisely through a curve the rack and column seem to transmit EVERTYTHING through a relatively thin, minimally padded rim to your fingertips. (The thick, heavily padded steering wheels favored by many people and consequently common on performance-oriented cars block feedback.) A MINI or a 500 should feel as agile and provide communication as plentiful and nuanced, but doesn’t.

By lifting off the Protege5’s throttle as you enter a turn you can coax the rear end out a bit, but in general the car’s chassis is extremely stable. Testing out the car’s handling early on in a snow-covered parking lot, I had to resort to pulling the hand brake to get it to spin. Even without stability control (which was never offered), every ounce of potential can be extracted from this car safely and easily. In subjective terms, the P5 feels so alive and is so much fun, even in daily driving, that it has made nearly every car I’ve reviewed over the past decade seem dull, even boring in comparison. Consider the Mazda Exhibit A in the case that it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.

Almost ridiculously large windows separated by thin pillars further contribute to driver confidence. If you can’t see something ahead, behind, or to the side of this car, you must be looking in a different direction. As in an NA or NB Miata, I wish I could lower the seat an inch or two. As is, you sit far above the compact instrument panel yet well below the windshield header. You can see the front end just enough to easily place it. (Unless you’re the au pair who once parked by feel, crinkling the front left fender.) To get this driving position in a current vehicle, you have to get a crossover. Even these often have tall, deep instrument panels lately.

The driver seat, though surprisingly supportive and comfortable for one in such an inexpensive car, doesn’t do as much for driver confidence. It might look like it would provide lateral support, but it doesn’t (especially not when upholstered in black leather). Front and rear seat height can be independently manually adjusted. Bean counters have since killed this feature in every compact (most recently in the Chevrolet Cruze).

The Protege5 is smaller than current compact hatches, but has a roomier back seat, perhaps because safety standards were quite a bit lower in the 1990s. My three kids have logged thousands of hours in the back seat of this car. A couple of adults will not only easily fit, but they’ll find better thigh support than in many much larger cars. The Protege5’s cargo area isn’t large—this is the rare wagon that has a significantly shorter rear overhang than the related sedan, such that it’s really a wagon in roofline only—but it has always been large enough for us.

Beyond the handling and driving position, back in 2003 I was smitten with the Protege5s styling, especially the rear quarter view. Mazda really finessed the area around the tail lamps when transforming the Protege sedan into a wagon. A tasteful body kit lends just the right amount of aggressiveness to the car—unlike some, it doesn’t overpromise or make someone in his forties feel ridiculous. Overseas, the car was offered without the body kit, and the car then looks a bit pudgy. Frankly, even with the kit the car appears a bit rotund from some angles. Car styling has gotten much edgier in the years since, and at this point the Protege5 looks its age, even if it will age better in the long-term than either generation of Mazda3. I prefer to think of the exterior as “classic.”

The highly polished, chrome-appearing rims now on the car don’t do it any favors, especially not when paired with red paint. They were on the car from the factory. I had the dealer swap wheels with another car, and credit me the $400 difference. But a few years later the finish peeled off the painted wheels. To replace them under warranty, Mazda shipped the wheels they thought were still on the car. The dealer then balked at replacing them at all, claiming that the flaking wheels were “aftermarket” because the selling dealer (no longer in business) hadn’t reported the swap to Mazda. I persuaded them that this was not my fault, and said I’d be more than happy to have them replace the painted wheels with painted wheels. But there was no way to have Mazda ship painted replacements, so it has worn shiny rims since.

The Mazda’s interior, well the interior is cheap, but honestly cheap. It doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not, and the door panels at least are soft to the touch. The controls are simple and within easy reach. Let’s consider the interior “classic” as well.

I suppose I must mention the P5’s engine, which has never ranked among the reasons I like the car. Under 2,000 rpm it gets the shakes and lugs. Over 4,000 rpm it runs out of breath (130 horsepower allegedly arrive at 6,000, but this isn’t obvious from behind the wheel). Between 2,000 and 4,000, though, it produces a good, solid pull with more character than you’ll find in a Mazda3 mill. Early on I replaced a tall shifter with one that halved the throws. Partly for this reason, the shifter isn’t always the smoothest, but at least you’re pulling and pushing on a rod and not a cable.

Fuel economy started out in the mid-20s, then increased to the high-20s as the engine broke in. Sometimes it tops 30. Thanks to short gearing (nearly 3,500 rpm at 70), highway fuel economy is a little lower than suburban fuel economy. For reasons of economy and noise, I’ve long wished for a sixth cog. (Some people do replace the fifth gear with one from the closely related transmission in the 626.)

Sometimes I fantasize about the powertrain I’d install in my Protege5 if cost weren’t much of an object. It couldn’t be one with much torque. Even the stock engine steers the car under hard acceleration. But a Civic Si powertrain might serve nicely. In reality, the most common significant powertrain mod is a turbo. But for me the Protege5 is about having fun in daily suburban driving, so I’ve never felt an urge for boost, especially as this would likely dull the engine’s responses pre-boost.

The Protege5’s reliability has been excellent, with one big exception. In 115,000 miles I’ve been through a couple sets of pads and rotors, a couple sets of front wheel bearings, front lower control arms, and stabilizer bar end links. Oh, and three sets of headlight bulbs, which are such a PITA to change I pay the dealer to do it.

The exception is rust. Where the roads are salted, small Mazdas predictably start to meld with atmosphere about six months after the five-year rust perforation warranty ends. Each fall I remove what rust I can from the rear wheel openings and shock towers, slap on some rust converter, then paint. I had more thorough rust repair performed once, a couple years ago. The rust has since returned. To thoroughly fix just the rear end a body shop will charge a couple grand, which can’t be rationally justified.

So, why does the auto industry no longer offer a car like this one in North America? Visibility was cast by the wayside due to styling trends. The chassis story is more complicated. The transition to electric power assisted steering (EPAS) for fuel economy reasons hasn’t helped, but even cars with hydraulic steering generally provide far less feedback (e.g. the Audis mentioned earlier, and BMW 5ers recently compared by C&D).

In a word, the reason is refinement. In sharp contrast to a current batting-way-above-its-league Focus, the Protege5 ain’t got none. After driving a Lotus Elise, the Protege5 felt as high, quiet, and cushy as a Lincoln Navigator. Compared to just about anything with four doors, though, the near-classic Mazda is rough and noisy. Wind noise, road noise, engine noise, transmission noise—the entire dyssymphony is present. NVH couldn’t have been much of a consideration when it was engineered. In years past I’ve had my entire five-person family in the car for a 700-mile trip. Looking back, I don’t know what I was thinking. This is not a highway car. For long trips we now have–what else?–a bigger wagon.

But isn’t there space for at least one affordable compact hatch that trades off refinement for responsiveness and feedback? Can’t at least one manufacturer take a chance on the possibility that the hand raisers would actually pull out their checkbooks? Until this happens—and it might never happen—I’ll stick with the Protege5 until rust takes out something essential (my pride if not a strut tower). For better and for worse, the Mazda delivers a visceral connection not only to the road, but to a bygone age.

Fortunately, there are still some car sites willing to trade refinement for responsiveness and feedback. My road at TTAC hasn’t always been straight or smooth, but smooth, straight roads are boring. With TTAC, whether headed by RF, Ed, or BS, there has never been a dull moment. Thanks, guys!

Michael Karesh operates, which covers car reliability, real-world fuel economy, feature-adjusted car price comparisons, and (as of this month) weekly “Why (Not) This Car?” reviews.

P5 rear, picture courtesy Michael Karesh Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail P5 front quarter, picture courtesy Michael Karesh P5 side, picture courtesy Michael Karesh P5 rear quarter, picture courtesy Michael Karesh P5 rear quarter at dealer, picture courtesy Michael Karesh Big wagon little wagon, picture courtesy Michael Karesh P5 interior, picture courtesy Michael Karesh P5 instrument panel, picture courtesy Michael Karesh P5 view forward, picture courtesy Michael Karesh P5 front seats, picture courtesy Michael Karesh P5 kid, picture courtesy Michael Karesh P5 three kids, picture courtesy Michael Karesh Silver Protege rust, picture courtesy Michael Karesh ]]> 102
First Drive Review: 2014 Mazda6 Fri, 01 Feb 2013 17:04:22 +0000

TTAC readers, this is the one you’ve been waiting for; a fun-to-drive, lightweight, stick-shift sports sedan that doesn’t require a home equity loan to purchase. Now, the question is, will anyone buy it?

A year ago, Jack Baruth had the opportunity to take a Mazda CX-5 around Laguna Seca, and was effusive in his praise. “Heresy!”, I thought. “How can a crossover be better than a wagon?” Turns out Jack was right. The higher seating position and raised ground clearance had no negative effects. The CX-5 may have been a bit pokey in a straight line, but it was a joy to drive. It was better than most station wagons. And the good news is that Mazda has repeated the magic yet again.

The Mazda6 you see above shares a platform with the CX-5, as will all front-drive Mazda products larger than the Mazda2. The new platform is all-new, all-Mazda and uses “Skyactiv” technology, which is a way to make cars lighter, and therefore, more efficient and fun-to-drive (if you buy their marketing spin). At 3172 lbs, this car is light – a fully loaded Chevrolet Cruze weighs about 17 lbs less despite being a full size smaller.

The light weight pays dividends as far as efficiency goes – 26/38 mpg city/highway is possible if you drive accordingly. The downside is that the 2.5L 4-cylinder engine is not all that thrilling. With 184 horsepower at a fairly high 5,750 rpm and 185 lb-ft at 3,250 rpm, the Mazda6 is hardly a paragon of speed. There’s lots of noise, but not nearly as much movement, similar to the BP motors in early Miatas. It wouldn’t be fair to call it painfully slow, but given how great the rest of the package is, the underwhelming engine is a sore spot. For those looking for more grunt, there is no V6 and no boosted four-banger like in the Hyundai Sonata or Ford Fusion. Instead, the enthusiast gods have given us a diesel version, but it won’t be available until the summer.

In typical Mazda fashion, the ho-hum motor is redeemed by a superb chassis. Just as the Mazda3 is the class benchmark for a fun-to-drive compact, so is the Mazda6 in the mid-size category. The electric power steering should be a benchmark for all others; it’s crisp, well-weighted and provides excellent feedback. There is very little body roll, and just like in the CX-5, the damping is spot on.  The 6-speed manual gearbox is the same one employed in the Mazda3 and CX-5. The firm, short-throw shifter is still here, though the clutch is a bit light and devoid of feel. In truth, I think the 6-speed automatic, which uses a hybrid torque converter and clutch pack system to mimic a dual-clutch, is actually better matched to the powertrain.

The auto ‘box itself is a work of art, which a barely perceptible 1-2 shift, zero “slop” when putting the power down and never hunts for gears when ascending a grade. While I’d personally pick the manual for personal enjoyment and snob appeal, you miss nothing by opting for the automatic, and don’t let anyone tell you differently. The one question mark here is the brakes. There wasn’t enough of an opportunity to give them a proper workout. Jack found that after a hard session of driving, they were spent, but rain and a general lack of exciting roads conspired to keep me from testing them to the fullest extent of the law. A major sore point with the car was road noise – the levels of wind noise coming through the A-pillar were far below the standard one should expect from a first-tier mid-size sedan, and suggests some corner cutting on the part of Mazda.

The first half of the day was spent in the manual Sport model, which is the bare-bones base trim. Car enthusiast will appreciate the clean, simple interior, devoid of screens of infotainment doo-dads. The materials used aren’t exactly “premium”, but it feels like a solid step up from the previous generation of Mazdas, specifically the Mazda3. It looks durable and well made, if nothing else, but it won’t wow you like an Accord or a Fusion will. If you’ve seen the CX-5 cabin, you know what to expect. Those hankering after a 6MT Sport, be warned, it truly is a no-frills proposition. Bluetooth connectivity, a prerequisite for many people, requires a step up to the Sport automatic model. Presumably, this was done to cut costs on the price leader version, but Bluetooth is much more useful to those who drive manual. Strangely enough, Canadian 6MT Sports will get Bluetooth (and pay a bit more), but that may be due to our take-rate being higher than the 10 percent Mazda expects).

Lacking any of the volume Touring trim levels, the only alternative to the Sport was a loaded Grand Touring, where one could experience the excellent automatic transmission) and the infuriating TomTom-based navigation, which has now stolen the “Worst Infotainment System Foisted Upon Us By Satan” award from the now-improved MyFordTouch. The iPod and music interface is middling at best, with its slow response times and early-90′s Sega Saturn-esque menus. The navigation is so abominable that there is a verse in Leviticus forbidding the public from ordering it. In a $30,290 car, this is unacceptable. Bring your Garmin and a suction cup mount. Do not let any dealer pawn this off on you.

Despite the awful navigation system and the slightly underpowered base engine, it’s hard not to be taken with the Mazda6. Mazda’s final deadly sin – the heinous styling that plagued otherwise great cars like the Mazda3, is gone. The new Mazda6 is a looker, with its dramatic profile and aggressive front end. Better yet, there aren’t even any packaging compromises – Mazda managed to incorporate the Mercedes CLS-esque sloping roofline, but still leave enough headroom for a six-foot adult male. It is without question the driver’s choice in the segment, to the point where it puts on a clinic for the rest of the segment as far as driving dynamics are concerned. Now that the driving experience and the visual impact of the car are finally congruent, Mazda may even be able to lay claim to the title of “Japan’s Alfa Romeo”. Squint really hard and this car could conceivably be the replacement for the Alfa 159, minus the soulful powertrains and legendary Italian reliability.

And yet I’m worried that it’s all going to end in a giant fuck-up. On a macro level, good cars, especially ones beloved by auto journalists, are prone to dying premature deaths, languishing in obscurity. The mid-size segment is the most competitive in America, with three of the top 10 best-selling cars alone. Aside from the Camry, Accord and Altima, there is the Fusion, the Sonata and the Optima, all laudable in their own right and all are more attuned with the kind of boring appliance-like transportation that the average buyer wants.

Furthermore, not only does Mazda not have the marketing budget to get the word out about this car, but the launch has been a bizarre series of mis-steps. First, Mazda put display-only units of the car in their showrooms, ostensibly due to a missed launch date. Punters could look at the cars, but not test drive or buy them. The diesel powertrain and the i-Eloop regenerative braking system aren’t available at launch either, and to top it off, Mazda USA’s website doesn’t even have a configuration tool to help customers spec out a Mazda6.

Although I am normally agnostic with respect to car companies, I really want Mazda to succeed. If Lotus or Morgan or one of the speciality car makers went under, I’d shrug my shoulders and get back to living my life. Mazda would be a real blow. These are cars that put a smile on my face without forcing me to eat beans every night so I can keep up with the payments (or running costs). I have owned two of them and came close to buying a Mazda3 Skyactiv last year. I’m really glad I didn’t, because now I have two other options (the CX-5 and the Mazda6 Sport) to choose from, should I want a new daily driver. I like their relentless quest for innovation despite having limited resources, their willingness to eschew hybrids and other green-flavor-of-the-month technology in favor of old-school weight reduction and their courage in creating the kind of nimble, featherweight and visually exciting cars that exist in our minds, the scrapyards or outside our budgets. The odds are stacked heavily against them. But that won’t stop me from cheering for my favorite team.

Mazda provided the car, insurance, a tank of gas, travel and accomodations. Thanks to commenters redav, mike978 and PCH101 for the insights that helped inform this review

]]> 156
Review: 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club Wed, 21 Nov 2012 17:30:42 +0000 Back when I reviewed the Scion FR-S, I wrapped up by saying I’d want to check out the latest Miata before I passed judgment on the bang-per-buck value of the Subuyopet. So, I called up the PR flacks at Mazda: “Hey, remember how I didn’t totally trash the CX-5 I wrote about in July? Yeah, so now the entire Toyo Cork Kogyo organization owes me, which means I need a Daimyo Class ticket on the next flight to Tokyo, a BLACK TUNED MX-5 waiting for me, and an honor guard of eight dekatoras to escort me as I cruise around looking for an Autozam AZ-1 to ship back to Denver.” Disappointingly, what I got was a US-market MX-5 Club Sport dropped off at a shuttle lot at George Bush International in Houston, to which I’d flown Misery Class in order to judge at the fifth annual Gator-O-Rama 24 Hours of LeMons. I spent three days with a True Red ’13 Miata, mostly shuttling between my hotel in Angleton, Texas, and the race at MSR Houston.
You figure, hey, weekend at a race track with a Miata— get ready for a bunch of racy-sounding gibberish about “turn-in” and “performance at the limit.” Trail braking. Not this time; this track was crowded with stuff like ’73 Dodge Coronets and 560SEC Benzes bashing into each other, no place for a nice uncaged press car with 90 miles on the clock. Anyway, you can sum up the Miata’s track performance— as determined by racers who, unlike me, actually know how to get around a road course in a hurry— for the last 23 model years in five words: at home on the track. Now that we’ve got that established, this review is going to focus on the real-worldliness of this little red devil.
When I arrived at MSR, I took the Miata around the pits to do a little bit of “pre-sweating” of cheaters, and to pose the car with its Mazda racing brethren. Here it is flanked by the whiskey-still-equipped RX-7 and collapsed-barn find RX-2 of Team Sensory Assault.
The Miata hasn’t bloated much during the last couple of decades, as can be seen in this portrait of the ’13 parked next to the ’91 of Team Nucking Futs. The first-year Miata (in 1990) had a curb weight of 2,105 pounds; the 2013 manual-transmission version weighs 2,480 pounds. By the standards of Model Bloat, that’s impressive.
To be honest, I felt a little uncomfortable showing up at this track in a red Miata. The 24 Hours of LeMons Supreme Court has been hard on Texas Miatas over the years, destroying a couple in the (now discontinued) People’s Curse and generally making life difficult for the Spec Miata guys who attempt to bring their Texan brand of Mazda-bashing behavior to LeMons racing.
As it turned out, just about everybody who has anything to do with road racing— even those Mazda racers I’ve busted for cheaty-ass Racing Beat suspension parts at past races— loves the sight of a new Miata.
However, being around car freaks and racers makes one forget that the Miata has a much different image in the eyes of ordinary Americans, particularly those in edge-city suburban areas full of mouth-breathing Internet Tough Guys in Tapout shirts. Never mind that the Miata will obliterate 95% of testosterone-pumped cars in a real race— what matters is that the Miata falls somewhere on the machismo spectrum between fern bars and Hello Kitty when it comes to its image among non-car expert types.
Not that I’ve ever given much of a damn about that sort of thing, but the perceived manliness (or lack thereof) of this car became an issue while driving it on the rural highways south of Houston. Never in my life have I experienced so much hyper-aggressive tailgating, angry gestures, brake checks, and general highway assholery than in the three days of driving a red Miata with manufacturer plates on Texas roads. Did some joker put an Obama sticker on this thing? I wondered after my first white-knuckle drive to the track with one SUV grille after another looming in the rear-view. Apparently the sight of a little red sports car simply enrages Texas exurbanite males, in a way that all the rental Aveos and Corollas I’ve driven on the same roads never has.
This image problem reminds me of the one faced by certain dog owners. This is my dog, Jackson. He is 70 pounds of solid muscle, bred from a long line of water retrievers, fast, tough, and fearless (he’s also sort of a knucklehead, but we won’t go there).
Jackson is also a Standard Poodle, a breed that image-conscious American males cannot own if they feel even slightly insecure about their own masculinity. Decades of horrible haircutting jobs on no-doubt-mortified show poodles by those scary dog-show types (or, even worse, the mad-genetic-scientist abomination of the miniature poodle) have done to the breed’s image what decades of boring 24-year-old dental hygienists have done to the Miata’s image.
Which isn’t to say that driving the Miata Club for several days didn’t turn me gayer than Rob Halford right away. Fortunately, we had the Leather Daddy cap from the Macho Man penalty handy, so I could dress appropriately.
Now, if you’re going to go shopping for Tom of Finland prints in your Miata and it’s raining— as it was just about the entire time I had the car— you’re going to want a convertible top that doesn’t leak.
Soft-top convertibles almost always leak, at least a little bit, it’s a big hassle to raise and lower them, and they let in a lot of wind noise when the top is up. This is not the case with the ’13 Miata; it takes about four seconds and very little effort to operate the top by hand while sitting in the driver’s seat. It never leaked a drop, regardless of how wild the storms got, and the top remained unperturbed by high winds while cruising at 80 MPH.
The HVAC system is unusually powerful for a Japanese car (Detroit always wins in this category, because Detroit automakers test their climate-control systems in places like Death Valley and Bemidji). This came in handy when I got soaked by rain during the performance of my LeMons Supreme Court duties; the Miata’s heater was able to dry out socks fairly quickly (because the car’s engine was kept running for hours at a time during repeated sock-drying cycles, I was not able to get personally verified fuel-economy figures for it… but I did manage to avoid catching a case of Houston Jungle Rot).
The Miata Club is the sporty version, with six-speed transmission (the base Miata Sport makes do with five), 17″ wheels, and a bunch of snazzy trim bits. For this, you pay $26,705 MSRP instead of the Sport’s $23,720.
The engine in all the manual-transmission ’13 Miatas is the same 167-horse DOHC 2-liter unit, and if British Leyland had been able to come up with anything even half this good, we’d all still be driving MGBs. 167 horsepower feels like plenty of power in this car, though I did get my doors blown off in a drag race with the rental Malibu driven by the rest of the LeMons HQ crew.
The 4.10 rear-axle gear ratio and 0.79:1 sixth gear means that the Miata’s engine is spinning pretty frantically during highway cruising, and I’m assuming that’s one of the main reasons for the not-so-great-for-a-2,400-pound-car fuel economy (claimed 21 city/28 highway). Steeper gears would mean an intolerable reduction in fun, so the fuel-economy penalty is worth paying.
The climate and sound-system controls use simple knobs and buttons. Everything here makes sense, though I can’t help wishing (once again) that the science-fiction aesthetic of 1980s Japanese car interiors would make a comeback.
The Miata is reasonably civilized on rough pavement and long highway drives, a bit less punitive— but also a bit less grippy— than I found the FR-S to be. The word that always comes up in Miata reviews, stretching back to the era of Operation Desert Storm, is “fun,” and it remains impossible to avoid this word when writing about the MX-5. As 11,498 before me have also written, this car manages to combine the joys of an old-timey Italian or British open sports car with the ability to use the thing as totally functional daily transportation.
My quick-and-dirty gauge for judging the level of corner-cutting build-quality shortcuts is a glance under the hood at the electrical connectors. The MX-5 uses pretty decent ones, though one of these days I’ll need to get a press car while I’m not working at a LeMons race, so I can have the time to pull a door panel and look at the stuff that always fails first.
There was one mosquito-in-my-ear irritation that I’d have to remedy, were I to buy this car. See the oil-pressure gauge dead in the center of the instrument cluster, where your eyes are going to be drawn every time you glance down? It’s actually an idiot light, i.e. it registers an “everything is OK” reading when the pressure switch is happy. The “idiot gauge” is quite common these days, if disappointing in a car that’s likely to get thrashed on a race track at some point in its career (racers usually don’t notice gauges other than the tach in the heat of battle, anyway, which is why LeMons racers tend to install gigantic oil-pressure idiot lights), but what really drives me nuts about this one is that it’s not a binary OK/PANIC idiot gauge. No, it’s a ternary OK/OK/PANIC gauge, with engine speed determining which of two readings the gauge will display. So, if I buy a new Miata— which I’m now dangerously tempted to do— I’m going to pull out the gauge cluster, disassemble it, replace the offending gauge with the guts from a normal analog gauge, and add the appropriate sender. Otherwise, the sight of the ternary idiot gauge would offend my geek sensibilities every time I drove the car.
What else? The sound system doesn’t pack enough bass for those of us who appreciate 21st-century levels of boom, but the aftermarket can solve that problem easily enough. Other than the image problem and resulting disapproval from dudes with anxieties about their own Perceived Testicular Heft (henceforth referred to as PTH), the who-gives-a-damn fuel-economy penalty from the nervous rear gear, and a couple of minor annoyances so small I feel petty just mentioning them, this car has nothing but pluses. In fact, it’s the only car I’ve ever reviewed that I could see myself buying new (I felt that way about another Mazda… until I took it to the gas station), though I’d probably save the three grand and get the 5-speed Sport. Used 6-speed transmissions and 17″ wheels are readily available for reasonable prices, any time you feel the need to upgrade.
So, the MX-5 Miata Club is slower on the road course and at the dragstrip than is the similarly priced FR-S, but it’s easier to drive like a hoon and not die, Mazda has put decades of work into making it hold up to track abuse, the aftermarket will provide every imaginable performance upgrade for the next century, and it’s just an all-around better-balanced package. If you must have space for more groceries and/or can’t stand the idea of living with a convertible, the FR-S makes slightly more sense.

29 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 01 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 02 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 03 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 04 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 05 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 06 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 07 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 08 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 09 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 10 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 11 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 12 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 13 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 14 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 15 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 16 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 17 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 18 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 19 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 20 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 21 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 22 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 23 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 24 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 25 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 26 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 27 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 28 - 2013 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 29 - Jackson the Standard Poodle in snow - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 29 - Caricature Mazda Miata - Picture courtesy of Car Town Forums 29 - Jackson the Standard Poodle - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 30 - Mazda Miata getting 24 Hours of LeMons Peoples Curse in Texas - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 68
Capsule Comparison Part 2: 1993 Mazda RX-7 Fri, 02 Nov 2012 18:00:16 +0000  


Deciding what to do with a 662 hp muscle car was hard enough. Deciding what to do with the last pristine nearly new RX-7 in the country is even harder — because you can’t do anything with it, really. You certainly can’t street park it. I left it in an open lot the first night, only to discover that someone had put out their cigarette on the decklid. That was it. I ended up paying prices that would make a Manhattanite blush just so I could leave it in a covered multi-story garage visible from the bedroom window of my condo. Night after night I would stare at the slippery yellow shape under the glow of the cheap halogen lights, like a father staring at his premature baby in the neo-natal unit, checking and re-checking despite the near zero probability of anything bad actually happening.

“We’re having a kegger tonight, if you want to come.”

The text message is from my brother, who was born in November, 1992. The same month and year that this RX-7 was delivered to Mazda Canada. It’s a weekday night and I’d have to drive 125 miles to get there, on an empty, mostly straight highway.  But here’s a chance for us to spend some time together, in a car as old as he is, without parents or peers around. It doesn’t happen as often as it should. I throw a change of clothes and my laptop into a bag, then make a beeline for the garage.

My old Miata, shod with slim tires and shaped like a bullet at both ends, lent itself well to being wheeled around parking garages. Not so with the RX-7. The air dam has the same profile and effective clearance as a bulldozer’s blade, and the 255-width front tires mean lots of clenched jaws and bicep work. Exiting the angled ramp of the garage requires popping the door and angling half your body outside the car, Valentino Rossi-style, to make sure you’re not scraping the front end on any curbs.

All of those picayune concerns evaporate once you’re out on the road. The width is still there, but the low hood and near 360 degree glass canopy offers amazing visibility when trying to change lines or dart in and out of traffic. The clutch takeup is beefier than that of the Miata, but has the same intuitive takeup point. Once I’ve escaped the urban hell of rush hour gridlock, the empty highway ramp beckons, and I can finally see what all the fuss is about the rotary engine.

Clarkson likened the Audi R8′s performance to smearing honey inside Keira Knightley, another example of his frequently bestowed, but rarely deserved,  superlatives. In the RX-7′s case, the 13B twin-rotor engine really is so smooth, so thrilling and so unlike anything else today that it could accurately be compared to twisting the adjustment knob on Bertel’s favorite adult novelty while it’s inside two of your favorite female celebrities at once. It really is that satisfying.

There is no real perceptible noise or furious forward thrust like that found in a Boss 302 Mustang  - in fact, it’s about as fast as a brand new V6 Mustang. Then again a protein bar and a steak can have similar nutritional value. The cable throttle itself is a welcome change from the lifeless servo units in every other car today, and every millimeter of travel translates into a bit of forward thrust that is undeniable and tangible. From 0-4500 rpm there’s a decent shove forward that feels perfectly adequate itself. Once the second, larger turbo comes in, however, there’s a hellfire blast of power, more Tesla than Mazda, and the scenery starts to move very quickly. The 7000 RPM upshift is punctuated with a crisp wastegate ppsshhhtttt and before you know it, you’re at the point of “I really didn’t know how fast I was going, officer”. The RX-7′s effortless ability to warp time and space belies the 255-horsepower rating until you consider that the car weighs 2800 lbs.

And yet before I can non-ironically give this old Mazda a non-ironical “greatest car in the worrrrrld” award, I’m harshly interrupted by its glaring flaws. The seats were apparently designed by the same people who ran the Hanoi Hilton and by mile 75, my lower back felt like it had an awl punched through it, repeatedly. The Bose Acoustic “WaveGuide” stereo also seemed to work on its own schedule; sometimes there would be radio reception, sometimes it would play very well out of one side of the car.

At mile 110, there is a bang and a clunk as the car begins to sag and thump on the driver’s side. Pulling over on the busy 401 freeway isn’t the life-threatening nightmare it usually is, on account of the light traffic at 10 P.M., and there is a Highway Patrolman situated on the shoulder a mere 25 yards behind me. The friendly constable shines a flashlight on the wheel, and it’s apparent that I suffered a full blowout. The sidewall is still attached to the rim, but the rest of the carcass hangs limply off the rim like a badly broken limb. “Holy shit bud,” he says with an almost too stereotypical Canadian accent, “I don’t know how you didn’t end up in the rhubarb.” We are not in Toronto anymore.



The plan is to get the car to my brother’s house on the temporary spare, and somehow get a tire sent down from Mazda HQ. It’s doubtful that the small college town will have the 255/45/16 tire in stock anywhere, so Mazda’s Chuck Reimer agreed to deliver one himself – apparently Mazda has a second RX-7, and they’ll simply borrow a wheel and tire from it to get it there. Of course, the temporary spare has gone flat overnight as well, and a flat-bed truck is now required to get to the dealership just a few miles down the road. It wouldn’t be an RX-7 if things didn’t go wrong.

The next day, after all impediments are removed, the drive back is less eventful. Pouring rain gives way to clear skies. My brother and I pig out on fast food, pour nearly $100 of premium gas in the tank, and stop to get parts for a beer funnel. We curse the poor seats and crappy stereo as he takes in what a car from his birth year was like. He’s incredulous that the RX-7 cost $47,000 Canadian dollars in 1993, roughly $100,000 in today’s money. “You’ve got to be kidding me. With this interior? This is so crappy. I get it on the Miata, but one hundred grand?” The quirks of the car are totally foreign to him too. “I’ve never been in a car that needs to be warmed up and cooled down. Or one where the exhaust gas can get too hot [there's a warning light for that on the center console].”

We’re in suburbia now, stopped at a long traffic light. The timing is right. “Get out of the car,” I say. “Drive it. You tell me if it’s great or not.”

“Nah, I better not. Don’t want to risk it.”

In truth, I’m tired from the ordeal of the last 24 hours and my back is aching from the uncomfortable seats. My brother is one of the better candidates for this task. He is responsible and dispassionate enough not to test the limits of the RX-7. “It’s ok. You’ve driven my car, you’ve driven the EVO, you’ve driven the Boss and the GT-R. You’ll be fine. And you need some context.”

After the driver change, my brother approaches the car with a mix of joy and trepidation as if he were nervously cradling a newborn. I urge him on. “Go ahead, lay in to it, nothing’s going to happen. My warnings about no traction control and double the power of my Miata may have spooked him.

The smile on his face broadens in time with the sweep of the tachometer needle. “I’ve never felt anything like this before. I love the torque – and I always love a real cable throttle.”

He continues. “I’s like watching sports highlights from the same period. If you watch hockey then versus now, they game is still great, but the players are so much bigger, faster and stronger. It’s weird, because this car is 19 years old – but it’s brand new, and I’m judging it like it’s a new car.”

As he speaks, I’m listening to his argument while examining his technique behind the wheel. For someone who doesn’t live and breathe cars, he drives well. Hands at 9 and 3, steady with his movements, eyes looking well ahead. His friends have all grown up ensconced in marshmallow-soft luxury crossovers loaded with every active safety feature known to man, but he’s been in a few real cars and understands that “sporting” doesn’t just mean a trim level on the BMW X5.  Somewhere in the four years that separates us, however, things changed irrevocably and the appeal of an elemental, eccentric sports car faded. At least the driving skills needed to enjoy one have been imprinted on him, should those cars ever return. Fortunately, driving adventures with your loved ones never require context.

photo (15) DSLRDump-465-450x300 Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail 1993 Mazda RX7. Photo courtesy Derek Kreindler 1993 Mazda RX7. Photo courtesy Derek Kreindler 1993 Mazda RX7. Photo courtesy Derek Kreindler 1993 Mazda RX7. Photo courtesy Derek Kreindler 1993 Mazda RX7. Photo courtesy Derek Kreindler 1993 Mazda RX7. Photo courtesy Derek Kreindler 1993 Mazda RX7. Photo courtesy Derek Kreindler 1993 Mazda RX7. Photo courtesy Derek Kreindler 1993 Mazda RX7. Photo courtesy Derek Kreindler 1993 Mazda RX7. Photo courtesy Derek Kreindler 1993 Mazda RX7. Photo courtesy Derek Kreindler 1993 Mazda RX7. Photo courtesy Derek Kreindler 1993 Mazda RX7. Photo courtesy Derek Kreindler 1993 Mazda RX7. Photo courtesy Derek Kreindler 1993 Mazda RX7. Photo courtesy Derek Kreindler 1993 Mazda RX7. Photo courtesy Derek Kreindler 1993 Mazda RX7. Photo courtesy Derek Kreindler 1993 Mazda RX7. Photo courtesy Derek Kreindler 1993 Mazda RX7. Photo courtesy Derek Kreindler
]]> 34
Capsule Comparison Part 1: 1993 Mazda Miata Thu, 01 Nov 2012 13:00:22 +0000

“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.” “Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!” He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand. “I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly. “She’ll see.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby

The idea that modern cars are dull, derivative and devoid of character has been gaining a lot of currency over the past few years. In truth, it’s nothing new. In LJK Setright’s heyday, he was already advancing this trope, while claiming the cars of post-war period were the last of the breed as far as emotional stirring transportation was concerned.

The relative nature of driving and the nostalgia that goes hand in hand with cars from a bygone era has kept this notion alive. Anyone who has left a lover, re-united with them and then broke it off for good, knows that the heightened expectations and euphoria that accompanies the initial re-union quickly gives way to the sobering reality of bad habits and feelings of contempt. Owning a classic car has many parallels.

In September, when I had the chance to drive not one but two of the greatest sports cars of the 1990s; both were 1993 models, with less than 30,000 original miles, and both were Mazdas. One was a privately owned MX-5, the other an RX-7, owned by Mazda Canada that lived most of its life sitting dormant in a warehouse. Both are now as close to showroom as possible, driven sparingly and maintained with painstaking care.

As a Miata owner, the 1.6L car is the benchmark against which every other Miata is measured, but I’d never driven one. My first example was a first-generation 1.8L car that I adored and neglected. It was the exact car I coveted in high school, the ultra-rare British Racing Green on Tan version that was a Canadian exclusive, and and that car and I became permanently intertwined. So much so that when I bought my second Miata, a 2003, my friends objected largely on the basis that “it wasn’t the green one”  and could never measure up. The second generation car is barely heavier, a fair bit more powerful and much easier to live with every day compared to my 1.8L NA. But the 1.6L is even better.

On paper, the differences between these two cars are negligible, but there is an very tangible lightness to the 1.6L cars that was somehow lost in 1994, when the larger motor was added. The 1.6L motor is livelier than the big-bore Miata, freer revving and displaying much more charm. Make no mistake, this car is still slow, but there are benefits too. The 100 extra pounds make a huge difference in the way the car responds to lateral movements, and the skinny, low-grip tires only enhance the feeling that you are driving a Smurf-blue bathtub mounted on a skateboard.

Most early Miatas in this part of the world have been ravaged by the grind of harsh roads and even harsher weather. This car’s owner is particularly meticulous, maintaining it only with original parts and an obsessive maintenance schedule. Despite the 36,000 kilometers on the clock, it’s had three timing belt changes throughout its life, with a fourth due up soon [this was initially reported incorrectly as eight changes - Ed]. This car is intended to be an heirloom, and that alone stops me from really laying into it and extracting every last molecule of performance.

This paradox the main reason why I’d never own a car like this; every time you drive it, there is an infinitesimal degradation of its condition that can never be regained. After a few years of enjoying it like a Miata should be enjoyed, the chassis will flex, the seats with crack and the paint will fade. There is no counterpart that can absorb the ravages of age by proxy, Dorian Grey-style. I could never live my life knowing that something capable of bringing me so much joy could only be used sparingly, on rare occasions when conditions are perfect. But the owner is a much more disciplined and mature human being than I am, and those moments, often spent with his wife or daughter in the passenger seat, are likely that much more satisfying.

Despite what the Miata zealots will tell you, the current NC does capture that urgency and visceral fun, even if it’s a bit heavier, with a higher beltline and goofy front end styling. I would happily take one, and not be afraid to go and do donuts in a shopping mall parking lot after a fresh snowfall, lest I get salt on it. The heated seats would keep me warm, and the folding hardtop would add another layer of insulation, even if it felt like an albatross around the car’s neck.

It would be a compromise for sure, but if I ever needed to remind myself of what I was missing out on, the genuine article would only be a phone call away.

Stay tuned for Part 2, featuring the RX-7 and the car’s trademark habit of catastrophic mechanical failure

DSLRDump-430-450x300 Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail Miata2012 032 Miata2012 030 Miata2012 028 Miata2012 027 Miata2012 024 Miata2012 022 Miata2012 021 Miata2012 018 Miata2012 012 DSLRDump 457 DSLRDump 454 DSLRDump 451 DSLRDump 440 DSLRDump 439 DSLRDump 438 DSLRDump 435 DSLRDump 434 DSLRDump 433 DSLRDump 430 DSLRDump 429 DSLRDump 427 DSLRDump 423 DSLRDump 419 ]]> 54
Review: 2013 Mazda CX-5 Mon, 29 Oct 2012 12:00:54 +0000

In search of the compact crossover that best impersonates a hot hatch, we first examined the Volkswagen Tiguan. The Tig proved quick and composed, but expensive and softer than the typical Teuton. For a lower price and sharper handling, no brand holds more promise than Mazda. But focusing intently on driving enthusiasts with limited budgets hasn’t proved profitable. So with its latest products Mazda has been putting eggs in a second basket by also making fuel economy a top priority. The Mazda CX-5 is the first all-new product to emerge from Hiroshima’s new “SKYACTIV” dual focus.

My wife was smitten by the looks of the Mazda, but mostly because of its “zeal red” paint. To my eye, the CX-5’s nose-heavy proportions promise more than the powertrain can deliver and the parts don’t quite flow together to form a cohesive whole. Still, I’ll grant that most people see an attractive, sporty crossover.

Inside, CX-5’s designers have been inarguably successful, crafting the cleanest, most upscale cabin from Mazda in some time. The “Plan 9 from Hiroshima” aesthetic that detracts from the Mazda3’s appeal is nowhere in evidence. Piano black trim and red stitching inject enough visual interest to ward off the coal bin blues.

The CX-5’s windshield is more steeply raked than the Tiguan’s, but the view forward isn’t overly compromised. The view rearward fares less well thanks to a rising beltline and thick C-pillars. In the Grand Touring a rearview camera and blind spot warning system compensate. The seats, though the firmest in this group, are well-shaped for comfort if not lateral support. A high console makes for a sportier, more cockpit-like driving position.

Rear seat passengers get a lot of space but, unlike in the VW and Ford, no vents with which to cool it. Partly for this reason the air conditioning sometimes struggles to cool the cabin. At least it doesn’t have a large roof opening to contend with. Unlike those in the other two, the CX-5’s sunroof is a conventionally-sized, single panel unit.

Cargo volume is the largest in the threesome. Even better, on the way home from the grocery store you can take curves at speed without fear of inundating the cargo area carpet. A well on each side of the main floor is perfectly sized for a gallon milk container.

Other reviewers have praised the Mazda’s handling. But while the CX-5 does feel tighter and more precise than the Tiguan and most other compact crossovers, with good manners when hustled, it’s no Mazda3. Owing to heavier, slower, duller steering than in the hatchback and a higher seating position within a larger vehicle, you’ll never forget you’re driving a crossover. Handling is a strength compared to other crossovers, but not compared to a good hatch.

Mazda’s engineers managed to reduce the CX-5’s curb weight to an admirably low 3,426 pounds. The significantly smaller Tiguan weighs about 165 pounds more, and the new Escape weighs over 200 pounds more even with its lightest engine. This aids handling, but they’ll have to somehow cut another quarter ton before the 155-horsepower 2.0-liter SKYACTIV engine feels worthy of the chassis. The turbocharged 2.0-liters in the others feel far stronger. The CX-5’s engine does nearly match the Escape’s lesser engines (a non-turbo 2.5 and a turbo 1.6) in performance, but still trails in sound quality. A wheezy, buzzy soundtrack makes it seem even more strained than it is. This isn’t what the big grille promises! On top of the engine thrash, there’s also more wind and road noise inside the CX-5. Some of the weight savings seems to have been managed through reduced sound deadening. The SKYACTIV six-speed automatic performs well in the Mazda3. In the CX-5 it has too much of a power deficit to make up, and the combined powertrain feels unresponsive.

Ads tout the CX-5’s 26 mpg city, 35 mpg highway EPA ratings. However, these impressive numbers are only earned by the powertrain hardly anyone will buy, a six-speed manual transmission connected to only the front wheels. Add the automatic transmission and all-wheel-drive, and the ratings drop to 25/31. These numbers are still a significant 4 mpg higher than those of the Tiguan. In casual suburban driving the trip computer reported 28. Like the CX-5’s handling, this stat is good compared to other crossovers, but is middling at best compared to a hatchback.

Ah, but the price. The CX-5 Grand Touring looks more expensive than the Tiguan SE, especially inside, and is packed with far more features, but actually costs much less. Even with the Tech Package (nav, proximity key, xenon headlights) the sticker isn’t much over $30,000. Compared to the VW, this is a $3,300 savings before adjusting for feature differences using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, and $5,800 less afterwards.

Add this relatively low price to the Mazda CX-5’s roomy, attractive interior, best-in-segment fuel economy, and sporty (for a crossover) handling, and the total more than compensates for the weak engine for many people. The CX-5 has been selling very well–the parent company might yet be saved. Those who must have more thrust might not have long to wait. While a MazdaSpeed-worthy boosted mill isn’t even rumored, allegedly a 2.5-liter SKYACTIV engine will join the roster next spring for the 2014 model year.

Mazda provided an insured vehicle with a tank of gas.

Michael Karesh operates, an online source of car reliability and pricing information.

CX-5 vs Tiguan, picture courtesy Michael Karesh CX-5 front, picture courtesy Michael Karesh CX-5 front quarter, picture courtesy Michael Karesh CX-5 side, picture courtesy Michael Karesh CX-5 rear quarter, picture courtesy Michael Karesh CX-5 interior, picture courtesy Michael Karesh CX-5 rear seat, picture courtesy Michael Karesh CX-5 cargo, picture courtesy Michael Karesh CX-5 engine, picture courtesy Michael Karesh CX-5 engine uncovered, picture courtesy Michael Karesh ]]> 56
Capsule Review: 1993 Mazda RX-7 Tue, 14 Aug 2012 16:30:08 +0000
Bribery! While TTAC has a Get Behind Me Satan approach to the buffet-table and the press junket, we’re still mostly susceptible to the kryptonite lure of interesting cars.

So when Mazda called me up and asked if I’d like to sample a little of their driving heritage in a blatant PR move, I huffily told them that I could not in good conscience be complicit in helping further burnish their brand image as a manufacturer of sporting products. I reminded them that I thought the Mazda2 too slow, the Mazda3 too ugly, the Mazdaspeed3 possessed of worse torque steer than a one-legged unicyclist, the cabin of the MX-5 designed for people with short legs and prehensile elbows, and that they didn’t even build a rotary engine any more, so what was the point?

Naturally, I said all these things in my internal voice during the 3.7 nanosecond pause before, “OohyespleaseWhencanIpickitupHowaboutnow?”

Who’s ready for some yellow journalism?

I was fifteen when the RX-7 bowed. Fifteen and land-locked up in the hills of Ryder Lake, a good half-hour drive from most of my friends. I’d been technically capable of driving for years, just not legally allowed to, and the prospect of my learner’s license danced on the horizon, as tantalizing as the ladies in Playboy Magazine- bzzt. Victoria’s Secret- bzzt. Sears catalog- ding!

Meanwhile, the industrious people of Nippon were building some of the hottest machinery ever to come out of that country: the last Samurai of the twilight of the Japanese automotive empire.

The NSX put Ferrari on notice. The 300ZX twin-turbo wanted to play hide and seek with the Corvette. The Twin-Turbo MKIV Supra strode the land like a colossus, and – were you a fan of Queen’s “Fat-Bottomed Girls” – there was always the all-wheel-drive Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4.

The Japanese had all gone completely supercar-bonkers: name a manufacturer and they had a heavyweight in the ring. And then along came Mazda and a slight *pop* was heard as my fifteen-year-old brain exploded.

Even now, even in this somewhat garish hue, this car is beautifully-proportioned. It’s old enough to drink (at least, in this country it is), and yet if the sheets had come off the first FT-86 concept to reveal this shape, everyone would have cheered lustily. After my couldn’t-care-less-about-cars wife followed it through traffic as I dropped it off, she remarked, “I can’t believe it’s not a new car!”

Me either, although this one shows evidence of being repainted. No surprise to ’90s Mazda owners, the paint on my old MX-6 certainly faded from Testarossa to General Lee.

Aside from the paint, it’s factory-fresh in basic trim, with the original lightweight 16” alloys and pop-up headlights. This car sat somnolent in the lobby of Mazda’s head offices in Ontario for some time and has just 20,000kms on the clock. Let’s show it some coastal hospitality.

Forget the modern exterior – the interior of this machine is pure 90s – it’s Ace of Basic, if you will. Cloth seats, cramped quarters and a dearth of amenities: the steering wheel doesn’t adjust and you only get the simplest of gauges. Luckily, I was easily able to install satellite navigation, and internet connectivity…

Everything’s operational! Apart from the mirror adjustment controller. And one of the speakers. And if you go around a corner too quickly, the radio head-unit resets itself and fills the cabin with raspy static. “The air-conditioning works!” as I was proudly told when I picked up the car – it does, but only in a Neville Chamberlain sort of way. Still, these are merely the flesh wounds of time.

And nothing compared to what might not be working on this gorgeous, somewhat temperamental machine. The explosive potential of what lies underhood is legendary: the twin-turbo rotary engine’s fragility makes Royal Doulton look like depleted uranium. I certainly hope whoever had this thing before me didn’t cheap out and fill it with regular.

I coddle the car through the first few miles, letting her get up to operating temperature. It really does smell like the ’90s in here – an unidentifiable plastic miasma that’s exactly like my old Mazda. It’s a whiff of the past, a techno variant of the horse-hair and vinyl that always gets the old codgers all misty.

The needle on the temperature gauge reads 3/4s from “H” – operating temperature as per instructions. It’s fifty klicks to my house, I gotta full tank of gas, half a working stereo, it’s sunny out and I forgot my sunglasses.

Hit it.

Listen kids, don’t meet your heroes.*
*- Unless your heroes happen to kick all 31 flavours of ass.

There’s an old Monty Python sketch which has John Cleese teaching a class called something like, Self-Defense Against Fresh Fruit. At one point, Cleese shouts, “Come at me with that banana!” I come at Vancouver with that banana.

The FD-chassis RX-7′s brittle, sequentially-turbocharged 13b has 255hp (at least it did when new) and the car weighs just 2800lbs. It has a suspension designed with the help of 1990s supercomputers (wow!), a limited slip differential, four-channel anti-lock brakes and traction control in the form of four round black things called “tires” that provide traction. When they’re not too busy screaming.

The low-end power from the smaller turbo provides slingshot torque that has me questioning whether I should bother dipping into the big boost. Oh, go on then. The rotary noticeably pauses before the bigger blower comes online – somewhat alarming given the reputation and the questionable provenance of the fuel, but she pulls strongly, blitzing the onramp and howling through a tile-walled tunnel.

I sit low, snugged in tight by the bolstered seats and fixed steering wheel. It feels very much like a long-nosed Miata with a weirdly satisfying motor (the startup whirr is absurdly sci-fi), and it can and will pitch sideways if flung at a corner in a manner that’d have the entire Initial-D cast eating their improbable hairdos in envy.

It’s raw and elemental and whoopsy-daisy fast, and everything I’d hoped it would be. Every chance I get, I’m out there behind the wheel of Unmellow Yellow, attacking the undulating tarmac with- dear Christ in Heaven, am I out of gas AGAIN?

What killed the RX-7? Well, yes, the tendency to go through apex seals didn’t help, and neither did the astronomical price (this one cost about $45K new, which in 1990s money is approximately one hundred million billion dollars). What kills driving one around today is the fuel economy. Actually scratch that: you can argue that the RX-7 gets oil economy, but when it comes to its gasoline usage, you can’t really use the word “economy”. It gets fuel uneconomy.

In the short week I had it, this thing was costing me about $20 worth of 94 octane gas for every thirty miles of driving I did. The ‘vette I currently have is doing considerably better. Solution: swap in an LS7 for fuel-savings – that’s the kinda hybrid I can get behind!

Even so, the RX-7 provided a brief glimpse of a lost time. While the GT-R can be said to be carrying that world-beating torch for Japan, it’s the antithesis of the RX in many ways. It’s a different kind of dream to a different set of engineers – you might as well compare a katana to a cruise missile.

Expensive to buy, unreliable to own, costly to keep on the road and borderline dangerous in the wet.

In other words: utterly fantastic. I miss it.

Mazda provided the vehicle tested and insurance.

]]> 80
Boomerang Basement Bolides – First Place: Mazda Miata PRHT Thu, 09 Aug 2012 15:55:03 +0000  

The conventions of auto writing require that we come up with at least one labored metaphor for every comparison test, so here goes: You guys remember that movie It Might Get Loud? Obviously, the Scion FR-S is Jack White: deliberately stripped-down and retro, perhaps too self-consciously context-sensitive, adored without reservation by a bunch of people who have never signed a mortgage. The Genesis 2.0t R-Spec is the Edge: a lot of sharp edges and technical brilliance intended to cover up a fundamental deficit of talent.

The Miata? Well…


When we meet Mr. Page in the aforementioned movie, he is being chauffeured to an ancient English home. He is a sixty-ish man in a bespoke greatcoat: quiet, reserved, old. He tells a few stories in a voice that barely registers over the road noise and looks thoughtfully out the window at the lovely countryside and whatnot. You know he wouldn’t fit into the infamous dragon suit, and you wouldn’t want to see him in it even if he could manage the trick. Sure, he used to be a rocker, but now he’s a dead ringer for your college roommate’s grandfather.

Then, somebody hands him a guitar. Oh, look, old chap, it’s that 1959 Gibson he used to carry around. Frightfully ancient now, just like the fellow wielding it. Jack White is watching him dispassionately, perhaps wondering exactly why they’ve disinterred the man and the instrument for the movie when he, Jack White, is the man of the hour, he‘s the one who soaks the panties now, he‘s the one with the hipper-than-thou record company and super-precious Nashville building chock-full of limited-press vinyl records, this guy is as dead as Elvis, just doesn’t know it yet, and it appears Mr. Page is plugging in now, and might manage to give it a strum or something OH MY GOD HE’S PLAYING WHOLE LOTTA LOVE.

At that precise moment, anything and everything associated with the movie disappears and it becomes plainly obvious to everyone that, despite their millions of record sales and undisputed merits, Jack White and the Edge aren’t fit to carry Page’s dragon jockstrap.

The same thing happens as I, fresh from ten laps each in the FR-S and Genesis, hop in the Miata, loaf down the front straight courtesy of the never-impressive normally-aspirated MZR/Duratec/whatevs, and tap the brakes briefly before bending in for Turn One. Well, this car is cramped, and it’s slow, and OH MY GOD IT ISNT EVEN CLOSE. This is a sports car. Pay attention, Toyota. Once upon a time, you guys made a sports car. You made a few of them — the star-crossed turbo second-gen MR2 and the miniature-Boxster MR Spyder — that equaled or surpassed the greatness of this particular Miata. You know how to do it.

More importantly, Mazda’s made it easy for you. The Touring-spec power-retractable-hard-top Miata is the least charming MX-5 in history. To begin with, it’s too big, it sits too high, and it has neither the Elan-through-a-copy-machine charm of the first-gen car or the sleek sports appeal of the second-gen. It weighs too much and it sure as hell costs too much; no matter which country you call home, this is probably the most expensive car of our trio and it delivers the least content by some large margin.

It’s possible to whip the “NC” Miata into shape as a race car, as I know from experience. Our test car, however, hasn’t received that sort of fettling. Instead, it has a folding metal hardtop. Why? The Miata has always been a convertible. It makes sense that way. For more than twenty years, however, people have been demanding a Miata Coupe. Other than a very brief Japanese-market production run of 200 NB Coupes, Mazda’s never felt like responding to that request. Instead, we have the PRHT. I can’t see weekend warriors spending the extra money for it over the soft-top, and the people who want a Coupe want one for reasons of weight and stiffness which the PRHT explicitly fails to address. Call it the “Miata New York”; it only makes sense if you live in an area where people cut soft-tops open to steal whatever’s been left in the glove compartment. We didn’t ask for a PRHT, but we aren’t a color rag and we don’t get free Honda S2000s with signed-over titles sitting in the glove compartment so we can go play SCCA racer on someone else’s dime. Instead, we got what happened to be in the press fleet, and that was the retiree-spec PRHT. Ugh.

Going into our test, I was reasonably certain that the hardcore, touge-tofu-dorifto FR-S was going to humiliate the Miata. It made sense: a newer, faster, stiffer car should win against this thoroughly-compromised end-of-run special. I could not have been more wrong. The FR-S and Genesis are both far too large and clumsy to compete. You don’t realize how big the Scion is until you sit in the Mazda. Yes, the current car is pretty monstrous by Miata or Elan standards. No, it’s not a 1.6-liter NA. It’s not that good. (Full disclosure: your author owned an ex-SCCA National Solo Winner Miata “C” package ’94, purchased as a surprise gift for his wife, who drove it twice and pronounced it “weak” before returning to her Stage 3 SRT-4.) It’s still good enough, however.

Against an MR2 Turbo, the Miata would seem slow, weak, prone to pushing. Against an MR Spyder, the Miata would seem like a bit of a Bayliner, truthfully, particularly in tight sections. Against the FR-S, the Miata comes off like a freakin’ Caterham. It’s only a couple of inches narrower by the tape, but in practice it feels like the FR-S is a foot wider, a Testarossa to the Miata’s 308GTS. This is not something that anybody on the Internet wants to admit, but if you have to group our trio by driving characteristics, the Genesis and FR-S are in one basket and the Miata is in another.

It’s such a joy to steer around Toronto Motorsports Park; the Miata always communicates exactly what’s happening. Even at the more-present-in-magazine-articles-than-reality 10/10ths, I can’t imagine that anybody short of a ham-handed idiot could crash this car. Anything the Scion can do, the Mazda can do better. At a place like VIR, the lack of power and undesirable aero profile would cost the little convertible money, but on the Alan Wilson-style tracks with their short straights and compound corners the Mazda can deliver the tofu just as well as the FR-S. Naturally, the Genesis has so much more power that it just disappears into the distance regardless of track layout. You’d need an SCCA rulebook autocross course, complete with 45mph max corners, to equalize the two.

Driven in isolation, the Miata’s 167-horsepower four seems energetic enough, and as has been the case since 1990, the shift quality is outstanding. The brakes are thoroughly unremarkable sliding-caliper affairs but they work fine. All the control efforts are light and well-matched. It’s possible to get better steering feel in a production car, but you’ll need to hurry, since the 987 Boxster has almost disappeared from showroom floors.

The current Miata has been roundly criticized for its suspension tuning, and that criticism is valid. There’s more roll than strictly necessary and the car can feel a bit tippy-toe at times. For about $1400 you can do Koni Yellows and aftermarket springs. I’d certainly make that change on my personal car, but descriptions of the stock settings as “scary” or “uncontrollable” are either hyperbolic or incompetent. You’re not going to roll the car. I tried, believe me, mostly to upset our News Editor Derek Kriendler who was in the passenger seat at the time.

Mazda’s perfectly aware that the Miata is a third car for most of its owners, and they build it that way. What I mean is this: the interior is high-quality and clearly built to last. The plastics are durable, the vehicle is easy to service, and save for the aforementioned PRHT there’s no stupid gimmickry. There’s no SYNC system or the like, because Mazda understands you’re going to keep your Miata for ten or twenty years and by the time you’re ready to sell, today’s most advanced system will be as embarrassing as the “Your Door Is A Jar” electronic-voice system from a 1982 Datsun Maxima would be today.

At the end of our testing day (which, again, we shared with AutoGuide) we were informed that we had about half an hour with which to drive a shortened variant of the track. The AutoGuide crew heard this news and immediately ran for the FR-S, which was sitting next to my Boxster in the grid. Derek and I were between them and the FR-S. We looked at eachother… what should we do? As one, we turned away from the Toyota and walked back to the Miata to put fifteen or so more laps in. This current MX-5 may be the worst Miata in history, but it’s still the best car in this test. Deal with it, kids.

Images courtesy of Julie Hyde, who thought she was just coming along for the Mike Stern gig in Toronto that night.

]]> 119
TTAC Track Days Episode 2: Scion FR-S vs. Hyundai Genesis Coupe 2.0T vs. Mazda MX-5 Tue, 07 Aug 2012 15:15:14 +0000 Click here to view the embedded video.

In our second installment, we take the Scion FR-S to the track, along with the heavier, but more powerful Hyundai Genesis 2.0T and its spiritual antecedent, the Mazda MX-5. Oh, and there are special guests from Japan and America.


]]> 143