Sabtu, 07 Juni 2008



Top Gear: Mazda RX8

By Robert Farago

Fancy a game of "spot the triangle"? The RX8 wants to play. I spotted a triangle between the exhausts, in the front spoiler, embedded in the bonnet, under the headrests and on the top of the gear lever. They're there to remind us that Mazda's top-shelf sports car has a rotary engine, which consists of two triangle-shaped rotors, four spark plugs and… that's about it. So what? Most drivers wouldn't care if their car was powered by racing hamsters - just as long as it doesn't break.

As you might expect from a car with a four-year, 50,000-mile, bumper-to-bumper warranty, the RX8 is reliable enough. Any doubts about this singular machine centre on its performance and handling, rather than its quirky propulsion. Sports car buyers want to know one thing: how's it drive? To which the only possible answer is "like a motorcycle".

Excluding the two-wheeled dinosaurs known as Harley Davidsons, motorcycles are known for their light weight and hi revs. In the hands of Japanese engineers, the combination creates the kind of visceral acceleration and telepathic handling that leads large numbers of speed-crazed kids straight into a tree. Still, it's fun while it lasts - the same sort of fun provided by the featherweight, rpm-mad RX8. Here's how it works…

Imagine you're zizzing along in third gear, waiting for an opportunity to put pedal to metal. The instant you floor it, the RX8's tacho needle begins an Olympic sprint around the dial straight to - hold on, is that really 9000rpms? "Nine", as in one before "ten"? After a few seconds spent listening to the binging rev limiter, you look down at the speedo and discover you're doing over 80mph, with three more gears available for your dining and dancing pleasure. All of which offer identical levels of blender-smooth grunt and go.

Slot the flyweight gearbox into fourth, fifth or sixth. Guide the RX8 into a bend. Notice that the turn-in is quick, crisp and accurate. As you seek out the apex of the turn, the RX8's perfectly-balanced chassis adjusts to your throttle and helm inputs both intimately and infinitely. You can change your attitude mid-corner without life-threatening repercussions.

Meanwhile, the 18" Bridgestones grab the tarmac with well-mannered tenaciousness. The suspension, though comfort-biased, absorbs surface imperfections with no appreciable loss of traction. Around you go; no fuss, no muss. More curves? A little over-taking perhaps? With just 2.9 turns from lock-to-lock, you can use the RX8's electrically-assisted rack and pinion steering to flick the car back and forth like a sports bike.

Put it all together, make liberal use of the RX8's serious stoppers, and you're free to thrash this 1373 kilo rice rocket to an inch of its/your life. It takes a major act of demented hooliganism to get the car bent out of shape - and even then a reasonable driver has an excellent shot at regaining control.

The RX8's sure-footed velvety prowess demands a bit of mental acclimatization. The lack of engine noise (up to 5000rpms) and vibration makes full acceleration so effortless that pressing on becomes the default option. Temperate throttle use (i.e. protecting your driving license) requires considerable restraint. Resisting the urge to carry the RX8's perpetually-mounting speed through the twisty bits is equally daunting. Because you can, you do.

Getting comfortable with the RX8's exterior design is also a bit of a "challenge". This beholder found little beauty to delight his eye. The front's open-wheel-racer look is way cool, but the truncated back end and hideous rear window leave me cold. I also reckon the 8's terminally cheerful Pokemon face looks better on the chick-friendly MX5 than this, their no-holds-barred sports car.

Actually, I lie. Despite its rapid pace (0 to 60 in 5.9 seconds) and sterling road manners, the RX8 is not a hard-core street racer. For one thing, the RX8's suspension doesn't blur your vision and loosen your fillings. For another, it comes with rear seats. OK, they only accommodate small children, and you'd have to leave the car chairs at home, but hey, they're more than big enough for a baby boomer to point out to his wife and say, "See? I told you it's sensible."

And so it is. The RX8 offers enthusiasts reasonable practicality and tremendous value for money. Tick every available option - six-speed gearbox, bigger engine, traction control, bi-xenon headlights, fog lights, heated leather seats, Bose audio system with 6-CD changer, power moonroof, the works - and you'd still be hard-pressed to spend $32k (UK Price ~£23,400). There aren't a whole lot of sports cars at that price that can keep up with the RX8. In fact, when it comes to bang for the buck, the RX8's only real competition is… a motorcycle.


Top Gear - Mazda MX5

By Robert Farago

The new Mazda MX5 is the sports car I always wanted. It's a small, sexy, sure-footed thrill machine that easily and completely outwits all those huge, over-embellished, slow-witted American muscle cars. The only problem is, I wanted the MX5 way back in '75. Things have moved on since then. There's a wide range of well-balanced sports cars vying for the enthusiast's attention. Some of them are even American. And none of them are as dangerous as Mazda's diminutive roadster.

Endless reviews praise the MX5's purity of form, clarity of purpose and banquet of sensations. None mention the pint-sized roadster's lack of "compatibility". In other words, when the MX5 collides with something, the something's driver gets out and says "Dang!" whereas the MX5 driver… doesn't get out. No wonder the website's safety section begins with "Beyond the safety benefits of having a car that allows you to react quickly to avoid hazardous situations…" and touts "systems that help make it easier to avoid accidents in the first place."

Of course, Mazda's right: the best way to survive an accident is not to have one. There's no question that [what my two-year-old called] "the baby car" is supernaturally maneuverable– as you'd expect from a balanced two-seater that weighs less than half a Lincoln Navigator. Although there was nothing wrong with the way the last MX5 danced the light fantastic, the new rag top offers sharpened everything: chassis, brakes, engine, steering, suspension, gearbox, the lot. You can nip, dart, cut, thrust, hang a Louie and generally thrash the car some 25% faster than you could previously.

If you can't drive this puppy fast, you can't drive. But I challenge any enthusiast worth his Sparco shoes to drive it slow. For one thing, the MX5's 2.0-liter four-pot buzzes all the way from the basement to the penthouse, with genuine shove lingering at the top of the rev range. Why wouldn't you cane it? For another, the steering is ponderous at the straight ahead. When you fling the MX5 into a corner, the helm springs to life, providing handful after handful of delicious feedback. Why wouldn't you dice? The brakes are game for a laugh: strong, fade, free and progressive. Why wouldn't you slip into grin mode at every opportunity?

Why not indeed? My time with the MX5 gave me a profound respect for its owners. Where I once saw MX5 drivers as lifestyle victims in search of cutesy-tootsie street cred, I now see them as irredeemable throttle jockeys risking life and limb for the sheer joy of clipping an apex or avoiding an SUV making a left turn from the right hand lane. In this, the MX5 is an ideal partner: ready, willing and able to squirt through the tightest of spaces into the mystical hidden lane. In fact, the highway is the only place where the roadster doesn't shine, but buying a Mazda MX5 for long-distance cruising is like buying a Honda Odyssey for track work.

Mazda has wandered into borderline OCD in their attempts to eliminate any other reason NOT to buy an MX5. Visually, the artist formerly known as Miata has traded suppository chic for a more sophisticated and aggressive appearance. The MX5's flared wheel arches and post-modern power dome are perfectly judged addenda to the basic bathtub shape. The MX5 has such a well-judged form it creates an optical illusion; you think you're still ten yards away when you bump into it. And apologize. While the car's slightly more generous but still teeny weeny proportions maintain its position as an automotive gay icon, it's now more like the Village People's construction worker than, um, the leather one.

Inside, Mazda has opted for the Audi funeral parlor look, minus the high quality plastics. The fake piano wood running across the dash would jar on a Fischer Price keyboard, and the faux aluminum steering wheel surrounds and rollover hoops are less convincing than Fritz Saukel's Nuremberg defense. But the overall effect is dignified and refined: an exponential improvement over the previous car's cabin in both look and feel. The MX5's audio system is the only major letdown; it makes FM radio sound like AM. The aural assault is an unforgivable technological lapse for a vehicle in which fun is Job One.

Aside from the tinny radio, the 16-year-old MX5 challenges the 911 as the world's most highly evolved automobile. That said, unlike potential Porsche ownership, it's best to approach MX5 possession by asking yourself the question Henry V asked his troops: "Do you want to live forever?" The truth is, if someone had handed me the keys to an MX5 when I was a teenager, I couldn't have written this review.


By Michael Karesh

If any mainstream brand can build an SUV that handles like a sports car, it’s Mazda. The Japanese automaker has a proven track record of developing vehicles with superior agility and dynamic appeal. Little wonder that ads for Mazda’s new CX-7 imply that it drives like a sports car, and that most junket-based reviews of the new “crossover” verify the claim. Well, I’ve driven the CX-7 and I’ve driven sports cars and the CX-7 is no sports car.

Looking at Mazda’s new crossover, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. The CX-7 combines the MazdaSpeed6’s big-grilled nose, the RX-8’s protruding fenders, a laid-back windshield and a complete absence of straight lines. While the sporty-looking result distances the CX-7 from the mainstream of SUV design, the relentless surface effects deployed to disguise the machine’s fundamental portliness don’t meld into a coherent whole. More to the point, aerodynamics do not driving dynamics make.

The CX-7’s cabin comes closer to realizing the intended car-like gestalt. While a liberal application of hard, ungrained plastic risks placing passengers in econobox Hell, artful styling and metal-effect trim yield an intriguingly ultra-modern atmosphere (at least in the black interior). The Grand Touring model even adds a nifty strip of faux alligator hide down the center of each seat. The CX-7’s instrument cowl signals the machine’s sporting intent, while the heavily stylized dash does an admirable job of hiding the raked windscreen’s acres o’ dash effect.

Thanks to its relatively low driving position and prominent center console, the CX-7’s cockpit feels more athletically honed than the more open cabins of competing crossovers. (Some will simply find it tight.) But the CX-7’s front seats provide a clue that the model’s pistonhead proclivities may be less than advertised; the comfortable chairs don’t provide much lateral support. In back, there's about as much legroom as you'll find in the average midsize sedan, but shoulder room is a bit tight for three across. Buyers drawn to SUVs in search of elbow room won’t be happy. The CX-7’s 58-cube cargo bay is about 20 shy of the class average, but still sufficient for lifestyle schlepping or a weekend away.

The CX-7’s direct-injected, turbocharged DOHC four (borrowed from the MazdaSpeed6) stumps up 244 horses. While the output is generally sufficient for everyday progress, the powerplant fails to kick those fillies out of the stable with any alacrity. A firm press on the CX-7’s go pedal from a dead stop yields… nothing much. (Think boost lag combined with old school DOHC behavior; the 3,000 rpm torque peak is high for a turbo.) Buzz the four over 3500 rpm, where your ears definitely won’t mistake it for a six, and the CX-7 finally starts to get a move on. But even then the crossover’s two-ton curb weight and power-sapping, slow-reacting six-speed slushbox deny enthusiastic drivers sufficient thrust to justify opting into the new genre. The manual shift mode takes off some of the wait, but not enough.

In casual driving, the CX-7’s handling lives up to its billing. In gentle turns, body lean is well controlled. The steering is quick with a hint of tactile feedback. Unfortunately, tall 60-series sidewalls muffle communication from the contact patches and slow transitional responses, hobbling this sports car wannabe’s dynamic feedback. Shod the beast in lower profile tires and it might actually feel agile.

Press on and the whole fast driving thing falls apart. The crossover’s nose drifts wide, its steering feel goes AWOL and the chassis’ limited composure becomes apparent. The best vehicles seem to shrink and shed pounds when driven hard. The harder you push the CX-7, the heavier and clumsier it feels. But you won’t want to push it very hard, anyway, as the Goodyear Eagle RS-A’s on the outside front corner howl in protest at the slightest provocation. Ignore the complaining and you’ll find that there’s still plenty of grip available. But the noise! The noise! The noise! You’ll suffer less squealing at a children’s book reading.

Once calm is restored, the CX-7’s ride is moderately supple and quieter than that of other Mazdas. Credit those generous sidewalls. The CX-7’s softcore suspension tuning should make highway trips a breeze and back country roads with sweeping curves a joy. But caning the crossover around the tightly wound two-laners that feature prominently in the Japanese company’s ads? Forgeddaboutit.

Let’s face it: it doesn’t matter who makes an SUV or how they tune the chassis. A sports car is a low-slung, properly balanced vehicle with razor-sharp reflexes. SUVs are too high and too heavy to provide even a remotely similar driving experience. Mazda ought to know better. As the progenitors of the superb MX-5 and tightly focused RX-8, they should know that there’s only one sort of vehicle that drives like a sports car: a sports car.


By Jonny Lieberman

For a certified car freak living in the City of Angels, the drive to Las Vegas is a special treat. Sure, LA is only a traffic jam or three away from the kind of twisting coastal tarmac that ad makers and throttle jockeys adore. But the two hundred seventy-five mile haul across Interstate 15 to Sin City tells you everything you need to know about a car’s capacity for long distance love. Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking with it. My tale began when my friend and I jumped into the hairy knuckled Mazda Speed6 and set off for a suite at Caesar's Palace.

The Speed6 Grand Touring is the opposite of a Q-car. It’s deeply, strangely, and tragically ugly, or, if you prefer, bold, brash and muscular. Mazda's performance specialists fitted the beast with an air-to-air intercooler mounted WRX-style on top of the engine (fed through a pipe instead of a hood scoop). To accommodate the extra oomph, the designers creased the hood and raised it by four inches. The dolphin skull look-alike signals the Mazda’s incipient roid rage. The double-sized gaping mouth fitted below the grill adds to the effect, threatening to swallow Mazda3's whole.

The Speed6’s rear end is even goofier. A huge drooping bumper pays unnecessary homage to mid-70’s safety legislation (which led to a plague of hideous plastic butt grafts). The rear lip spoiler is garish and the oversized oval tailpipe surrounds mounted in the sticky-outty plastic bumper bit are not only phony in practice, but deeply reminiscent of Ford's second generation Taurus. The Speed6’s fifteen-spoke wheels are needlessly fussy, overshooting good taste by a factor of ten.

The Speed6’s cabin can’t quite shake its proletarian roots; the storage bin on top of the center stack looks as though it was hacked out of the dash with a Leatherman. Luckily, there are enough sporty touches– mod squad pedals, red on black dials, Audi air vents– to keep it party real. Pistonheads will be well pleased with the gigantic windshield and huge mirrors, which guarantee an unobstructed view in all directions. The two-tone leather seats are the biggest disappointment. There are park benches that offer more side bolstering. Dial-up some angry-footed hoonage and you might as well be seated on a Slip 'N Slide.

The garden variety front wheel-drive Mazda6 is a genuine driver’s car that manages to keep understeer at arm’s length. The all wheel-drive Speed6 eliminates that problem, and then some– provided you switch off the traction control. Then the Speed6 literally screams to life. You like squealing tires while deep in the midst of four wheel drift? Then you will like the Speed6. While the 3600 lbs. four-door is a bit too chubby to ginsu blacktop like a Subaru WRX, the Mazda is (gulp) more fun to drive. Credit the relatively narrow 215 Pirellis that hold on for a two count before breaking loose. Fo 'rizzle, you shouldn't be able to have this much fun on dry pavement.

Good thing that the brakes are nothing short of astonishing. A light tap on the middle pedal and you’ll shed twenty-miles per hour, from any speed. In a full-blown emergency, the anchors muscle the Speed6 to a standstill with virtually no drama. Highway or byway, you can do some real damage to your license with this mad Mazda machine. But talk about a reluctant warrior…

The Speed6’s 2.3L turbo DOHC in-line four pumps out 274 hp @ 5500rpm. That’s a lot of horses for a mid-sized four-door. But roll on the gas and… nothing. Goose the revs above 3500 rpm and 280 foot pounds of torque comes on like a fire hose. If Mazda added a second, smaller turbo or figured out how to make this sucker spool-up faster (call Porsche), the Speed6 could shave a half second or more from its 5.4 second sprint to sixty. That's WRX country, and not a bad place to live. However, the Scoobie Legacy spec.B does the deed a tenth of a second quicker with 24 less ponies. Our consolation prize? After cruising to Vegas at speeds ranging between [a theoretical] 90 and 110mph, we arrived at The Strip with more than a quarter tank of gas left (from full).

All of which begs a question; what is the Mazda Speed6? It offers the performance of a WRX for a $5k premium. As good as it is, it’s too clumsy and slow to compete with equally priced STI’s and EVO’s. It’s outclassed inside and out by the svelte Legacy. And the answer is… who cares? Mazda has created a charming, keenly priced, everyday family sedan that transforms into a snarling, tire-shredding maniac at the kick of a pedal and the touch of a button. Besides pocket aces, what more could you ask for?


By Jonny Lieberman

Why is it so hard for carmakers to get the little things right? Most of these guys have been building cars for over a century. Yet they put the pedals in the wrong place, or give their machine numb steering, or equip the interior with less style than a Day’s Inn. One reason: compromise. Manufacturer X could offer you perfect pedal placement, or share pedals between five models and save you a grand. Another case in point, who doesn’t want a convertible? Put another way, who the Hell wants a convertible? With the MX-5 Miata Power Hartop, Mazda has removed compromise from that particular equation.

Drivers in the know have always seen past the Miata’s mini-suppository shape and focused on its brilliant driving dynamics. No more. The “refreshed” MX-5 is now one of the best looking vehicles on the road, especially from the front. Finally, someone’s built a Japanese car that’s proud to be Japanese. The Miata shows the world an angry, fishy, warrior face, and I love it. I like the MX-5’s profile as well, with its elegant fenders, meaty arches and athletic-looking ten-spoke wheels. The back is [still] pure pabulum, but at least it’s massaged and sculpted pabulum that’s been fitted with business class twin-pipes.

Like the sharp front end, the new hard roof is a homerun. The origami-tastic top looks like something an autocrosser might bolt onto their track day sled. (You half expect to see a roll cage welded under it.) At a stroke, the hardtop casts off the aesthetic aspersions thrown at previous Miatas; the lid makes the car look serious. And it’s easy to operate too. Release a simple latch, press a button and read this sentence twice. It takes just twelve seconds to fold and stow the top, which is four seconds faster than a Mercedes SL550. Even better, all that mechanical slickness adds just 77 pounds to the car’s weight. And wind noise isn’t an issue until you crack 75mph.

The interior belies the Miata’s sub-25k sticker. Snobs will moan that Mazda uses plastic where they could have used wood, or that the leather does not come from pampered, sushi-sucking cows penned in by rubber band fences. Ignore them. At this price-point, the MX-5 sports one of the classiest interiors extant. Press the double-cool air vent buttons and you will believe. The steering wheel, clutch pickup, pedal and shifter placement are all ideally positioned, despite the car’s Lilliputian proportions. Normally, I detest steering wheels buttons, but Mazda has arranged them perfectly for tweakers who know the value of keeping their eyes on the road.

Like Mazda’s Speed6, the MX-5 has two personas. Leave the traction control on and you can take any turn at any speed and live to tell the tale. Of course, crappy pavement and a strong right foot send the little yellow idiot light blinking faster than a timing gun, but that’s half the fun. In that case, DSC stands for “Don’t Sweat Charlie.” Put the e-nanny to bed and the Miata transforms. Oversteer clocks in at the press of the throttle; only pilots familiar with the phrase, “when in spin, both feet in” need apply. Turning off the computer makes the Miata go from fantastically fun to an open invitation at Hoonatics Anonymous. Caning the wee beastie on the fabled Angeles Crest Highway, I aged the Michelin Pilots 2,000 miles in 30. The desperate squeal from the rubber coupled with the buzzsaw of the motor’s 7,000rpm redline was pistonhead paradise. While I could keep up with the motorcycles in the bends…

Sadly and predictably, the MX-5’s a little… slow. The relatively high-revving 2.0-liter I4 manages just 170hp @ 6700 rpm. Worse still, you only get access to 140lbs. feet of torque @ 5000rpm. Even when pitted against 2575 pounds of car, it’s not enough twist for a watered down Tom Collins. (Call me overly American, but I can’t abide losing to big, fat Yank-tanks at stop lights.) Equally troubling, cruising at 80mph, the Miata’s engine spins at 4000rpm in sixth gear, burning plenty of premium petrol. Future MazdaSpeed versions will no doubt slap on a turbo to fix the power gap, but Honda squeezes way more juice out of a normally aspirated 2.0-liter mill. Mazda’s mechanical minions should follow suit.

By keeping the price below $25k, the MX-5 sacrifices raw grunt. Besides luggage and ass-space, that’s it for compromise. It’s by no means a deal breaker. Combine the Miata’s legendary handling with the relative convenience and security (and coolness) of a hardtop drop top, and it’s clear that little Mazda has succeeded where no other automaker has bothered to go. Yet. The introduction of the first generation Miata back in 1989 was an automotive high water mark. The MX-5 Hardtop is déjà vu all over again.


By Jonny Lieberman

I'm good with names. Meet me at a party. Five hours and seven beers later, I'll cruise up and say, "Hey Benjamin, how goes it?" That’s assuming A) your name is Benjamin and B) you’re interesting. If a person is as dull as Tuesday afternoon C-Span, then the part of my brain that puts faces to names shuts down. I mention this because I had to click over to to figure out if I’m driving the B4000 or B4400. Turns out it’s the former. Who knew?

Design-wise, Mazda usually does one of two things: nail it (Miata, Mazda3) or overcook it (RX-8, Speed6). The designers of the B-Series truck didn't even try. It’s a pastiche of truck clichés that shouts “cheap!” like a 3,915 pound canary. The B4000’s pinched front end and teeny grill are not only two-decades behind the truck-times, but they’re pug ugly. Three-spoke wheels have never and will never look good on any vehicle. On the B4000 they look fat, too. DCX may have copied the B4000’s chunky wheel arches for their new S-Class, but at least they had the good sense to round them out. A squared off half-circle says "accident survivor" to me.

Like Toyota 4Runners of yore, you enter the B4000 by climbing into a high-floored cabin– that forces you to sit with your legs sticking nearly straight out. In terms of quality, style and livability, the B4000’s interior is lower-rent than a Chernobyl apartment building. I'm not calling the Mazda’s seats the worst I've ever sat in, but that’s only because I’ve given Old Sparky a miss. More specifically, the chairs are less supportive than Hugo Chavez on America’s Iraq policy. While the rear “seats” are small and cramped enough to render the word useless useless, the quarter-sized doors are easy to open in tight quarters. The resulting space behind the front seat is perfect for lugging a bag of groceries or three.

Fake carbon fiber surrounds the B4000’s radio. Why would Mazda go for faux race car chic in a truck that’s less sporty than NBC’s smallest loser? The scalloped vents along the top of the dash are… bizarre. On the positive side, the B4000’s column-shifter frees-up the center console for more storage-nooks and holding-crannies than the Honda Ridgeline.

The B4000 is the best handling small truck on the road– if you transport yourself back to its 1994 debut. Twelve-years later, the truck is showing its age with less grace than Kathleen Turner. Rough roads make turning the wheel an impromptu low rider bounce clinic. Smooth pavement highlights the chassis’s other shortcomings. On the positive side, um, above 70mph you get a free hand massage from the vibrating steering wheel. And some might find the squeak in the steering column soothing.

For those of you with points on your license, getting Mazda’s truck to crest 80mph on anything other than an Olympic ski jump is very, very difficult. The 4.0-liter 12-valve V6 powerplant kicks out 207hp @ 5,250rpm and stumps up 238lbs. feet of torque @ 3,000rpm– well behind the power Toyota’s same-sized mill produces in the much newer Tacoma. The B4000’s speed sensitive rack and pinion power steering makes it easy to exploit whatever speed you generate. The ABS brakes shed it just as easily. And if you baby the B, it’ll travel 16 mpg in the city, 20 in the highway. If you drive it, you won’t.

Unlike the modern behemoths so bewildering to Japanese engineers everywhere, the B4000 has a low load in height. Case in point: I helped a friend haul a VW Karmann Ghia 1500 engine back from a machine shop. We were able to lift the two-hundred pound lump of magnesium and pig-iron out of the Mazda’s bed, no problem. While an F-150 can haul more in terms of weight, the B4000 comes standard with a 72-inch bed, to the F-150's 66-incher. For most people most of the time, the 4000 (and its clone, the Ford Ranger) makes a lot more sense than the full-sized trucks used by some of the people all of the time.

In fact, it’s too bad Mazda let the B4000 die on the vine. Gas prices may have dipped in the past few weeks, but the country’s automotive gestalt has shifted. Enormous and irresponsible is out; moderate and slightly less irresponsible is in. It’s the perfect time to release a small, efficient truck that’s about 80% as useful as the full-sized giants so many people are currently unloading (so to speak). But no, at a time when Honda’s Ridgeline has (almost) reignited and (just about) re-invented the light-truck market, FoMoCo is content to let another market segment fall entirely into the hands of Honda, Toyota and Nissan. While the B4000 has its supporters, it will eventually be remembered as a forgettable experience.


By Lyn Vogel

I remember the day my Dad brought home a brand new ’66 Barracuda. While such an auspicious automotive occasion would make any Sting Ray-riding nine-year-old pop a wheelie, the ‘Cuda arrived on the same day The Green Hornet made its TV debut. Both productions proved equally fantastic. Plymouth’s fastback was an effort to sex-up their Valiant sedan with the equivalent of a low-cut party dress. Trouble was, the girl underneath was someone you could only really appreciate for her personality. How times have changed. To wit: the Mazdaspeed 3, an example of what today’s boffins can do with a basic economy car.

It's immediately apparent that Mazdaspeed's go-faster bits have been added with minimum effect on the donor car’s exterior. The subtlety of the makeover is either a testament to changing priorities or an indication that the project team blew their budget on Gold’s Gym. Not that the regular five-door Mazda3 is bad looking. A two-box wagonette in the modern fashion, the 3 projects a chunky, confident persona. Its rear fender sculpting is one of the finest mass-market details on any car extant. The speed racer version offers not much more than a lowered stance, slightly reshaped hood and bumpers, 10-spoke alloys and a prominent rear wing.

Open the door, hatch or engine cover and there’s evidence of cost-saving (at least with the True Red option): a strange, dull hue to the non-exterior body paint. Inside, the song remains the same. The Mazdaspeed3’s seats and door panels receive a mesh-like treatment, along with some red stitching hither and yon. The front perches are more substantial than stock, although thighs get short shrift. The headliner is still made out of dryer lint and although the plastics aren’t despicable, they’re closer to the 40-year-old Plymouth’s polymers than the soft touch materials found inside the Volkswagen GTI (the Mazdaspeed 3’s logical competitor).

Mazdaspeed logos adorn the rear hatch, front sill plates and seats, reminding you of your mount’s extra Zoom each time you clock the tacho. And clock it you will. The Japanese hot hatch is powered by a 2.3 liter, direct-injection turbo four, good for 263hp @ 5500 rpm. The torque is equally impressive: 280 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm. You don’t have to pilot a wrong wheel-drive Chevrolet Impala SS to know that’s a heck of a lot of muscle to transfer through the front wheels. Mazda attacked the inherent challenges with a combination of software and mechanical interplay; motive force is doled-out depending on gear selection and steering angle.

There’s a nice, purposeful wuffle at idle. Pull away and the sound intensifies in pitch rather than volume (from flugelhorn to trumpet). And then, well, the acceleration is on the Subaru WRX STI side of brisk. Providing you can find a way to avoid the smell of 45-series tires in the morning, the Mazdaspeed 3 completes the zero to 60mph sprint in a little less than six seconds. That's a phenomenal achievement for a family car that clocks in at around $22k. Even better, the 3’s turbo lag has been tamed to the point where you’d swear there was a normally aspirated hunk underneath its blunted hood.

The short throw six-speed manual gearbox is direct enough for a front driver, though changes into first can be vague and reluctant. The 3's third cog is a genuine giggle-inducer, but the car will Kung-Fu hustle regardless of selection. And while a touch of torque steer arrives at around 3000rpm, the clever limited slip differential and wall o’ torque soon straighten things out for you.

In fact, the badge may read Mazdaspeed, but it might as well say Mazdahandling. With its stiffened chassis, tightened springs and more aggressive front and rear stabilizer bars, the Speed 3 suckers to the pavement with genuine poise and hoon-inducing panache. The wee beastie stays composed and flat through the bends, even when you push it into the inevitable understeer slide and nanny intervention. The upgraded 12.6” vented front discs help give Mazdaspeed3 drivers the confidence they need to make this discovery without undue alarm. Best of all, you don't pay for all that control with a deal-breaking back breaker of a ride. The Mazdaspeed 3 is a daily driver.

When I was a kid, my friends and I used to peer into cars to check out the highest number on the speedometer, anxious to ascertain its maximum velocity. Of course, the numbers were a hopelessly optimistic fiction, [perfectly] designed to capture our hearts and minds. Well check this: were it not for the Mazdaspeed3’s dials only being visible when the key is twisted, someone pressing their nose against its door glass would see a top mark of 160– only five mph above the car’s actual, honest-to-God top speed. In other words, the Mazdaspeed3 is ready for a nine-year-old’s inspection, ready to create a memorable inaugural day– and ownership experience– for adult and child alike.


By Joe Chiaramonte

Opportunity doesn’t always knock; sometimes it breaks down the door with a crash. When my daily driver became the caboose in a rush hour conga line gone bad, I found myself in that placeless place where car reviewers go when the press fleet is permanently out to sea. To the chagrin of Saturnistas everywhere, I passed on the Ion proffered by the perky rental car desk jockey. At the appropriate moment, I gratefully grabbed the keys to a 2006 Mazda3 sedan. The four-door filly had been ridden hard and put up wet, bearing 16k miles. Another TTAC road test had officially begun.

Mazda’s designers have done everything possible to rescue the Mazda3 from Generic Econoboxland. And I do mean everything: long nose, deep cut creases running fore and aft, flared wheel arches, perky antenna mast, high-booty rear end, wraparound taillights; the whole modern car identikit. The overall effect is sporty enough to please the college grads, yet sensible enough for mom and dads. Or, if you prefer, a zoom-zoom-tuned Nissan Versa.

Inside, the rental spec 3 served up a bizarre farrago of features: engine immobilizer, ICE wired for satellite (normally a $430 option) but not sound (this is not my beautiful Bose), AC, manual locks and mirrors and (gasp!) hand-cranked windows. Maybe some Dearborn bean counters took a Japanese junket (Escape? Expedition? Excursion?). If you feel like getting jiggy with the options list, the $1750 pop-up DVD nav makes an interesting conversation piece– provided you consider voice instructions a form of human intercourse.

The Mazda3's [cloth] driver’s seat is like your best friend after your dog dies: it gives you a nice, firm hug and then provides lots of short and long-term support. Once embraced, you’re free to rest your left elbow on the same plastic toymakers use to construct products able to withstand untamed toddlers’ force-ten tantrums. The only compliant horizontal surfaces (seats excluded): the uppermost center console and the door handle. The rest of the interior is about as haptically happening as an electric fence.

The Mazda3's 60/40 folding rear seat gives the car terrific cargo access and capacity. With the rears in place and passengers in situ, the rear seating section won’t trigger an Amnesty International investigation– provided you’re not schlepping two six-footers on a long drive or three passengers of any age, sex or national affiliation (but especially well-fed teenage Japanese sumo wrestlers). To say the four-door’s rear compartment is somewhat cloistered would be like saying Benedictine monks are a bit on the shy side.

Once underway, the well-used Mazda3 didn’t shake, rattle or squeak. With just 2700 pounds to motivate, the car's 2.0-liter, four-cylinder 150hp mill can sling the machine to sixty in a shade under nine seconds, or deliver excellent economy (26/34). Unfortunately, mashing the go-pedal yields precious little sonic satisfaction; it sounds like switching an electric fan from low to high. In relaxed use, the 16-valve VVT powerplant hums along quietly enough for government work.

When pressed, the autobox equipped sedan dips deeply into revs, wringing out all available torque (135 ft.-lbs.) before jumping down a gear. Having rowed gears for 30 years, I just don’t get these manumatics. Although the sedan’s computer controlled tranny makes for less hesitant gear choices, you can’t get anywhere near the car’s 6500rpm red line. Control freaks and speed demons should stick with the stick.

At speed, the Mazda3 feels a bit like an MX-5 with a booster seat. The platform’s fully independent chassis and electro-hydraulic helm don’t deliver all the delicious feedback of Mazda’s legendary Lotus Elan-a-like, but there’s enough precision in the system to inspire genuine confidence. And that’s all the reason a sporting driver really needs to drive the Mazda3, um, sportingly.

Should you press on towards the point of no-deposit (refunded) no return (except on the back of a recovery truck), the Mazda3 doesn’t betray its underpinnings until you’re close to eight-tenths. Then, finally, the beginnings of a nose-first understeer slide serve a not-so-subtle reminder that you’re piloting a front wheel-drive machine.

The Mazda3's four-wheel disc brakes are feelsome, fearsome binders; with optional ABS, I might not have needed a rental car in the first place. Road ruts don’t rock, though rough surfaces generate plenty of noise. Of course, I’d expect a deeper sense of happiness riding on the optional 17” wheels, instead of the stuck-pig-when-pushed 15” all season shoes.

When it comes to driving pleasure, the Mazda3 owns the Toyota Corolla and more than holds its own against the increasingly bloated, visually challenged Honda Civic. While you can laud the Mazda3's price, design, build quality, practicality and economy, the best bit is that the Japanese sedan lives up to its brand’s performance-oriented promise. Sigh. If only we hadn’t met under such difficult circumstances.


By William C Montgomery

I’ve spent countless hours rolling down serpentine highways through the deserts and mountains of the West’s big sky country. Hundreds of times my knuckles have whitened, pupils dilated and pulse quickened as I got up my gumption to pass a velocity-challenged vehicle. In my younger years, this TED (Time Exposed to Danger) was delivered courtesy of a wheezing four-banger struggling to crank out double-digit horse power. This week I put Mazda’s modern incarnation of the family hauler, the CX-9 Grand Touring AWD, to the test. Yup, it’s déjà vu all over again.

“If the bland, cookie-cutter styling of other Crossover SUVs doesn’t suit your taste, feast your eyes on the Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring.” Contrary to Mazda’s marketing misegos, there’s a new cookie-cutter shape in town. Viewed in profile, only a learned pistonhead could distinguish the CX-9 from the host of other “sporty” CUVs; what with their pointy proboscises, apostrophe-shaped headlight clusters, steeply raked windshields, blackened B and C-pillars, oversized bling-bling wheels and fastback-styled sloping rear hatch. If the CX-9 didn’t have a dinner plate-sized boot badge, you'd easily mistake it for any number of transplanted cute-utes.

Of course, it IS a lot edgier than the Ford Edge, its sister-under-the-skin. And there’s a reason all CUVs look alike; the buyer has spoken.

Once ensconced, the CX-9 coddles today's blended families with three rows of comfortable, supportive seating. Second row legroom eclipses the Enclave’s, and the CX-9’s third row is both accessible and roomy enough for junior team members. As for larger folks, the rearmost leg and head room is, in MythBusters parlance, plausible. As a two-plus-three seater carting recidivist members of LPA (Light Packers Anonymous), skid-addling with 3500 lbs. of Ski-Doology, the CX-9’s a peach.

Aside from the too-far-forward door-mounted window switches, the CX-9’s controls are an ergonomic Zen garden. Normally, we’re amused– and not in a good way– by cowled gauges in anything other than an old Alfa or new Miata. But the CX-9’s designers carefully blended sports car cues with oversized, Volvo-esque minimalism, creating a handsome, tasteful atmos. Details have been sweated, from sensible buttonology to indirect blue lighting.

Mazda’s mavens left no stone unturned in the family pleasing techno-bauble department. But you gotta pay to play. The CX-9’s obligatory iPod-ready rear seat DVD system– complete with 11-speaker surround sound, videogame hook-ups and wireless headphones– will set you back $2560. And that’s not all. You’ve got to cough up another $2500 for the nav system and power hatch. Ouch.

For 2008, the CX-9 gets a 3.7-liter engine. The all-new six-cylinder mill puts out 273hp and stumps-up 270 ft.-lbs. of torque. In front wheel-drive configuration, Mazda’s full-sized CUV now jogs from zero to sixty in an entirely acceptable eight-ish seconds. While the sound blatting-out the CX-9’s twin pipes under hard acceleration is nowhere near as addictive as the Infiniti FX' moaning motor, the Mazda's mechanical mellifluousness is appropriately zoomy.

Yes, well, our tester's all wheel-drive system added heft (up to 4633 lbs.) and subtracted speed. I’d be surprised if a Colorado-compliant CX-9 made it from rest to sixty in less than ten seconds. Torque, schmorque; two-lane passing maneuvers still elicit sufficient butt puckering to press coal into diamonds. The CX-9’s intelligent six-speed transmission doesn’t help matters; it’s either a very slow learner or fundamentally dim-witted. But the steering does; it’s perfectly weighted and centers nicely.

According to the Mazda website, “the CX-9 delivers a driving experience like no other SUV.” Anyone who’s attempted to fling one of these lumbering behemoths down a country road knows the copywriters set the handling bar limbo low. Relatively speaking, the CX-9 is competent corner carver; the big rig stays flat. Lean and pitch motions are well controlled. But gravity (inertia?) sucks. A two-and-a-quarter ton trucklette that’s 16’8” long, 5’8” tall and 6’4” wide ain’t gonna rewrite the rules of physics (just ask Porsche).

On the positive side, ignore the advertising come-on, cool your jets and all’s well that ends well. The CX-9’s dynamics strike a satisfying compromise between perky and plush, delivering a well-refined driving experience. And accelerative challenged kiddie schleppers can cool their jets safe in the knowledge that Mazda’s deployed their safety knowledge throughout, including a full complement of Nannies, airbags aplenty and the government’s highest side and frontal impact ratings.

Although SUV refugees can get into a CX-9 for around $30k, the mpg “savings” involved are marginal (FWD EPA 16/22). And it’s easy enough to option-up to 40 large. For a Mazda? Considering the fact that sliding behind the wheel of a minivan emasculates the domesticated North American Homo sapiens male faster than a ranch hand de-testicularizing a calf, the CX-9 has got to be the pistonhead’s sprog hauler alternative of choice. As long as you’re willing to wait your turn on the turnpike, you’re good to go.