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Review – 2009 Mazda3 s Grand Touring

The Good: Playful handling, you’ll never have trouble finding it in the parking lot.

The Bad: Hefty price for a compact car – a really compact car.

The Verdict: A good little car trying to be more than it is.

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In the economy car market, buyers tend to consider one factor above all others – price. Admittedly, cost plays a role in most vehicular transactions (unless you’re lucky enough to be cross-shopping Ferraris and Lamborghinis, in which case, screw you), but especially so in the cheaper segments of the market, where buyers tend to be…well, let’s just say it: poorer. If they had more money, logic goes, they’d buy a larger car.

So the $24,445 sticker price of my Mazda3 came as quite a shock. “Who in their right mind would spend 25 grand on this tiny car?” I asked myself.  Yet while passersby on the sidewalk clearly heard me, their responses involved veering away from the man talking to himself instead of answering my question.

If you need a sedan for that kind of money, a Honda Accord EX automatic runs only $670 more, with great handling and interior room that seems limo-like in comparison. Even within Mazda’s own ranks, the larger Mazda6i Touring automatic can be had for $23,600.

In general, added performance tends to be the main reason compact buyers tolerate higher price tags – but the 3s only offers 167 horsepower from its 2.5 liter four-cylinder. A Honda Civic Si sedan can be yours for $22,815 and offers thirty more horsepower and a racier suspension – and hell, Mazda’s own MazdaSpeed 3 goes for $23,945, and offers 263 horsepower and a lot more driving fun.

So how does Mazda justify this price? In a word repeated three times: features, features, features. The 3s is loaded with enough gear to make a Mercedes blush: xenon headlights that turn with the steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth (which refused to work on my tester), and heated leather seats with power controls for the driver. An optional 10-speaker Bose stereo and moonroof also came on my tester; however, it lacked a few other options, such as a navigation system. Check off every option possible, and you’ll be confronted with a $26,285 tab.

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To be sure, they’re nice features to have – some more so than others. Heated seats, for example, are awfully handy come the colder months, as they usually take less time to warm up than the entire interior of the car, and the high-powered swiveling headlights could save your life if they light up a Sasquatch in the road that much earlier. But for the most part, they’re like whipped cream on top of your Ben & Jerry’s – nice to have, but hardly necessary.

Luckily, the basics of this particular sundae are quite tasty even without all the toppings. The cheapest of the range can be had for a mere $15,795 – but at that price, you’d better know how to use a clutch, because you can’t get an automatic on the bargain-basement i SV model. Nor can you have air conditioning or power locks, so it’s perfect for anyone who feels nostalgic for driving back in 1979. (Sadly, a CD player is standard, but you could always cover it up with electrical tape.)

The best bet of the range is the i Touring model, which offers a Goldilocks-like mixture of features (16” wheels, Bluetooth, power locks with keyless entry, traction control and cruise control) and price ($18,250 – a little more if you want the automatic). However, that model – like all Mazda3s with an “i” suffix – comes with a 148-horsepower 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine. If you want the bigger 2.5 liter, you’ve gotta step up to the s Sport; it’ll cost $1,240 more than the i Touring, but at least they’re kind enough to throw in electroluminescent gauges and a “welcome lighting system.”

Luckily, both i and s models come with the same suspension setup – meaning even stripper models should be plenty of fun when the road turns twisty. Mazda has done a good job in the last decade making sure “zoom-zoom” isn’t just a slogan whispered by one of those creepy kids from The Bloodening.

On the highways and byways of Westchester County, the Mazda3 proved a willing playmate (does that sound dirty to you, too?), bobbing and weaving through tight turns and long sweepers quite happily. For its part, the engine provides adequate power; while it’s not likely to be confused with the Batmobile anytime soon, the 3s accelerates with enough verve to keep from feeling underpowered. (However, spirited drivers will definitely want to become accustomed to the manual shift gate of the 5-speed automatic…if they haven’t decided to buy the MazdaSpeed3.)

Still, one might expect a little more performance – or at least craziness – out of a car with the sort of styling the 3 exhibits. No dowdy Corolla looks here – this Mazda isn’t afraid to let its freak flag fly. Mazda describes the car’s styling as “Nagare inspired,” after a recent concept car, but given its Japanese heritage, angular headlights and utterly enormous maw, “anime inspired” would probably be a better way of describing it. (Though “whale inspired” might work too, given that it looks like it could suck in its body weight in krill every day.)

Birds, however, did not seem fond of the styling. And they voted with their poop.

Birds, however, did not seem fond of the styling. And they voted with their poop.

Inside, the sporty design theme continues onto the dashboard, where a high-mounted display makes glancing over to check the radio frequency quick and easy. The large central-mounted audio controls are pleasantly easy to use –more so than many of the complex computer systems in far more expensive cars, even.

Still, the interior has a ways to go before it could be considered perfect; the interior plastics seem awfully hard; it would be excusable in a $15,000 car, but when you add on ten grand of options to that same car, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask for a classier feel to the interior. And what’s with the retro pixilated display for the radio? Yeah, red is better for night vision, but is there any reason it has to look like it’s from the Reagan administration? Maybe Mazda and Mitsubishi share a supplier.

Interior room is tight at best, cramped at worst. Even the front seats are a little tight for people of Conan O’Brien-like proportions (such as myself), while the back seat is just about useless with someone my size up front. It’s small enough to be a potential deal breaker for potential buyers – though if they’re considering the Grand Touring model, they might just sacrifice the leather seats and buy a much more accommodating Mazda6 instead.

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The Bottom Line:

The Mazda3 is a fun-to-drive little car ideal for those who want to stand out. Lanky people might want to look elsewhere, but if you fit inside, you’ll probably be quite happy.

The Grand Touring model isn’t the best deal in the lineup – at this price point, buyers are more likely to cross-shop with larger sedans better able to fit their lives. Most people will probably consider cheaper trim levels that offer most of the important features for a much more reasonable monthly payment.

But whether you spend 15 or 25 grand, you’re still getting the same car beneath the surface – a playful compact that’ll make you smile along with it.

Base Price/Price As Tested: $23,050/$24,445

0-60: 7.7 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver; manual transmission model)

Fuel Economy: 22 city/29 highway (EPA estimates)

Competitors: Honda Civic, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus

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2009 New York Auto Show Review

This year’s New York Auto Show was, for the most part, notable for its lack of notability.

While the NYIAS usually ranks as America’s most heavily attended auto show, with around a million visitors a year, the automotive industry has never treated it quite with the gravitas they do for other shows – the Detroit Auto Show, for example. This is pretty sensible – Detroit is Motor City, while in New York, the people ride in a hole in the ground.

But even considering its location in one of maybe two places in the U.S. where having a car is treated less like a modern convenience and more like an annoying rash (“I have to treat it twice a week?”), this year’s NYIAS was rather listless. Or, as the kids might put it, meh. There were no spectacular new models revealed. The press conferences were quite reserved – no Jeeps erupted out of volcanic calderas constructed in the parking lot. (That happened in 2007. Seriously.) There wasn’t even any apocalyptic undercurrent to the affair – no Hail Mary concepts (“it’ll run on urine!”) or manic attempts to convince everyone that things were great. There was just a slight sense of melancholy draining the energy out of the place.

But that’s not to say the show was a loss. There were still quite a few manufacturers who availed themselves of the opportunity, in true New York tradition, to whip open their trenchcoats and flash the goodies for the world to behold.

The new Acura ZDX concept, for one, has the potential to prove reasonably successful – at least, by the standards of the “Four-door Utility Crossover Koupe” class. (If Kia can spell coupe with a K to be “cool,” I can do it for a cheap joke.) Sadly, boss company Honda’s decision to freeze development on its V-8 means the ZDX will be handicapped from day one against the competing Infiniti FX and BMW X6,  both of which offer six- and eight-cylinder models. Still, the Acura MDX crossover upon which the ZDX is based has done all right with just a V-6 – it offers top-of-the-class driving dynamics and quality. If the ZDX manages to improve on its brother while coming in around the same price as the six-cylinder Bimmer and Finnie, it should do well for itself.

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And while we’re on the subject of FUCKs, I’d like to point out that, mocking acronym aside, I don’t find them nearly as insensible as some others in the automotive industry do. While the idea of them as anything close to a proper coupe is hilarious (and not lame Jimmy Fallon hilarious, but seriously Tina Fey hilarious), they offer what people like about SUVs – high seating, ground clearance, all-wheel-drive, roomy interior – with a more attractive design and sportier performance. That sounds like a win-win.

Another example: the BMW X6 M, also unveiled at NYIAS. 555 horsepower, 500 lb-ft of torque, 0-60 in 4.5 seconds. All the straight-line performance of a BMW M5, and probably 95 percent of its handling capabilities – plus you can drive the bastard through a blizzard, carrying twice as much in the trunk. It’s the logical extension of convenient performance: the sport sedan gave us sports-car performance with room for four; the sports-FUCK gives us equal performance with room for four and all-road capability. In fact – and I may be going out on a limb here – I’d take an X6 M over a current generation M5, given the sedan’s unsatisfying choice between the harsh, grabby sequential gearbox and the performance-crippling manual.

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Volkswagen took the wraps off the American versions of the new Golf, complete with hot-to-trot GTI edition. The biggest news here is the new styling, which depending on the angle, can either make the car look tough or raccoon-eyed. Still, the sleeker lines are a definite improvement over the current, bland-looking car. VW’s betting heavy on their 50-state-clean diesel technology in this car – they guesstimate 30 percent of sales will be oil burners in the first model. Diesel Jettas, for their part, have been scooping up 30 percent of Jetta sedan sales and half of the Jetta wagon market, so this might be realistic. Still, will people want “sportier” gasoline engines in the cooler Golf?

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The other big news, of course, has nothing to do with the mechanics of the car; VW changed the car’s name from “Rabbit” to “Golf.” This marks the second time VW has executed this exact name change in America for the car, having done so decades ago. They switched it back to “Rabbit” for the new 2006 model – I can only assume to capitalize on some perceived nostalgia for 70s-era compacts. Judging by the reversal, I’d wager they didn’t find any.

Mercedes-Benz used the auto show to unwrap a somewhat surprising ML450 Hybrid – surprising because M-B seemed to be putting its eggs into the efficient diesel market, especially on its SUVs. Nevertheless, Benz fused a 3.5 liter V-6 to a pair of electric motors to make a combined 335 horsepower and 385 lb/ft, while eking out an estimated 21/24 mpg, city/highway. In contrast, their ML320 BlueTEC diesel pumps out 210 horsepower, 398 lb/ft and makes 18/24, city/highway.  Assuming they both cost about the same, the hybrid has a definite edge around town – factor in the cheaper price of gasoline than diesel and the cache of the “Hybrid” badge, and the new model will probably outsell the oil burner by a decent margin. But it’s good to see Mercedes taking the green thing seriously.

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Jeep, sadly, doesn’t seem to be following the same track, at least if the 2011 Grand Cherokee is any indication. It still limits your choices to gasoline six- and eight-cylinder engines –  a 3.0 liter diesel is only available outside of the States. (Strange, given that Jeep’s website lists the current model rocking the diesel six. Expect to see that remedied within the next three years.) The V-6 is all new, a 280-horsepower, 260 lb/ft 3.6 liter that’s supposed to deliver a whopping 11 percent improvement in fuel economy. Given the current 4WD model gets 15/19 with its V6, that should at least bump it over the 20 mpg mark – but being unveiled just after Mercedes’s 24-mpg hybrid M-class, and just before GMC declared the 2WD GMC Terrain will get 30 mpg, the Jeep’s figures hardly look like the sort of leap forward Chrysler needs right now.

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But thankfully, the Grand Cherokee’s physical figure comes damn close to making up for it. This is one good-looking truck. Previous GCs have bounced between ruggedly square and generically curvy, but this is the first one that could genuinely be called hot – er, in an automotive sense. In fact, pretty much the only reason this baby’s on this list instead of the Terrain is because of how it looks. The GMC gets 30 mpg on the highway, has a quality interior, is big enough for four of me (if you’re above 6’2″, you know how hard it is to find cars in which you can sit behind yourself), and will probably cost at least eight grand less when it comes out this summer – a full year before the Jeep. But the Terrain is a 5. The Grand Cherokee is a 9.

While the Honda Element continues on with its admittedly…homely styling, the new “Dog Friendly” package transforms the car from a utilitarian box to a utilitarian box every one of the 43 million Americans with canine companions will look at and say, “Aww…” In all honesty, I’m shocked that no one’s thought of this before. Car companies have made specialized models for all sorts of esoteric markets – wealthy ranchers,  yuppie outdoorsmen, extraordinarily rich socialites, and most notably, Frank Sinatra fans – but so far as I know, no one’s ever arranged such a simple, yet logical, package for such a wide market. (Well, Dodge did build a model called the LaFemme just for ladies, but it failed, in no small part because the idea was utterly moronic.)

Dog Friendly Honda Element Concept

Let’s face it – despite the fact that most of us love our dogs more than we love our second cousins (fine, first cousins), the vast majority of us simply let them hop into the back seat and drive off without a second thought. We don’t belt them in, transforming them into living cannonballs in an accident. We don’t buy them Powerades at the 7-11, and rarely consider the climate back there. The average American’s consideration for his or her dog’s well-being in the car probably extends to cracking the rear windows.

He's too darn cute not to see again.

He's too darn cute not to see again.

But when dog owners hear about this package, I’m willing to bet they’ll at least be intrigued enough to come in and take a look. And, sure, you could probably build your own version of the kit at Petsmart for far less than it’ll retail for, but remember, we’re lazy! Anyone motivated enough to do all that work must be some kind of weirdo. But buying a pre-made package…that shows love. I’ll bet you Honda won’t have a problem selling any of these – and I’ll bet every manufacturer you hear snidely deriding the option is working on copying it.

Speaking of plagiarizing Honda, a round of applause for Kia, ladies and gentlemen! If you slapped a Civic badge on the new Forte Coupe, not only could you pass yourself off as someone with classier taste in cars, you’d probably be able to score service at a fair number of Honda dealerships across the nation. I mean, you couldn’t have your catalytic converter replaced without being noticed, but you could probably snag an oil change.

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Though in all honesty, you’ll probably be getting a fair number of complements from Honda owners, because this new coupe is…alluring? Wait a second – has Kia actually made a cool car? Remarkable, but true. Kia quality has been steadily increasing since the brand’s arrival (not like it had anywhere to go but up); that, combined with their T.J. Maxx pricing, has been their ace in the hole these last couple years. Throw in eye-catching styling and halfway decent performance, and we may have ourselves the automotive equivalent of the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays – an upstart franchise without any big names that surprises the hell out of everyone.

Now, astute readers (or Kia fans – do they even exist?) will point out that I have the two-door Forte’s name wrong, and that it’s actually called the “Forte Koup.” My misspelling is entirely intentional.  Not long ago, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine (who happens to be a professional writer) about when it’s acceptable to change the spelling of a word for artistic reasons. He pointed out that while it often looks better, if you want to be taken seriously, you need to spell it right. Kia ought to know better – and I’m not going to disgrace all the hard work of the engineers and designers by referring to it by a bastardized moniker.

That, and I simply can’t stand typing “koup.”

Finally on our list of noteworthy NYIAS debuts comes a pair of cash cattle from Subaru – the brand-new Legacy sedan and Outback wagon. If you’ve ever ventured into one of the New England states, you’ll understand what this means. Up there, the arrival of new Subarus is celebrated in much the way a bountiful harvest or the birth of a new child is. Farmers and their families congregate in the village green, often traveling ten or twenty miles along muddy, washed-out excuses-for-roads in their old Subies to reach the festivities. The local minister leads everyone in a prayer, glorious odes are sung, then everyone sits down for an enormous potluck supper. Afterwards, the assembly examines every inch of the new models; questions are asked and answered, brochures poured over, Subaru salesmen toasted with cider and beer. Eventually, the masses place their orders for the vehicles that will carry them through the worst God and nature can throw at them through the next four to eight years of their Rockwellian existence.

Though they mask it well, the hearts of stoic New Englanders warm for this car.

Though they mask it well, the hearts of stoic New Englanders warm for this car.

So, yes, this is a big deal.

But aside from the joyful noise arising from parts north, it was a pretty low-key auto show. It seems like most people in the automotive industry are just trying to ride things out as best they can. Perhaps one of the most surprising turn of events was the number of new SUVs – even with gas prices reduced from last year’s highs, “green” remains the color of choice these days, so it seems a little odd that out of this list of notable, five of the nine vehicles are sport-utes (not including the Outback, whose impression of one has gone from Frank Caliendo quality to Sasha Baron Cohen caliber). Here’s hoping next year’s show finds the industry on more stable ground – so we can drool over something better than a new Jeep.

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Quick View – Honda Civic

Today’s Quick View features the Honda Civic, in honor of it becoming the best-selling car in America for the month of May. (If you’re curious, it outsold the runner-up Toyota Camry by the spooky margin of exactly 2008 units.)

Analysts, along with most non-lobotomized people, believe the sudden jump in sales is due to the way gas prices seem to be rising at the same rate the gas flows into your tank. However, don’t assume the sole reason for the Civic’s popularity is the 36 miles per gallon the EPA says it gets on the highway and the sweet, sweet sound those numbers make when said to Americans paying $4 a gallon. The Civic is popular because it’s a damn good car.

Civics, like Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, come in almost every variety you’d ever want. The basic models – DX, LX and EX, in order of increasing features – come in both two-door coupe and four-door sedan forms. All three of them share a 1.8 liter, 140-horsepower inline four-cylinder engine powering the front wheels through either a 5-speed manual or automatic transmission. Aside from features, the three are essentially identical. The bare-bones DX gives you power windows and 15″ wheels, and is probably best to steer clear of; especially when upgrading to the LX brings a more powerful stereo with iPod jack, air conditioning, cruise control, keyless entry, and 16″ wheels. The EX adds onto that anti-lock braking, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, power moonroof, two extra speakers, and an available navigation system with XM satellite radio. (There’s also an EX-L model, which is basically just an EX with heated leather seats.)

In addition, the sporty Si model is also available in both coupe or sedan forms. The Si gets outfitted with a 197-horsepower, 2.0 liter inline-four hooked to the road through a 6-speed manual transmission. Too lazy to shift for yourself, pal? Then keep on walking. The Si also gets a limited-slip differential, sportier suspension and 17″ wheels to suck itself to the road, and a tiny rear-wing spoiler that probably doesn’t do jack in terms of helping on that front. Beyond that, it’s also loaded up with everything the EX has, but adds a 350-watt stereo with a subwoofer and admittedly badass aluminum pedals. But all that sportiness catches up at the pump; the Si gets just 29 miles per gallon on the highway.

Then there’s the Si’s Bizarro twin, the Civic Hybrid. Like Superman’s twisted double, the Hybrid and Si seem similar at first – both lie at the expensive end of the Civic spectrum, with features to match. But where the Si is all about speed – sweet, beautiful speed – the Hybrid lives for frugality. It gets the weakest engine of the Civic line, a 110-horsepower 1.3 liter inline-four that gets some (but not much) help from a small electric motor. Where the Si gets more gears than the rest of the Civics, the Hybrid gets fewer – it uses a continuously variable automatic transmission without set gear ratios to maximize economy. It gets most of the EX features as well, with the addition of automatic climate control – the only car in the Civic line with the option.

Finally, there’s the oddball – the GX natural gas-powered sedan. As you might imagine, being powered by compressed natural gas gives you the enjoyment of never having to stop at the Exxon station; unfortunately, it also probably means you’ll be pushing your car a lot, since CNG stations are as common as sober frat boys during college pledge week…or drunken volunteers during public radio pledge week. (For the record, Vermont and Maine each have one station, New Hampshire three, and Massachusetts eleven – but Vermont’s is private, along with two of New Hampshire’s, and the sole Maine station advises people to “call ahead.”) The GX drinks (inhales?) its fuel into a 113-horsepower 1.8 liter inline-four connected only to a 5-speed automatic. It gets the same 160-watt stereo as the LX and EX, but is forced to channel it through two mere speakers. 

The only divisive issue about the car really is its looks. After generations of conservative styling, Honda seems to have gone in a whole new direction with this Civic’s cyborg-trout looks. The two-tier dashboard may put some people off, too, but it doesn’t take too long to adjust to. If you don’t mind its looks, the Civic probably has a model you wouldn’t mind taking home with you.

Base prices:

Honda Civic DX sedan/coupe: $15,010/$14,810

Honda Civic LX sedan/coupe: $16,960/$16,760

Honda Civic EX sedan/coupe: $18,710/$18,710 (with leather: $19,910/$19,910)

Honda Civic Si sedan/coupe: $21,310/$21,110

Honda Civic Hybrid: $22,600

Honda Civic GX: $24,590

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