Tag Archives: mazda

Review – 2010 Mazda5 Touring (now with video!)

Hold up, sporting enthusiasts! Before you go any further, check out our first VIDEO REVIEW below!

The Good: More playful than “minivan” would imply; sleek styling; surprisingly affordable.

The Bad: Space rather limited; sliding-door stigma remains.

The Ruling: The minivan for people who hate minivans.

Minivan.

The very word is enough to make most men shudder. It conjures up images of middle-aged suburban fathers losing hair and gaining weight, forced to shuttle their ungrateful little bastards from one yuppie-child activity to the next. (“They have Pilates for first-graders now?”) The minivan screams sexless, joyless, suburban purgatory, a rolling reminder that the best days of your life will forever be in that rear view mirror.

The Mazda5, though, begs to differ. Just a glance at it brings hope to the downtrodden American men sought after by every company to broadcast a commercial during an NFL game. Far from the amorphous bulging shape common to traditional minivans and beer guts, the 5 cuts a svelte hole through the atmosphere, knifelike creases evading the wind while catching the eye. This minivan works out – a cardio-heavy regimen, admittedly, but park it next to a more conventional van and it looks downright stunning.

In fact, it’s almost a stretch to call the Mazda5 a van at all, at least by American standards. Lower, lighter and smaller in every way than pretty much any minivan in the states, the only thing truly tying it to its name mates are the twin sliding doors mounted between the B- and C-pillars. In size and stance, the Mazda5 has more in common with a good old-fashioned station wagon than the hulking machines with the chutzpah to call themselves “minivans.” If anything, the Mazda5 puts the “mini” back in minivan.

Thinking small allows Mazda to accomplish the nigh impossible – making a van fun to drive. Though packing only 153 horsepower from its 2.3-liter inline four-cylinder engine, the 5 still put a smile on my face when tackling the high-speed sweepers of the Palisades Interstate Parkway. At a mere 3479 pounds dry, the car accelerates, stops and turns very similarly to the compact Mazda3 on which it’s based. Rowing through the five-speed manumatic transmission makes the keeps things plenty lively for autocrossers forced into soccer practice-duty, and the suspension feels more sports-sedan-like than any other car with sliding side doors. (No, BMW, that’s not a dare.)

Not surprisingly, though, the small engine has to work pretty hard to motivate the 5 with any verve, so fuel economy can suffer. Follow the speed limits and act like your driver’s ed teacher is in the car, the EPA estimated mileage of 21 city/27 highway with the automatic should be pretty attainable; drive like the average automotive journalist (we’re still bitter that our driver’s ed teacher thought they knew more than us), and you’ll average about 23 mpg.

Fun as it may be to drive, the true test of a minivan is how well it moves people, and it’s here the Mazda finds its litheness coming back to bite it in the surprisingly small keister. The length and width that make the Caravans and Siennas of the world so much less fun to drive gives those bigger vans far more places to cram adults, kids, coworkers, hitchhikers, aliens – whatever form of carbon-based life form floats your boat. The 5, for its part, imparts various feelings of constriction on its occupants depending on where they sit. Driver and front passenger will probably go with “cozy;” middle-row occupants may choose “tight;” those exiled to the back row would probably say “claustrophobic” if their knees weren’t already jammed into their mouths.

With that third row seat in takeoff-and-landing position (upright and locked!), storage space is pretty scarce as well. Anyone harboring dreams about taking what I like to call the “Simpsons Vacation Load” – two adults, two kids, a baby and an old codger – better be prepared to pack light. (Luckily, they already wear the same clothes every day.)

But take two people out of that equation – say, Grandpa and Maggie – and the 5 makes more sense. Backseat squabbles are kept to a minimum thanks to second-row buckets, and with the third row partially or fully down, storage space becomes plentiful. Big windows all around give everyone a good view of the surroundings, and though it’s become de rigeur in the segment, I still think having power windows in the sliding doors is a long-overdue blessing. (I’m sure I’m not the only one haunted by memories of poorly ventilated 90s-era minivans, which in summer began to emulate Civil War-era hotboxes on wheels.)

The 5 doesn’t shy away from packing on features, either; my mid-level Touring model packed on automatic climate control, a six-disc CD changer, satellite radio, a moonroof and keyless entry for a little more than $22,000. Even the fully loaded Grand Touring model (which adds on leather seats, xenon headlamps, a nav system and Bluetooth) goes for a bit less than $24,000 – less than most midsized sedans these days offering those same features, and certainly lower than similarly equipped members of the minivan clan. The truly frugal can take home a base 5 for $18,745 or so – but they’ll have to know how to row their own gearbox for that price.

The Bottom Line:

The “minivan” word doesn’t really apply to the Mazda5, in all honesty. In reality, the 5 is a station wagon that just happens to have sliding doors. While it certainly gives away quite a bit in terms of space to bigger, boxier vans, for the average nuclear family, the 5 offers an ideal compromise. It has enough room for two adults, their 2.5 kids and their accompanying soccer gear; it’s enough fun to keep the front left seat from feeling purgatorial; and best of all, neither the monthly bank account nor the fuel bill will devastate the familial bank account. Much like the Simpsons themselves, the 5 is far from perfect – but by God, you can’t help but love it.

Base Price/Price As Tested: $22,000/$22,000

0-60: 9.4 seconds

Fuel Economy: 21 city/27 highway (EPA estimate); 23 mpg (observed)

Key Competitors: Kia Rondo, Dodge Grand Caravan, Chrysler PT Cruiser

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New York Auto Show – Mazda

Mazda’s big news involved their Mazda2 subcompact, aimed at the Hobda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Ford Fiesta. The tiny five-door should be hitting North American showrooms by July, with a base price of $13,980. At that price, you get A/C, four-speaker CD stereo and keyless entry among other extras; if the pictures of the car are to believed, it also comes with two to four ebuillient twentysomethings frozen in midair, Mary Tyler Moore-style.

The company also announced a new family of engines called the Sky line, which led to a moment of confusion in which the assembled press corps briefly though they’d accidentally gone to the Nissan stand. According to Mazda, the Sky diesel can get 43 mpg highway in a mid-sized sedan. A torquey Mazda6 with that kind of mileage? Sounds like a win.

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A Burst of News – Cheap Sports Cars from Kia, Nissan and Mazda, Aston Martin Cygnet Revealed, and Two Unusual Ferrari 599s

For the last Burst of News of 2009, we’ve decided to keep things short, since, let’s face it, you’re still playing with your new Christmas toys and already pre-gaming for New Year’s Eve.

First out of the gate, some excellent news for all fans of cheap speed (and apart from drug dealers and overprotective mothers, who isn’t?). With Toyota and Subaru’s jointly developed rear-wheel-drive coupe coming down the pipe, other Asian automakers are scrambling to pump out small, inexpensive sports cars to compete with the Toyobaru. (While Toyota is now calling the concept version the FT-86, we still prefer the portmanteau.)

According to Inside Line, Nissan is considering a new small sports car for the 2011-2012 time frame, to slot under the 370Z. Should the coupe receive the green light, it will likely pack a 200-horsepower, 1.8 liter turbo four cylinder, along with the same six-speed manual/seven-speed auto choices from the Z. Insiders say styling may resemble the company’s 2005 Foria concept – which would be a shame, ’cause the Foria is kinda homely to our eyes. As for a name, we’re hoping Nissan axes the 240SX moniker for our shores. (Note to Nissan: don’t use the letters “S” and “X” next to each other in your car’s name.)

"I shall call it...MINI-Z!"

Okay, fine, here's the Foria.

While Mazda would seem to already have a strong foe for the Toyobaru in the Miata, it seems they’re not content to place all their hopes on The Car That Saved The Roadster. Instead, they’re replacing the Jack LaLanne-like RX-8 with a new RX-7. Given the name change, it’s likely the new car will ditch the tiny suicide doors of the RX-8 and return to the two-door layout of the prior RX-7. A new version of Mazda’s Renesis rotary engine will be plopped under the hood, likely pumping out between 200 and 250 horsepower. According to Inside Line, Mazda hopes to keep the price around $25,000 when the car hits the streets – hopefully as early as 2011.

Adieu, wacky RX-8. You will be missed.

However, Toyota and Subaru are facing threats from across the Sea of Japan, as well. AutoCar claims Kia is drafting up plans for a RWD sports car based off the Hyundai Genesis Coupe’s platform, and featuring styling similar to the Kee Coupe Concept. However, in a surprisingly earnest admission, Kia design director Peter Schreyer says the company needs to “grow a little more in stature” before the marketplace would be ready to accept such a sporty Kia, adding the car could be ready in around five years. We say: Kia, grow a pair and put this baby on the market in two. Charge a grand less than Toyota and Nissan, and with the Genesis Coupe’s chassis and a cleaned-up version of the Kee body, you’ll sell every one you can crate over here.

This is of course in addition to the Honda CR-Z Hybrid headed for our shores in latter 2010; while the CR-Z’s front-drive hybrid layout means it won’t exactly be a direct competitor for the spate of RWD coupes, you can bet at least a few people will be cross-shopping the Toyobaru and Co. with the Honda.

Thanks to Temple Of VTEC for this leaked CR-Z image.

For some folks out there, though, cost isn’t an issue when it comes to buying a car. We here at CCO, sadly, don’t belong to that fraternity of rock stars, trust fund babies, and un-dateable social media founders; however, should our platinum-plated ship come in (a Powerball ticket also would do it), most of us would put the Ferrari 599 Fiorano right at the top of our list of purchases. (As in, we’ve figured out how long it would take to get to Miller Motorcars of Greenwich, CT and place our order.)

So when we saw what one wealthy bastard fellow had done to a perfectly good 599, we wanted to pull an Elvis and put a couple .44 Magnum hollow-points through our television. No, we don’t browse the Web on our TV – it’s just that the prick gentleman in question happens to be the son of John Walson, inventor of cable television.

"Hello, U.N.? I'd like to report a crime against humanity."

Edward Walson (bet he doesn’t like being called Eddie, either) used a portion of his shit-tastically huge inheritance to commission Ferrari’s Special Projects Division (Motto: “Cooler Than Your Job”) to whip up this golden turd after being inspired by a one-off Ferrari from the 1968 Federico Fellini film Tony Dammit. This is like asking Lockheed’s Skunk Works to take an F-22 Raptor and attach two extra wings because you always wanted an X-Wing starfighter.

While Walson and Ferrari call it the P540 Superfast Aperta, the rest of us would rather just call it  a mistake. So if you happen to see this monstrosity parked on the street, please, do every car lover (and person with sight) a favor and drive your car into it at high speed. (Safety first, though – reverse into it, please.) If this 599 could talk, it would be begging to be put down. Don’t make it suffer.

Blessedly, our other piece of Ferrari news today is much sunnier. According to Quattroruote (the article’s in Italian), the Italian automaker will be unveiling its new hybrid system in a 599-based concept at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show. Fuel economy is expected to receive a 35 percent bump, allllll the way up to 14 miles per gallon. Should the electric motor power the front wheels as we previously reported, Geneva will be unveiling a 599 with all-wheel-drive, improved handling and more miles per gallon. It’s as though God heard the prayers of every Ferrari-lover in New England.

A Ferrari 599 GTB, in what is obviously New Hampshire.

Finally, Aston Martin has released a few images of the completed version of its Cygnet concept, and it looks as adorable as a cartoon owl. Which is to say, pretty damned un-Aston Martin like.

The Aston Martin Cygnet

Owly

The Cygnet – which we remind you is pretty much a Toyota iQ under those pretty headlights – remains a concept for the moment, though Aston’s press release reiterated the company’s desire for the car to “become a production reality,” in an apparent effort to negate the machismo imbued upon the brand from the last three Bond movies. (And that Daniel Crag musk doesn’t come off easily.)

If Aston really wants an environmentally friendly micro-car for their line, we’d like to make the same suggestion we made to Mercedes-Benz when they brought to Smart over here (and by “made,” we mean “yelled at a billboard”): MAKE IT ELECTRIC. Yank out that dinky gas engine and strap in an electric motor with enough torque to chirp the tires. If it’s supposed to be a city car, low-speed performance is far more important than top speed. You only need enough juice to make it 50-75 miles, anyway; any further than that, and your driver will probably want to take their other Aston anyway.

Anyway, that’s it for us this year! Happy New Year, and here’s to an exciting and successful 2010!

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Review – 2010 Mazdaspeed 3

The Good: Powerful engine, lots of performance for little money.

The Bad: Torque steer can be intimidating, uncooperative shifter.

The Verdict: A sports car for the poor – with room for four.

When arranging for us to test the Mazdaspeed 3, the Mazda PR representative seemed almost a little contrite about our opinion of the regular Mazda3 we reviewed last August. “I hope it finds your favor better than the Mazda3 did,” he remarked in an email.

We were a little puzzled. After all, it wasn’t that we disliked the 3; it was a playful little economy car, even if it was laden with malapropos features like heated leather seats and xenon headlamps that turned with the front wheels. It was just awfully pricey – $24,455 is a lot to pay for a compact car.

But if they were concerned we were going to be harsh on the Mazdaspeed3 for the same reasons we took the regular 3 to task for…no worries, Mazda. Because the Speed 3 is not an overpriced compact car. It’s a vastly underpriced sports sedan.

Like any good sports car, the Speed 3’s greatness ultimately boils down to two factors: the engine and the suspension. And this engine is a doozy – a 2.3-liter inline four-cylinder with a hefty turbocharger bolted to it, pumping the little engine up to 263 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. Given the car weighs a mere 3,221 pounds dry, this adds up to some serious whee!

But unlike most cars with this much power, the Mazda directs all that power to the road through the front wheels, and the front wheels alone. When so much power is directed through the same wheels being used to aim the car, it results in torque steer – when the force of the engine is strong enough to tug the car off course. In most front-wheel-drive cars, the condition is too slight to be noticed – but in the Speed 3, it’s as subtle as the latest Roland Emmerich film.

Mazda’s official line is the torque steer adds to the car’s fun factor, and while I certainly wouldn’t want the front wheels doubling as the drive axle on most performance cars…I gotta agree with the good folks at Mazda. It is pretty damn fun – once you get used to combating the wrenching wheels. (Though extensive driving may lead to the development of Popeye-like forearms.)

But the torque steer wouldn’t be much fun if the car didn’t blitz off the line like Reggie Bush. (And yes, I know that defensive players blitz, while Reggie is an offensive player.)

(Ed: Actually, Terrell Owens is an offensive player – Reggie is just a running back. Zing!

Oh, come on! That was gold!)

Sorry about that. The point being, this little sucker is fast. Given a twenty-foot gap to accelerate between the stop sign and the angry traffic of the FDR Drive, I revved up the engine, dumped the clutch – and wasn’t entirely sure I hadn’t been rear-ended by a Super Duty.

Having the turbo on your side means you’ve got power pretty much whenever you want it. Turbo lag is just apparent enough to be noticeable, without giving you the sort of hyperdrive effect seen on such cars as the old Porsche 930. By highway speeds, the tight-ratio six-speed manual gearbox has the engine spinning fast enough to make passing power available right frikkin’ now – and that’s just a safety feature, dude.

As for that stick shift – while I have to award major props to Mazda for only offering the Speed 3 with a manual transmission, the tranny itself does have a couple flaws. While running the engine at higher RPM on the highway is great for keeping the turbo in play, it doesn’t do much for fuel economy. And sixth gear is located awkwardly far down and to the right; several times I tried to upshift from fifth gear only to be shunted back into fourth. A firm hand is required to enable top gear.

As for the car’s handling, the suspension and tires don’t let the promise of that ballsy engine down. The Speed 3 romps around corners with glee; from the first turn you take, it’s apparent the car wants to be driven hard. Steering feel is a bit heavy at lower speeds; however, it loosens up as velocity increases, and while it may not be the most communicative steering rack out there, it’s not really complaint-worthy, either.

Thankfully, Mazda managed to find a pleasant balance between sporty and ridiculous in the car’s styling. While some automakers tend to slap all sorts of gaudy accoutrements on their sporty low-priced models, Mazda was content to leave the already wild-looking 3 more or less alone. The biggest difference can be seen up front, where the Speed 3 boasts a deep hood scoop and a gill-like guard on the front air intake that only plays up the regular 3’s marine life resemblance.

In addition, the Speed 3 only comes in 5-door hatchback form, which prevents it from suffering from the odd-looking pinched rear common to the sedan version of the 3. Be it in regular or speedy form, the hatch is by far the more coherently styled of the Mazda3 lineup.

Inside, things remain pretty similar to the conventional 3. The seats, while cloth instead of leather, are just as comfortable as the bovine thrones in the Grand Touring edition we tested several months ago. The only real differences are a handful of little touches – red trim on the seats and shifter, and a small electronic boost gauge between the tach and speedometer to tell you how much exhaust the turbo is forcing back into the engine.

As for options, the Speed 3 forgoes many of the fancy options hoisted on our last high-end tester – and is little the worse for wear. My tester was equipped with the only big-ticket item on the options list: the $1,895 Tech Package, which adds a 10-speaker Bose stereo with 6-disc CD changer and satellite radio, a keyless entry system allowing the driver to lock, unlock or start the car without removing the key from his or her pocket, and a navigation system.

About that navigation system…well, it’s not the greatest factory guidance system out there. The screen is conveniently mounted high on the dash, close to the driver’s eyeline; however, it’s about the size of a Triscuit. The only way to control the system is via small buttons on the steering wheel, meaning the driver can’t delegate programming duties to a passenger. Plus, while the computer claimed to automatically dim the screen at night, it failed to do so in my car – forcing me to drive around with a blindingly bright square of light in my eyeline. Ultimately, I had to pull over and manually switch it over to night mode – and switch it back and forth every twelve hours or so.

Still, for all its faults, the navigation system did seem as though it had been put together for people who love to drive. While heading back to New York City from Pennylvania’s Bucks County late one night, the system pointed me down a series of increasingly smaller and windier rural New Jersey roads instead of sending me straight to the four-lane highway I’d taken on the way down. I don’t think the back roads were any quicker – but they were certainly more fun.

The Bottom Line:

Even in this day and age, when automakers are making 550-horsepower sport-utilities and muscle cars roam the streets once more, the Mazdaspeed 3’s combination of performance, frugality and usability stands out. For less than $24,000, Mazda has created a car that can seat four adults or carry a good amount of cargo while performing like an honest-to-God sports car.

This is the kind of car that reminds people who love to drive where that love comes from. It was in pursuit of cars like this that led me to start College Cars Online – affordable, fun cars suited for young people. If we awarded a College Cars Online Car Of The Year (we’re not – but stay tuned for next year), the Mazdaspeed 3 would be at the head of the pack.

Base Price/Price As Tested: $23,945/$25,840

0-60: 5.8 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

Fuel Economy: 18 city/25 highway (EPA estimate)

Competitors: Subaru Impreza WRX, Volkswagen GTI, Honda Civic Si

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From Small Things, Big Things Come…

Here at College Cars Online, we pride ourselves on bringing our Dear Readers (that’d be you) the most interesting automotive news, information and reviews in our own definitive style. As part of that commitment to you, we’d like to take a minute to let you know about some of the exciting events coming down the line in the near future.

The biggest news is – we’re moving! Well, not physically. Our butts will remain glued to the same office chairs they always have, here in the office. But in the next couple of weeks, we’ll be transitioning from our current WordPress.com address to the one we’ve been lusting after all along – http://www.collegecarsonline.com.

Now, it’s not ready as of this posting, so if you head there you won’t see anything yet. But within the next couple weeks, we’ll be mating our BRAND NEW WEBSITE to said address, so you can add that bookmark already.

As for our BRAND NEW WEBSITE, we’re going to be using Squarespace instead of WordPress, so things will be shifting around a bit. We haven’t settled on a final format yet, but rest assured, it’ll be pretty sweet. As George Foreman used to say, “I guarantee it!”

Secondly, we’ve got several more reviews coming down the pipe. This week, we’ve got an Arrest-Me-Red Mazdaspeed 3 sitting in our garage; in a couple of weeks, we’ll be driving the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart Sportback, then over the holidays we’ll be kicking snow and taking names in an Audi S4. We’ll also be reviewing the popular car-sharing service Zipcar, to see how it stands up to owning or renting a car; that’ll be coming along in the next few weeks as well.

We’re also going to try to convince you to follow our Twitter feed, @collegecars, by offering real-time posts while testing out our vehicles. (Okay, we won’t be Tweeting while driving, because that’s just stupid. We’ll park first, then Tweet – and so should you. Don’t Tweet and Drive!)

(Now we know!)

(And knowing is half the battle. G.I. Joe!!)

Sorry about that.

Anyway, please bear with us, stay tuned, and keep watching this space! (Well, until we move.)

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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.

DSCN2419

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.

DSCN2424

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.

DSCN2423

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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A Burst Of News – $99 Smart Cars, an Aston Martin Scion, BMW X1 Revealed and Mazda’s Micro Miata

This week’s burst of news, for the most part, concerns a segment of the automotive industry we’ll be seeing quite a bit more of in the near future – small cars. Now that the Obama administration has signed stricter fuel economy standards into effect, automakers will be forced to find ways to bump up the average mileage of their lineup – and the easiest way to do that is to add on dainty, fuel-sipping models at the lower end of the range.

Perhaps the oddest example of this is the Aston Martin Cygnet concept, an Aston-designed version of the Toyota iQ microcar. We know how ridiculous it sounds, so before we go any further, take a look at the picture so you know we’re not just yanking your chain.

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If whipping you in the balls doesn't work, Le Chiffre shows you this picture.

Aston CEO Dr. Ulrich Bez says this joint project will provide “customers a distinctive, intelligent and exclusive solution for urban travel in style and luxury,” and believes it could go into production “in the not too distant future.” (Daniel Craig is praying that means “once someone else is playing James Bond.”)

The iQ, for the record, is powered by a 1.3 liter four-cylinder making 93 horsepower, and should be coming (in Scion form) to the States in 2011. No word on what engine might motivate the Cygnet, but we doubt they can fit the DBS’s V12 under that hood.

But Aston Martin isn’t the only one considering smaller vehicles. According to AutoExpress, Mazda, who have managed to carve out a nice niche for themselves in the U.S. as Honda’s fun roommate, will be bringing out a smaller version of the MX-5 Miata convertible sometime around 2012.

Photo courtsey AutoExpress. Thanks, guys!

Photo courtesy AutoExpress. Thanks, guys!

Little is known about the Mini-Miata so far, but it will probably be called the MX-2. According to company insiders, the MX-2 will have styling similar to the current Miata, and feature normally aspirated and turbocharged 1.6 liter four-cylinder engines. No word on whether this means the MX-5 will jump up in size, but it seems likely.

In other downsizing news, after weeks of blurry images and extreme, detail-free closeups posted on the BMW X1’s Facebook account, official images of the finished product have snuck onto the web. So far, reaction on the web to the styling has been mixed, but we think it actually looks pretty good.

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The only engine available at launch here in the States will be the 3.0 liter inline six, making 231 horses and 199 lb-ft of torque; however, a 300-horsepower turbocharged model will probably be along not long after, given that every other BMW model with the base six also offers the turbo version. A larger replacement for the aging X3 (which is around the same size as the X1) based off this architecture is probably likely in the next two years.

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Our last piece of small car news comes from Smart, who announced that qualified buyers with a “Cash For Clunkers” trade-in will be able to lease a ForTwo for a mere $99 a month – meaning you can drive a new car for less than your monthly iPhone bill. (“Cash for Clunkers” is a new federal rebate program offering between $3,500 and $4,500 to buyers who trade in an old, gas-sucking vehicle for a new, fuel-efficient ride.)

"You shut up!" "No, you shut up!"

"You shut up!" "No, you shut up!"

The good news is, this offer is a pretty good deal if you want to get out of your old, junky ride and into something not likely to shed parts every mile or two; there’s no money down, and while that $99/month price applies only for the cheapest Smart, even if you upgrade to a higher trim level, you’ll still probably get a good deal.

The bad news is…you’re still getting a Smart. Which means only two seats, a herky-jerky transmission,  a 0-60 time of around 14 seconds, and only 41 mpg on the highway (and that’s if you never use most of the car’s meager 70 horsepower) for your $13,355. In comparison, a Honda Fit gives you seating for four (five if you have one friend who’s an elf), 117 horsepower, 33 mpg highway and several times as much driving fun for $15,460.

But if all this talk of tiny, fuel-efficient cars is making your enthusiast mojo shrivel up, fear not – the sleek, powerful machines that make us Andy Samberg in our pants aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. So, for your trouser-staining pleasure, Shelby is unveiling two Super Snake packages for the Ford Shelby GT500.

Car porn: still legal in 49 states. (Thanks for nothing, Oregon.)

Car porn: still legal in 49 states. (Thanks for nothing, Oregon.)

$29,495 will buy you an upgrade to 630 horsepower, while true Tim Allens and Jay Lenos of the world can get the whole-hog 725 horses for $33,495. (Not including the $46,325 for a new GT500, of course.) Improved handling and stopping hardware gets thrown in for good measure, too.

And finally, we reported a couple weeks ago on an M Performance version of BMW’s 7-series sedan. Turns out BMW is denying any such car, claiming the photographed tester was just an example of the new Sport Package for the 7-series. But we still wouldn’t be surprised to see an M7 sometime soon – after all, if they’re making an X5 M, they clearly aren’t too picky about M-ing out their vehicles anymore.

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