The Mystery of the Mazda 3

Or the Curse of the Excluded Middle.

Mazda 3

Practically everybody loves the Mazda 3. It was Automobile Magazine’s “All-Star for best small car.” It just won a five-car Motor Trend comparison test. Consumer Reports recommends it. Gearbox recommends it! But there’s a “but.” The 3 certainly looks bitchin’ —in five-door form it’s perhaps the highest modern expression of the Japanese atomic cockroach aesthetic, an origami battlestar with one of those blind rear quarters that (like the one on the upcoming Toyota FJ) makes you think the interior must go on forever. The locomotive cowcatcher prow takes some getting used to, but that happens. And the interior, while itdoesn’t go on forever, is a couple of orders of magnitude better than anything else you can get for $19,000. With a nice swath of fake carbon fiber (way better than fake wood!) and lots of little, precisely fitted, Bang & Olufsen-like buttons, the “furniture” is fabulous. A bit too zoomy around the instrument binnacles—they picked a cheesy typeface—but extremely well made. (It’s made in Japan, Japan, I couldn’t help notice, not Mazda’s Michigan transplant factory.) You feel happy getting in this car, and smart, like you’ve just found a restaurant that serves a delicious steak meal for $5. BMW wishes it could offer an interior this good for $40,000. GM wishes it could offer it for any price.Like the Mazda RX-8 sports car (in which Instapundit once gave me a ride), the 3 makes a mechanical, tinny, almost hissing sound in motion—but it’s pleasant and Swiss-watch reassuring, not annoying. There’s plenty of power, at least with a manual transmission. The gear lever not only falls readily to hand but lets your hand move it around without any of the remote-linkage waffling common to front-drive cars like, say, a mid-’90s Volvo 850. The 3’s stiff-but-not-jarring ride contributes to a hard, mechanical feel.So, where’s the “but”? Here’s the “but”: It didn’t seem to like going around corners. At least when I drove it. And I’m not alone here! Car and Driver drove the 3 back in April and remarked:

Still, for all its competence and substance, the 3 somehow fails to be as immediately seductive as its Protegé predecessor. Why is that? We’re not entirely sure, but we do have a couple of theories. Although it answers the helm without a hint of reluctance, there’s a sensation of heaviness here that goes beyond the 162-pound difference between this Mazda five-door and the one that came home first in our 2002 hatchback derby. In the same vein, although it’s almost two seconds quicker to 60 mph than the Protegé5, it doesn’t convey that sense of quickness to its pilot, due to the combination of a quieter cabin and the electric-motor operation of the 2.3-liter engine, which is devoid of any peakiness, pulling smoothly and steadily right up to its 7100-rpm redline.

Another take: Mazda’s entry-level offering has lost the lightness of being that made the Protegé so appealing, which is the price of the 3’s clear improvement in substance and quality.

I don’t know as much about cars as Car and Driver, but I have some theories too. First, open the Mazda’s hood. The engine is way forward, even (it seems to me) for a front-drive car. Motor Trend says the 3 has 62 percent of its weight in the front, 38 percent in the rear—far off the 50/50 ideal. But I suspect even that stat understates how the weight is hung way up front. It means that turning the Mazda is like swinging a pole with a watermelon on the end.

To enjoy the 3, I found, you have to abandon any anthropomorphic notion that the car is an extension of your body, revolving around your solar plexus. You have to think, more accurately, that you are Linus, clinging to a blanket and being pulled around corners madly by Snoopy. Once you perform this mental exercise, normal driving in the 3 becomes momentarily enjoyable—or rather, it would be enjoyable, except for the steering.

Again, I don’t know what makes for great steering, but whatever it is got left off the 3’s rack. It’s heavy initially—doesn’t want to cut—then seems to slip off to either side. Even this would be fine if it had a central spot in the middle where it felt locked-in. But it doesn’t. In highway driving I found myself having to constantly readjust.

A car that brands itself “zoom zoom” should have better better steering steering! The 3’s gear wasn’t nearly as bad as the tragic mechanism in the otherwise perfect outgoing Lexus IS, which felt like stirring batter with a spatula. Still, a schlocky old Ford Focus hatchback (already replaced in Europe by a car based on … the Mazda 3) has much nicer steering.

My second uninformed theory explains why the steering’s so-so: The tires are too wide. They look tough and grip the road, but they give up too much in directional precision. Narrower tires—and higher-profile, dorkier-looking tires, with more rubber between the tread and rim—might improve the feel while softening the ride. One of the car mags (I forget which one) suggested narrower tires too, so I don’t feel completely alone here either.

But none of this clears up the mystery in any satisfying way. After all, the people who designed the 3 aren’t idiots. They know about tires and steering. Why’d they do what they did?

I was stumped, until I went to a dinner attended by the editor of a prestigious auto “buff book.” Seeking cheap guidance, I whined that the Mazda all the car mags were raving about wasn’t that much fun for me to drive around town. The editor gave me a withering look. “Did you take it up on the Angeles Crest highway?” he asked. Translation: “Did you drive it really fast on curvy roads?” No, I didn’t. Because I don’t know how to drive really fast on curvy roads and I don’t want to really die. But I admit that the one time I took it on a winding two-lane and started hurling it with what seemed wild abandon from side to side (overcoming its initial reluctance to veer) it performed well. Still,, how often do I engage in this rough physical activity? About as often as I play touch football—once every five years.

Mystery solved. The Mazda’s one of those hi-lo cars that very good drivers (who drift and brake at the last minute) love, and very bad drivers (who don’t even notice what they’re doing) love.

Unfortunately I’m a middlebrow driver—and a devotee of the “Ace” Feel-Good School of everyday automobiling. This highly practical doctrine has a sound academic basis in studies showing that people with the name “Ace” tend to live longer. Why do they live longer? Because every time they say their name (or somebody else says their name) they get a little hit of esteem-building, anti-oxidizing serotonin. They’re “Ace”! My friend Dale applies this theory to cars, encouraging all his friends to get the most powerful motor available on the grounds that “Every time you step on the gas you’ll feel good.”

I agree with Dale, except I don’t think you need a lot of power to feel good. All it takes is a car that feels good every time it goes around a corner—at normal speeds, doing normal chores. My 1991 Nissan 300Z gives me those little serotonin shots. So did Toyota’s bargain-priced Scion XB. But not the 3. On the 10 point Gearbox Parking Lot Scale of Automotive Satisfaction—measuring how happy I am to walk out into the parking lot and see that this is what I’ll be driving home—the 3 gets only a 5. (The Scion, in contrast,  was an 8. Even the slow-moving Honda Element was a 6.)

Recently, there have been rumors that Mazda, disappointed in the 3’s sales, wants to make it more luxurious and less racerish: quieter, softer, with cupholders and plusher seats and better air conditioning and Bluetooth capability, etc. The People Who Drive Really Fast are horrified. “Go ahead and fix the cupholders and A/C, widen the seats for American-sized asses but don’t mess with the spirit of these cars,” pleads Autoblog. Normally I’m with these “car guys” against the La-Z-Boying of sporting vehicles—but in this case I think the high-content, plush route may be the way to go. The build quality is certainly there to justify a much higher price—that’s the 3s competitive advantage. The Mazda isn’t that much fun in ordinary driving anyway. Turn it into a little luxo-pod for people who just want to relax and get to where they are going with all mod cons.

One more thing: The car’s reliability record, according to Consumer Reports, is near-perfect. That’s why I still recommend the Mazda. Just not to myself. Call me “Ace.” 6/17/05

Drive By Sniping:
Mercedes builds a car based on a boxfish. It’s lighter by a third and extremely aerodynamic. If form follows function, it’s beautiful by definition. Works for me. … P.S.: But even if a boxfish’s structure is perfectly adapted by evolution for what a boxfish has to do, boxfish may not have to do some things that cars have to do—like crash into each other at 60 m.p.h. This seems like a flaw in the theory. … 6/18/05

Meanwhile, Mercedes’ Maybach division helps produce a new ultra-exotic two-seat supercar, the Exelero. In keeping with now-established Maybach tradition, it is a complete monstrosity. … 6/18/05

I thought the trend of tumorous wheel bulges was over. I was so wrong. …P.S.: This new, very expensive German car actually combines the same two tired styling clichés—1) the wheel tumors and 2) a rising side crease—as the lowly Scion Xa. … 6/18/05

The Plot To Kill Buick:’s Jerry Flint sees a sinister competence in GM’s surface haplessness:

I recall how Plymouth was starved for product before it was killed a few years ago. Four cylinder cars, which should have been Plymouths, were called Chryslers.And look at what’s going on with Buick:A vice chairman talks about “damaged” nameplates and hints it’s possible that some could go. That means Buick.A Buick-Pontiac-GMC truck dealer group is set up. The dealers are to sell all three makes. Thus, if Buick does go down, this dealer body can still sell the other brands. … [snip]The Zeta project for the rear-drive cars that everyone knows Buick needs was killed.

A few years ago, I thought I thought I  detected a similar internal GM plot to kill Saturn. That plot’s now almost completed: Saturn’s simple, wholesome, high-reliability, Earth-shoeish brand has been destroyed. Its famous Spring Hill, Tenn., plant may be closed. Only a few glitzed-up Opels stand between it and oblivion. But GM’s traditional divisions and its national union had good reason to want to extinguish Saturn, which after all was building reliable, well-made cars without complicated work rules! Saturn embarrassed the UAW. But Buick more or less is the UAW. I doubt they want to kill it. And if GM’s managers could make money selling Buicks, wouldn’t they try—even if the Buicks were rebadged Daewoos?

Still, it’s hard to interpret the styling of the new LaCrosse as anything other than a genius B-school attempt to design a vehicle so loserish that costly Buick factories must be shut down immediately. … Go ahead. Sit down with a pad and pencil and try to draw a car that bad. It’s not easy! … [Via Autoblog]

P.S.: Here’s a Buick I might conceivably buy. … It’s rear-drive, doesn’t look like a parody of a geriatric’s car.

P.P.S.: It’s Chinese. … (For a better-looking version go here and click on “8”.) …

Breakthrough? GM is also producing the not-bad rear-drive Cadillac CTS in China. So, which would you rather have: a Chinese-assembled CTS or an American-assembled CTS? I thought so. Will affluent Americans start importing Chinese Caddys? … 6/18/05

The Plot To Milk the Rest of GM’s Fading Brand Glory Until It Finally Disappears, Not Unlike the L.A. Times: Here’s a depressing quote from GM product czar Bob Lutz:

“We see a huge opportunity here for us to capture the essence of the American automobile in its glory days. The Japanese can’t follow us there any more than they could follow Harley-Davidson. We believe there is a lot of gold in those hills and we intend to mine it.”

Just what many people feared when Lutz talked “retro” after GM’s humiliating cancellation of the Zeta rear-drivers. (“We can’t build this Zeta car profitably. What do you think we are, a car company?” He didn’t actually say that.) Instead of making desirable modern automobiles, GM is to rely on some schlocky boomer-brand nostalgia to get over. … In addition to the problems noted by Autoblog, there’s this one: For younger generations of Americans, the “glory days” involve memories of Nissan Z-cars and Toyota Supras. Is GM planning on selling only to retirees? … P.S.: J Mays hitched his wagon to retro at Ford. He failed. Peter Horbury, who has now taken over design of North American Fords, came up with a fresh, modern design for Volvo. He succeeded. (Volvo made $700 million for Ford last year). …

Solstice: Sexy Euro Coke

Bad Coke: But here’s the new Pontiac Solstice sports car, championed by Lutz, which unless it bursts into flames like the old, aptly named Pontiac Fiero will be a big waiting-list sales success. Why? Because it’s beautiful and sexy! Duh. With a classic Coke-bottle shape! … It doesn’t look like “the American automobile in its glory days,” though. It looks European. … P.S.: I’d always thought it was impossible to design an unattractive car with a Coke-bottle shape, but there is now a wide selection of lame Coke-bottle cars on the market from erstwhile design leaders. There’s Giugiaro’s  Daewoo Leganza, and Pininfarina’s Maserati Quattroporte (which people pretend is beautiful even though it looks like an old Datsun 610). GM contributes the hapless  LaCrosse, while Ford offers unbelievably dull new Jags, including the upcoming XK. … Jaguar’s design department was once said to possess a secret Arabic formula for drawing curves. They must have lost it. 6/19/05

Your permanent get-the-latest-“Gearbox” link is here.6/19/05