Second Annual Mazda Adventure Rally wrap-up

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Last year the folks at Mazda Canada decided to begin hosting an annual event that was unlike the usual car launch. Called the Mazda Adventure Rally, the event pitted journalist teams against each other in an attempt to win $10,000 for the charity of their choice. I was fortunate to be selected as part of the Toronto Star Wheels team, aptly named Team Star Wars along with my fellow Wheels scribe, Peter Bleakney. Of course our ride wore the most Canadian of all numbers, #27. The event took us through Colorado and Utah, across gold rush era mountain paths and through desert canyons. You can read about our incredible experience here and here.

For this year’s event, Team Star Wars was again invited to compete in the event, which would have much much greater secrecy leading up to the event to ensure that none of the competitors had a leg up on the other teams. That meant that we were boarded onto a chartered flight without any idea where we might be going. Ok, so that isn’t quite true. A few of us had it figured out and I had seen a tractor trailer loaded full of stickered MX-5s cruising down the highway in Toronto, so I knew what were were driving. I was a good boy though and didn’t spill the beans.
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Mazda celebrates 25 years of Miata at NYIAS

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For sports car fans, perhaps the most significant presence at this year’s New York Auto Show was Mazda’s display commemorating the 25th anniversary of the worlds most faithful roadster. A collection of significant models was on hand that included some of the little car’s history.

At the front of the line were production numbers 14 and 15, cars that were on the show stand at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show. Who could have guessed what an impact the tiny machine would have on motoring history.

In the next row sat #17, the first Miata race car. With 6,500 racing miles on the odometer, this is the first of over 5,000 Miatas that have been raced over the years. More than any other model. It truly changed the face of auto racing.
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How do I steer this thing?

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I’m sure karma is going to bite me in the ass one day for this, but I can never get enough of videos of a driver with a steering wheel in his hands, rather than attached to the steering column as was intended.

This time, the video comes from Brian Ghidinelli in his Spec Miata racer at Road Atlanta. It was Brian’s first time visiting the track, and his first practice session for the 2014 SCCA Majors race. Fortunately, the driver was able to snap the quick release back in place before he had to repair anything other than his soiled drawers.

Source: Youtube via GRM on Facebook

This is how it’s done: pass 15 cars in one lap!

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Racing cars is about much more than just being able to drive fast. To be a real racer requires a mastery of what some of us call racecraft. A mixture of car control, aggression, vision and even networking along with more than a little bit of luck. Continental Tire Series driver Steven McAleer has all of the above in spades.

McAleer’s C.J. Wilson Racing Mazda MX-5 had to start at the back of the grid in this year’s Sebring race due to a tech infraction. In the first lap alone, the driver passed a rather impressive 15 cars. How he does it is a combination of all of the qualities I listed above, not the least of which is vision and networking.

Watch how McAleer is constantly looking at all three mirrors to evaluate the threats and open spaces to the side and behind, while also looking ahead for breaks in traffic that haven’t even happened yet. While reading traffic, the driver is also communicating with other drivers, using hand signals to get them to help out in setting up a draft. This guy is a relationship manager of the first order!

Source YouTube via RACER

Rolex 24 at Daytona gets under way

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For the second year in a row, I am fortunate to be on site for the Rolex 24 hours of Daytona. This year is more special than usual, as it is the first event of the new Tudor United SportsCar Chaampionship.

Without a specific assignment from my daily gig at Wheels.ca, I am pretty free to go where I want, when I want, so this is going to be a pretty laid back weekend. Yesterday I spent a bit of time shooting along pit lane, but spent most of my morning with Mazda’s Director of Motorsport, John Doonan, discussing the team’s decision to test their cars in public, under racing conditions. I’ll have that interview up soon. I also spent some time hanging out with my buddy, Canadian Indycar star, James Hinchcliffe. Now I know what it is like having guys like me sticking cameras in your face all the time!

Here is a bit of a gallery from my travels yesterday.

Review: 2014 Mazda6

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The life of a car guy isn’t always easy or as satisfying as one might think. Most of you know what I mean. You spend your free time reading, thinking about cars, taking care of your own car-just Something associated with cars. And if you keep this up long enough, your family, neighbors, and co-workers are bound to catch on to your curious affliction. You know what happens next-they are going to ask your opinion of what car they should buy. And in North America, every year hundreds of thousands of car guys are asked that same question, yet almost no one ever follows our advice. While I do not have concrete proof to back this up, something tells me that if these people were taking the advice of car guys, the Mazda6 would surely be selling in greater numbers than they do.

So, what’s going on here? Your neighbor Joe leans over the fence, and tells you he’s looking for a nice, mid-size family car, and what do you recommend?. You pause for a moment, think, and respond, as a car guy, recommend the Mazda6. And you roll off what you’ve read in the car magazines, that it is engaging, fun to drive, offers crisp handling and steering. Meanwhile, Joe’s eyes are glazing over, and he doesn’t hear a word you’re saying, because in reality Joe already made up his mind. He’s buying a Toyota Camry, he just wanted approval from the neighborhood car guy. Joe may as well have asked where he should go for Italian for dinner. You tell him about the small Italian restaurant downtown, where the chef makes the pasta fresh everyday, buys farm fresh produce, and then he goes to eat at Olive Garden.

Such has been the maddening problem with the Mazda6, held as one of the most respected mid-size cars available from the auto enthusiast community, yet one that is constantly overlooked by the general buying public. And Mazda has been struggling to find the right answer. While past 6’s have been praised for their handling and fun to drive capabilities, some critics blamed the 6 as being a size too small to go toe to toe with the Accord and Camry. In its 2009 redesign, the last generation 6 grew up in size, yet the sales figures just were not there. I even heard from a Mazda rep that sales of the last 6 never met what the company thought they could sell.

With the all-new Mazda6, you get the feeling Mazda took a step back and figured they couldn’t beat Honda and Toyota by imitation. Instead, they have gone the opposite direction-build on the virtues of the 6 and upon its reputation, and see what that brings. Mazda’s smaller role in the mid-size car business actually works to its benefit, in that style-wise, Mazda can take far more risks without the fear of offending long-time customers. And let’s face it, if Mazda buyers expect a fun to drive car, it should be exciting to look at as well. Even on our base model test car finished in a somber Meteor Gray, there is no way you can miss the deep-dish front spoiler, pronounced grill opening flanked with aggressive-looking headlights that taper back to flowing fender lines for a much softer, elegant look than the front end suggests. Taken as such, the Mazda6 may sound like a disjointed design, but in person, it all blends very well. Style is subjective, but in my opinion, the Mazda6 sits at the top of its class, alongside the Kia Optima and Ford Fusion.

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Step inside the Mazda6 and its position as the driver’s car of mid-size sedans is confirmed. Slip into the bucket seat and it is immediately clear that Mazda understands that a driver’s car is all about creating an environment that is driver-centric. It sounds simple enough, but in some mid-size sedans you get the sense the driver is just a passenger with the seat with the steering wheel in front of him. Not here. All controls are clear, easy to use, and within short reach. The meaty, just-right sized steering is a pleasure to hold, and would be at home in any German sport sedan. The same can be said of the beautifully executed gauge cluster. Our base Mazda6 may have been low on frills, but provided a distraction-free driving environment. No, there are not four dozen cupholders, or stowage space for six smartphones, tablets and game consoles, but this isn’t a minivan. That said, the Mazda has a roomy cabin with plenty of room for the family.

Presently, the only engine available in the Mazda6 is a new 2.5L four cylinder, rated at 184hp. Our base model test car featured a delightful six-speed manual. A six-speed automatic is an option, but in higher trim levels the automatic is your only choice. Interestingly, in Canada the manual is available on all trim levels. The 6 has always been known as a car with decent pep, and the new car is no different. However, when it came to gas mileage, the 6 always fell short of the competition-a major no-no when fuel consumption ranks fairly high on most shopper’s list of priorities. Mazda has finally addressed the issue with its SkyActiv technology, and the proof is in the numbers. EPA fuel economy estimates are 25/37 MPG city and highway, respectively, which is an impressive figure. While the powerful but thirsty V-6 is no longer on the menu, Mazda plans to add a 2.2L turbo diesel to North America. Until now, Volkswagen has been the sole provider of diesel powered family cars here, and the addition of a diesel Mazda6 should be interesting.

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In North America the Mazda6 is available only as a four door sedan, while foreign markets continue to offer the 6 as a wagon. Trim levels in the US start with the base Sport, Touring, and top-spec Grand Touring. Standard equipment on our Mazda6 Sport included 17″ alloys, dual exhaust, LED taillights, six-speaker audio with USB port, and remote keyless entry. In other words, a pretty basic car, but very attractively priced at $21,675USD, including delivery. Of course, features most purveyors of family cars desire like satellite radio, navigation, and other luxury goods are available on higher trim levels. Yet I took delight in the simplicity of our Mazda6, and marveled that such a well-composed, enjoyable car with this much usable space could be had at this price. Short on content, maybe, but at no time did I ever feel I was driving a cheap car. The high standard of quality and driving pleasure make the Mazda6 Sport an outrageous bargain.

And to all the car guys out there, I sympathize. You passionately tell your neighbor Joe this is the family sedan he wants, for all the reasons  we’ve just shared. And without fail, he shows up the next day, proud of his new Toyota Camry. You politely decline his offer of dinner at Olive Garden, instead opting for the small Italian restaurant in town. And you take the long way home. The reality of the mid-size car war is the Accord/Camry/Altima is they constantly try to appeal to as many people as possible, yet live in terminal fear of offending anyone. The result are near perfect cars that offer practically nothing in terms of personality, or character, the very thing that draws us to cars. The new Mazda6 is a success because Mazda realized they weren’t going to build a Camry killer, but more importantly, is that they didn’t want to.

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Review: 2013 MAZDA CX-5

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The notion of a compact crossover is hardly a new one. The Geo Tracker debuted in 1989, and in 1994 Toyota released a blockbuster hit with the RAV4, and Honda followed with the wildly successful CR-V a year later. Yet Mazda has been content to sit on the sidelines while demand continued to surge for this type of vehicle. Sure, there was the Mazda Tribute, which was simply a rebadged Ford Escape. Upright and staid, the Tribute did not mesh at all with Mazda’s line of vehicles, and never sold well. With that in mind, it’s hard to believe that the 2013 CX-5 is Mazda’s first effort at a compact crossover.

Style and crossover don’t always go hand in hand. The aforementioned RAV4 and CR-V reign supreme when it comes to sales, and the buying public has made its statement: they prize functionality and practicality over personality. Why is this? The belief is style will compromise the utility that buyers seek in a CUV. Mazda designers threw that notion in the garbage, and designed one of the prettiest crossovers available that  gives up nothing in the form of utility. Interesting angles and curves prevail, but the CX-5 never comes across as busy or overdone. The ultimate seal of approval came when I pulled up to the swanky Liberty Warehouse in New York City for a wedding reception, and the valet tells me what a great looking car the CX-5 was.

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Inside, driver and passengers are greeted with a simple, functional interior. Fit and finish and quality of materials are on par with the competition. Buyers enticed by the exotic curves of the exterior may be disappointed that Mazda went ultra-conservative inside, however. Mazda bills itself as a driver’s kind of car company, and as such I appreciated the chunky steering wheel and crystal clear gauges. Some reviews have panned the TomTom GPS navigation and infotainment as being too basic, but I found it a cinch to use with all the features I could possibly want. Flashy? No, but the CX-5’s cabin proved to be roomy, practical and quite comfortable.

The CX-5 is offered with one engine, a 2.0L direct injected SkyActiv four cylinder rated at 155hp (though there are rumors we could see a diesel powered CX-5). A six-speed manual (which is I hear is sublime) is a rarity in crossovers, and is only available in the base model with front wheel drive. All other CX-5’s get a six-speed automatic. Buyers can choose from front or all-wheel drive. Our automatic, all-wheel drive has EPA fuel economy ratings of 25/31 MPG city/highway, which is exceptional. When I saw that 155hp was all there was to motivate this car, I was skeptical that it would be able to get out of its own way. Thankfully, I was proven wrong. It’s no rocket, but the CX-5 was perfectly at ease on the highway, engine and transmission working in perfect harmony. Steering, brakes and handling are superior to any other car in its class-and that is one hyper-competitive class. Smooth on the interstate, yet perfectly agile in the urban jungle of New York City, the CX-5 is a no compromise performer.

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CX-5 shoppers can pick from three trim levels, starting with base Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring. Our test car was the top-spec Grand Touring model. Standard equipment included 19″ alloys, power moonroof, heated leather sport seats, two-zone auto climate control, blind spot monitoring system, Bose audio, power driver’s seat, HD SiriusXM radio and a rear-view camera. Our car’s sole option was the Tech Package, which added navigation, HID headlights and other goodies. Including delivery, our CX-5 stickers at $30,415USD, which seems reasonable for the level of features you get.

Mazda’s first genuine attempt to get into the compact crossover market is, in my opinion, a raging success. Mazda has proved that you do not need to have vanilla styling to be practical, or have the handling capabilities of a marshmellow to be comfortable. Instead, the CX-5 delivers a look that is interesting to look at, and a driving experience that shatters all the accepted notions of how a crossover should handle and perform. All of this with surrendering any practicality. Mazda may be years late to the party, but without a shadow of a doubt perfected the recipe.

 

 

2012 Mazda2 Long Term Test/Project – Introduction

  

Quite a few members of the automotive press have driven and been impressed by the Mazda2’s sporty handling characteristics, light weight, and great transmission. When I drove one on a twisty road, I realized that it was exactly what I had hoped my 2009 Civic Si would be, a practical, economical front wheel drive car that would still be tons of fun in the corners, and just over a week later, I traded the Si for a 2012 Mazda2 Touring in “Liquid Silver Metallic.” (For our Canadian readers, this car is roughly equivalent to the GS model. It lacks automatic wipers and headlights and heated mirrors, which is a typical difference between US and Canadian models, and is also missing the GS’s side sill extensions. Color choices are also slightly different.)

The car is relatively well-appointed, with quality materials used throughout. The single CD player supports MP3/WMA files and has an auxiliary input. I’ve used that input to rectify one of my main complaints about the Mazda2, its lack of satellite radio, by installing the aftermarket XM Radio unit visible between the seats in the above photo. The seats and interior trim, which are exclusive to the higher trim level, look great and have been well-received by everyone who’s been in the car. One omission that I’m going to take care of is the lack of an integrated Bluetooth system. Mazda has just released one, which should be included on 2013 models, and can be installed in 2011 and 2012s. It supports streaming music wirelessly in addition to the typical phone calls. The stock shift knob was far below the quality of the rest of the interior, so I’ve temporarily replaced it with a leather one from the local parts supplier, and will eventually find something really cool from one of the Mazda specialists. Another necessary change was to add the center armrest, which is an accessory that can be ordered through the dealer. It removes the rear cupholder, and needs to be swiveled up to access the two front ones, but it adds some much-needed storage and is a must-have for long drives. The armrest can be seen in the photo below.

I’ve had the car for almost four weeks, and have already covered nearly 1150mi (1850km) in it. Yesterday, I joined a caravan of Mazda enthusiasts from my area (Sacramento, California) to a large Mazda meet in Dublin, CA, exactly 100mi (160km) away. The Mazda2 did a great job on the trip, and I’m looking forward to taking it on the 400mi (650km) drive to Los Angeles, which I do several times a year. It achieved great mileage on the drive, too, and there’s still over a third of a tank left in the car. At the car meet, the Mazda2 was a focus of attention, despite being surrounded by nearly 100 other Mazdas, many of them heavily modified. I seem to be the first enthusiast in the region with a Mazda2, and everybody was interested in checking out just what you get in Mazda’s smallest, least expensive model. Most came away quite impressed, especially at the quality of the interior and exterior and the amount of space inside.

Simply driving from place to place isn’t why I bought this car, though. Although it will remain a daily driver, “Project” is in the title of this post because I’m planning on taking advantage of this car’s dynamics, along with a few upgrades, to have some fun on the track and at Autocross events. There’s a rapidly growing aftermarket for this car, and I plan on taking advantage of it. Suspension is one of the higher priorities, and I’m planning on slightly lowering and stiffening the car, while still keeping its drivability in mind. One upside of the car’s torsion beam rear suspension is that a simple brace can provide noticeable improvements in handling, reducing understeer, but is cheaper and easier to install than the sway bars that most larger cars use. Replacing the car’s stock all-season 185/55/15 Yokohamas is critical, so some stickier 195/55/15 tires and lightweight 15″x7″ wheels to mount them on is are the top of the list as well. I’m also planning on installing an aftermarket air intake, which will inexpensively add a few horsepower and improve throttle response, and installing some performance brake pads and lines for those long days at the track.

The future holds a lot for this fun, practical car, so stay tuned!

Review: 2012 Mazda2

To say that the subcompact market is heating up in North America is an understatement. As little as five years ago this was a market buyers and automakers alike largely ignored. Sure, subcompacts were booming elsewhere, but the mentality from the car companies was always along the lines of “Americans will never embrace a subcompact car with a small footprint and modest power.” Isn’t it funny how a recession that just won’t go away and an ever-present threat of high gas prices was all it took to catch the American consumer up to what the rest of the world already knew?

The Mazda2 debuted as a 2011 model, and is a carryover for 2012. The question was, could Mazda inject its ‘Zoom Zoom’ mantra into a low-cost, low-power subcompact where buyers value price and fuel economy above all else? Read on to find out!

The Mazda2 is offered in one body style only, a five door hatchback. What immediately grabs you is despite being a five door, just how tiny the 2 is in person. Despite its tiny size, the car is every inch a Mazda. In fact, I found their now trademark smiling grin of a front end actually works on this car. All around, the Mazda2 is full of character that one may not expect in this class of car. The greatest hurdle any car company has when it comes to building a subcompact is to avoid a cheap looking car, and here Mazda excels. Smart, swoopy styling offset by alloy wheels, halogen foglights, rear spoiler and chrome exhaust tip all add up for a no-excuses exterior. It’s proof you don’t have to spend a fortune to buy a car that gets the details right, that you can still look smart and not advertise you bought Mazda’s cheapest car.

Our test car was finished in ‘Spirited Green Metallic’. Yes, it is eye-catching, and the car really pops in it. Whether or not that is a good thing is up to you. During my week with the Mazda2, no one had anything good to say about the color, and it didn’t help when a friend told me it looked like I was driving a giant snot. But that’s us old, cranky Generation X’ers talking. I have no doubt this color speaks to a younger, hipper crowd than us.

Inside, you can have the Mazda2 in any color you like, as long as it is black. It’s a sharp contrast to the lime green exterior, somber and serious. The Mazda2 offers decent room and comfort up front. I am 6’1″ and had all the room I needed. As for the backseat? Not so much. The seat itself was too flat, too firm, and was way too claustrophobic for a person of my size to spend anytime back there. The amount of luggage room was a disappointment, providing much less room than its competition. Gauges and controls are easy to read. It was actually shocking at just how simple the interior of the Mazda2 was.

The Mazda2 is powered by a 1.5L four cylinder engine rated at 100hp. Buyers can choose between a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic. Our test car was equipped with the 5-speed manual. Around town the Mazda2 shined, easily zipping through traffic with ease. On the highway, passing moves take a little bit of thought and planning, as you’re not just going to drop a gear and whip past traffic. But the 2 revs freely and never seems to mind a good workout, in fact it seems to revel in it. The slick 5-speed manual only enhances the experience. Add in a featherlight curb weight, quick steering and a well tuned suspension and you have a car far more entertaining than its price would suggest. Our test car was fitted with snow tires for a winter that never really came to New England, so I can imagine with its standard all-season tires would be even more entertaining. There is a purity in driving the Mazda2 that recalls modest British and Italian sedans of the past. And decades later, slow cars that are a thrill to drive fast still holds a strong appeal.

The Mazda2 is offered in two trim levels, the base Sport and top-spec Touring. Our test car was the Touring model, which comes standard with 15″ alloy wheels, rear spoiler, foglights. cruise control, trip computer, leather steering wheel with audio controls and a six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo with a jack for your MP3 player. With a center armrest as its sole option, our Mazda2 Touring rang in at $16,820USD including delivery. It’s hardly news that many subcompact car buyers are requesting premium car features be made available to them, and it is here where the Mazda2 really falls down. Apart from the armrest, the only option missing on our car was an auto-dimming rearview mirror with Homelink. That is it. Features like Bluetooth, satellite radio, navigation and heated seats simply cannot be had on a 2, while the competition does offer it.

As such, my feeling is the Mazda2 will serve as a niche car in an explosive market. The Ford Fiesta, which is related to the Mazda2 is more powerful, gets better highway fuel economy, and is available with features you cannot have on the 2. So it’s not a surprise that for every Mazda2 sold, Ford sells five Fiestas. But I digress. All this talk about features and all takes away from the general goodness of the Mazda2. For the price of admission Mazda is charging, you simply will not find a more rewarding car to drive. Period. And there is a jack for your iPod, and a 12V plug for your portable GPS. For the enthusiast lamenting the loss of simple, straightforward and affordable yet practical cars that are fun to drive, the Mazda2 is the answer to your prayers.

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