50,000 miles with my 2008.5 MazdaSpeed3

Hey, wow, a non-MTG post from me. I know, it’s been a very long time indeed…

In summer of 2008, I went car shopping and even test drove several competitors. I ultimately bought a 2008.5 MazdaSPEED3 because while the Mini was great, it was so much less practical and so much more expensive than the Mazda that I simply could not justify it. Anyway, “2008.5” is kind of an odd designation, but Mazda did a mid-year refresh on the Speed3 and it essentially the same as the 2009 model. This is before the current generation and the giant grin that Mazda gave the front end to all the 3-series cars. Frankly, I think the new ones are goofy-looking in most colors, and I don’t care for the hood scoop now sported by the Speed3.

I wrote a post about it at 1500 miles and, four years later, not a lot has changed about how I feel about it.

Here’s the best way to explain how those 50,000 miles have gone: I’m one of those people who, whenever in a bookstore, used to always pick up Car and Driver or Road and Track. I was constantly on the lookout for new options to think about in cars. I never do this anymore and now actively dread the idea of looking for a new car. For the first time ever, I want this car to last forever. I know it won’t, but I have never been happier with a car than I am with this one. That’s pretty unusual for me. Here’s my breakdown…

This is, of course, the major selling point of this car and the reason I bought it in the first place. It has never ceased to deliver on this. The car is a total blast to drive. It’s quick, it’s fast, and it corners incredibly well. The important thing is that it’s just as zippy and fun now as it was when I first got it—it hasn’t slowed down, and the feeling of fun when driving it has never gotten old. Of course, now it’s more familiar. I know exactly how hard I can corner before the stability control will kick in. Or, rather, I know exactly when i need to turn the stability control off when I don’t want it. I know where the car’s limits are, or more particularly, where the limits are for the combination of me and this car. I’ve never actually owned a car like this before and the long-term issue it has created is that it will be very hard for me to ever go back to something that isn’t as quick or handles as well. I’ve become quite good at managing the torque steer, which isn’t great but is managed adequately well by the computer. One of the funniest parts about the performance aspect of the car is the response from friends and neighbors. One of my son’s best friends just loves it when I’m giving him a ride somewhere and he’s always asking me to punch it or take corners fast. “I love your dad’s car” is something I’ve heard more than once. Always good to have the kid fun seal of approval.

This was one of the major factors in choosing this car over the MINI in the first place, and I had no idea how big a deal it would turn out to be. One of my sons plays football, and the other plays lacrosse, and there is simply no possible way, even in the Clubman version of the MINI that I could fit the gear for both of them in my trunk. My wife drives a good sized crossover, so I rarely need to lug big loads, but the ability to handle all the kids’ stuff is a requirement, and this car can do it, just. I have become a huge fan of the hatchback form—it’s just so bloody useful, without being a lumbering hulk.

Operating costs
This is, of course, the thing you really learn only after you’ve owned a car for a long time. How has it held up? How much does it cost to keep on the road? I’m breaking this down into three categories:

Other than routine maintenance, the car has only been in the shop a three times in 50,000 miles. That’s pretty good, with one notable exception that I’ll cover last. The first time was for a faulty gas cap, which was something the dealer knew about and that they fixed in less than five minutes for free. It was annoying because I was out of town and it failed for my wife, which caused her some undue stress, but it was minor. Another was a lit Check Engine light that turned out to be due to a faulty sensor, total cost less than $100. There was a recall on the windshield wiper motor, but I didn’t make a special trip for that, I just had them take care of it when I was in for some other routing maintenance, probably the 30,000 mile service.

The one really bad moment was, of course, one week after my 3-year warranty expired. What happened to the guy who took these pictures is exactly what happened to me:

Broken Shifter 1
Broken Shifter 2

Shift lever snapped off as I was shifting into 5th getting on the highway. Loads of fun!

My suspicion was that the bottom of the shift lever was cracked ever so slightly when they drilled the hole for the pin that holds it in place, and it took three years to finally fail. Or rather, three years and one week, since it failed eight days after the warranty expired. It was kind of scary to have the shifter just come off the car mid-shift as I was merging onto the highway, but the highway wasn’t busy so I just pulled onto the shoulder and checked it out. The car was still drivable, though probably not the safest thing in the world. I brought it to the dealer and, despite it being out of warranty, they fixed it quickly and without charging me a dime. I suspect, given that I’m not the only one who experienced this failure and the speed with which it was handled, that Mazda knows that this happens every once in a while, and they just quietly take care of it.

So, while that last one was a little odd, other than that, the car has been almost bulletproof. And let’s be clear about this—I drive the car hard. This will come up again soon.

If you’re buying a performance car, gas is not your primary concern, nor was it mine when I bought it. Interestingly, though, my car was the first model year under the revised EPA mileage estimation procedures. The car is rated 26 highway and 18 city, and I do indeed drive about 50/50 city/highway. Since this car is my first in the smartphone era, I have a little app that tracks mileage. Here’s the graph for 184 tanks of gas that have been put in the car—I started tracking this at 792 miles in, so I missed the first few tanks. Note the green region above the EPA numbers and the pink region below it:

All those large peaks that reach into the green are mostly-highway road trips. So, the overall answer is that the car can beat the EPA estimate on the highway when using cruise control going not too terribly fast, but for me that’s pretty rare. The good news is that it has never dipped below the city number, and the overall average is almost exactly 22 MPG, the average of the EPA estimates. So, at least for me, the new EPA procedure is pretty good. Also, the car does about what it should do in terms of gas consumption.

Note that the Speed3 requires premium gas—performance engines often do—so I’m also paying a little extra. The app tracks price paid per gallon as well. My cheapest per gallon was $1.68 in December of 2008, and my most expensive was the horrible price-gouging station closest to my work, a lovely $4.28 per gallon April 2012. The average price per gallon has been $3.15 over the slightly more than 4 years that I’ve owned it.

The car has 18” wheels and uses low-profile tires for a sporty look and feel, and of course it’s a performance car. Additionally, I live in Houston, which is very hot for a substantial portion of the year. This is really hard on tires. Plus, I have a rather, err, spirited driving style. The reason for all this disclaimer-style material? I’ve never gotten even 20,000 miles on a set of tires. Yes, I rotate them every 6000-8000 miles. I went on to my third set of tires at around 38,000 miles, and at 50k I can see the writing on the wall for the next set—maybe I can wring another 7,000 out of the current set, but that puts me in about July when the tires will wear really quickly. Given that a set of tires with installation runs around $800 and I’m doing it about every 18 months, that’s not awful, but not insubstantial. In general I tend to be hard on tires, and Houston in hard on tires, and this car is hard on tires, so… yeah, tires are going to be a thing. Incidentally, the stock tires were Bridgestone Potenzas and that’s what I replaced them with the first time (though I think a different model number Potenzas), and this time around I went with Goodyear Eagles because they were on substantial sale at the Mazda dealer when I happened to need them. These seem to be holding up slightly better, but we’ll see for sure this summer.

So, after 50,000 miles, I’m still in love with the car. It’s still a blast to drive and doesn’t feel like it’s been obsoleted on features (yet), it’s still comfortable and overall not too expensive to operate, or at least not more expensive than could be expected. With one exception, it’s been essentially bulletproof from a mechanical standpoint, and all together, that makes it a terrific car in my book. May it last me another 50,000 (at least).

Thanks, Mazda!

So, the 2010 MazdaSPEED3 was recently revealed; pics can be found at AutoBlog and possibly elsewhere.

I’d like to take this opportunity to send out a hearty wave of gratitude to Mazda for this one. Why? Because I bought a MazdaSPEED3 late last summer. Of course, one of the things one worries about when blowing a big chunk of change on something like that is “will I regret this when the next model comes out in a year?”

Problem solved.

Look, I’m not under the illusion that my Lightning (that’s my 3’s name) is the most attractive car on the road—though it’s not bad—but that new thing is… hideous. The grinning mug looks bad enough on the regular 3, but the hood scoop and extra wavy plastic just magnify the awful. Nor do I like the bug-eyed back. I do like the dual exhausts, and the rims, though. The new interior is a wash; some bits look a little better, some look a little worse. But the grinning front, man, what were they thinking? Apparently, it was “let’s make the current owners happy about their decision.” OK, then, thanks!

1500 miles with the MazdaSPEED3

As the alert reader will note, a few months ago I test drove four cars. In mid-August, I actually bought one of them, but not the one that was first in those rankings; instead, I bought a MazdaSPEED3. I got the Grand Touring package because I wanted the xenon headlamps, the better AC and the upgraded seats. Well, OK, and the rain-sensing wipers and the trip computer.

So, the obvious first question is why I went that way instead of buying the MINI Cooper Clubman S which I ranked first in my drive review. Yes, the MINI seemed more fun to drive, at least for a while, but there were multiple factors which spoke in the Mazda’s favor:

[1] Money. To get the MINI comparably equipped, the price tag was about $5k more. And with the extra options I would have gotten on the MINI, it would have been some $7k more. BMW has certainly figured out how to nickel-and-dime you to death with this car; why on earth is a limited slip diff a $500 option and not standard? I simply could not justify the expense, particularly given the second concern.

[2] Less practical. Yes, I could have gotten my two kids in to the MINI through the one-half of a back door and buckled in the little one via leaning over the flopped-forward front set, and I could have crammed the trunk to the max when I’m doing soccer duty or whatever, but it would have been a pain and gotten old quickly. Why pay ~$6k extra for a car that limits me like this?

[3] Ergonomics. The MINI interior is so focussed on being retro that the designers seriously sacrificed usability in how the controls are laid out. No self-respecting human factors person should reward that nonsense. And the cupholders suck. Oh, and my seven-year-old is enough of a backseat driver as it is, the freaking plate-sized speedo right in the middle of the dash is practically an invitation for him to comment endlessly, and that’s something I just do not need.

[4] Reliability. Now, the MINI is covered by a better warranty and all service is included in the first 3 years, but there is basically one MINI dealer in my area and it’s not a particularly convenient location. Also, there have been reports of some first-year problems with the Clubmans. This was not a huge factor but it was a consideration. (Incidentally, reliability is why the VW GTI never even got a test drive.)

[5] Appearance. The MINI is butt-ugly, and I mean that literally; the back end of the Clubman is a busy, ugly mess. You basically have to get the black roof and trim to cover up the ugliness of it. I know that’s a shallow reason but someone needs to punish MINI for that nastiness. (I’ll note that Top Gear agrees that it’s hideous.) While the front is still MINI-cute, the tail end is simply awful. And the barn door design, while very unique, is dumb. With a standard hatch, if you’re loading or unloading in the rain, the hatch provides cover. Plus, it leaves a dumb blind spot in the rear outward view. Also, this means a second rear wiper and fluid delivery deal; this means more blades to replace and more moving parts to fail.

And, of course, we’ve had at least one Mazda in the garage for a while now, so it has some additional familiarity. In fact, the SPEED3 really is the natural evolution of the Protege5 which it replaced in my garage. That is, it’s still a wagon-hatch thing, but with updated safety and convenience features and an incredibly kick-ass engine. The auto press really likes this car (see Edmunds, Automobile.com, NextAutos, AutoBlog, and Car and Driver for examples of this) and I can see why. However, most auto press reviews are based on fairly short-term tests. Since I’ve now put about 1500 miles on it I figured I should share my thoughts—not just my initial impressions, but really living with it day-to-day for over a month. As with all cars, there are strong points and weak points—in this case, the strong far outweighs the weak, but both deserve consideration.

Strong Points
• Fast. Fast as hell. I mean, no, it’s not Ferrari fast and it won’t kill an STI at a stoplight (not that I race at stoplights) but it’s a torque animal and just flat-out moves when the gas pedal is stomped. I have, without really trying to go fast, looked down at the speedo at the bottom of a highway entrance ramp and realized I was in triple digits. The kicker is that you get all that 280 fl-lbs of torque goodness at a modest 3000 rpm. It kind of has the opposite problem as the Honda VTEC in that there’s not much advantage flirting with the redline; the engine does tend to start giving up at high rpms (around 6000), but I find that more manageable than having nothing until you reach high rpms. The other really impressive thing about it is the lack of turbo lag. There is a very tiny bit of it, but very close to none. And, technically, actually it is Ferrari fast in some sense. One of the cool Ferraris of my youth was the Ferrari 308 GTB, which made 240 hp and 209 lb-ft of torque and weighed almost exactly the same as a Speed3. (It was also somewhat less practical, being a 2-seater.) So, 24 years later I get in the same performance ballpark for a small fraction of the price.

• Great handling. The nice thing is that this isn’t just straight-line speed, the car can actually corner, and do it well. There’s some understeer, yes, (it is still front wheel drive), but the suspension is terrific, there’s very little body roll, and the road feel is very good. No, the road feel is not as good as the MINI, but this car has so much power on tap that you can compensate on the back side of a turn by just powering out. One thing that deserves comment is the torque steer issue. The various mags and sites certainly have reported a range on this. Obviously, running 280 ft-lb through only the front wheels is a recipe for torque steer. Mazda engineers must have figured that since it has stability control, the ECU knows the steering angle. Therefore, in first and second gears, it backs off the turbocharger as a function of steering angle. Thus, if the wheels are straight ahead, you get pretty much the full boost, but if the wheels are angled a lot, the waste gate opens and you get less boost. This system works very well. It doesn’t eliminate torque steer completely, but it moderates it quite well. This car has about the same amount of pull on the steering wheel as my old Protege5, which had more like 130 lb-ft of torque. I cannot figure out why some folks have complained about it, it’s really not that bad. Oh, and the brakes are fantastic.

• Comfort and ergonomics. The driver’s seat is excellent. It’s well-bolstered but not over-bolstered. I really don’t care for leather seats and the good news is that the seating surfaces aren’t leather, they’re alcantara, which I wasn’t sure about at first, but which I love. It’s more grippy than leather and breathes better, but is just as comfortable.The other good news here is that the initial impression of comfort conveyed by a short ride is maintained over longer drives and over time. And, quite unlike the MINI, the controls are all in sensible locations and easy to reach. Also unlike the MINI, it has a nice split-storage armrest (with power and aux jack in the larger section). Oh, and the glove box is enormous (but, not chilled like the MINI). The other thing, and this one is key for living in Houston, the AC is terrific. It’s so much better than the AC in my old car that I almost don’t miss the moon roof. Oh, and the auto wipers are trippy.

• Appearance. It’s not a fantastic-looking car (you know, like an Aston Martin), but it’s a decent-looking car. One thing I like about it is that it doesn’t look radically different from a regular Mazda3 though the differences are certainly there (particularly the spoiler). You have to know what to look for to know that this is the version that does 0-60 in less than 6 seconds; there’s a certain understatedness to it. The Speed3 doesn’t scream “look at me” in the way that the MINI does, and while the new WRX looks better than the old one, it’s still kind of ugly. I do like the way the Civic Si looks, but not dramatically more than the Speed3. The weakness here is that there are only four color choices: black, white, gray, and red. And the red is red, bright fire-engine red. The red clearly looks the best (there’s a reason that most of the promo photos from Mazda are of the red) and so I went with that, but I’m not sure I really need any extra attention from anyone with a radar gun. On the plus side, my wife has always wanted a red car so I get some points there. I do still wish they made it in the same bright blue that Subaru provides for the WRX or, better yet, the british racing green you can get for the MINI. That would be beautiful.

Regardless, here is a photo gallery, with pics from both before and after the tint job and rear bumper guards. And yes, the car’s nickname, courtesy of my seven-year-old, is “Lightning” and so I had to get the sunshade with the eyes. (If you don’t get this reference, you need to catch up on your Pixar movie viewing.)

• Great exhaust note. This is not a major thing, I know, but it’s nice to have a sporty car which sounds like a sports car. It’s throaty but not overmuch. It’s not like a stupid coffee cans bolted on a Civic, it actually sounds more like a V8, even though of course it isn’t. The other Mazda sports car, the RX-8, is fatally flawed in this regard, and so is the Civic Si. A friend was over for a visit when I came home and she asked how I liked the car and I noted that it’s way fast, and she said “yeah, you can tell from how it sounds.” That’s what you want to hear.

The Bad
• The shifter. This I have to say I do not get. I have indeed gotten more used to the shifter over time and it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to, but the shifter in this car simply isn’t that great. It’s on the vague and rubbery side, especially when shifting from 2nd to 3rd. I know Mazda is capable of making a better shifter, and the shifter on the RX-8 is excellent, though of course the RX-8 is another torqueless wonder like the Honda. (Don’t get me wrong, I love the way the RX-8 handles and feels, but it’s about as practical as the MINI and has reliability issues of its own.) Maybe Mazda hasn’t figured out a decent shifter that can handle torque? I don’t know, but if I replace anything on this car, it’s likely to be the shifter.

• The Bose “premium” stereo. Kudos to Bose for one of the greatest marketing departments in the world, because there are people out there who actually seem to think Bose products don’t suck. Well, they do. I guess for a stock car stereo I guess it doesn’t completely suck, but it’s not good. In my Pro5 I put in relatively inexpensive JBL GTO speakers and an amp, and that sounded substantially better than the Bose in the Speed3. The bass is muddy and the treble resolution is awful. The mids are tolerable but unimpressive. My understanding is that the Bose system is wired in some nonstandard way, making it difficult to simply drop in better speakers. Ugh.

• There are a few pretty minor quibbles. For instance, it would be nice to have Bluetooth and a turbo boost gauge, and the speedometer could use more of the dial (the scale is a little cramped). The other thing I’ve seen people complain about is the lack of heated seats. Overrated, and certainly not necessary here in hot and sticky Houston. Some have griped about AWD but I think the car is heavy enough as it is; the MazdaSPEED6 was AWD and the weight just killed the fun.

The Rest
These are things I feel the need to comment on but which aren’t necessarily good or bad.

• No moon roof. Now, from a performance standpoint, the lack of moon roof is forgivable—added weight that high up on the car is less than optimal, and Mazda engineers apparently felt they needed the extra rigidity provided by a full roof since they gave in and provided 60/40 rear folding seats (which you could not get on the MazdaSPEED6). On the other hand, I park my car in the Houston sun most days (and the only interior color available is black), and being able to crack the moon roof provides meaningful ventilation. I know when I take the car to the track (which I will do eventually) I won’t miss it but I park in the sun more often than I go to the track, so it might be nice to have.

• Mileage. I’ll be right up front about this: the car does not get particularly good mileage. It’s rated at 18 city and 26 highway, only marginally better than the WRX. Oh, and it requires premium. So far I’ve been getting around 21 mpg when I fill up, which is right on the nose. Now, when I’m a little more aggressive, it’s less than that, and when I’m more moderated, I get about 23 mpg. And, frankly, this is not a car which wants to be moderated. On the other hand, I knew all this going in and I’m unlikely to put more than 10 or 11 thousand miles a year on the car. Our family hauler, which also has a longer daily commute and therefore gets about 18k miles/year, is a Highlander Hybrid which gets more like 24-26 mpg (on standard octane gas) and is not ULEV rated, but SULEV. So I felt like it was OK to be a little less green with my car. Would I like better mileage? Sure. But this is a performance-oriented car, so I wouldn’t really list this as a complaint, either. (This is one area where the MINI really has a big advantage, however.)

So, overall, a few relatively minor issues and a whole lot of wonderful performance while still being practical and comfortable. Given the modest price tag on this car, I have to say that’s a huge win. It’s not a perfect car but I’m confident that it’s the closest thing for under $25k.


Test Drive Impressions: MazdaSPEED3, MINI Cooper, Honda Civic Si, & Subaru WRX

So, on Friday I test drove four cars. As I noted in that day’s entry, I love my 2002 Mazda Protege5. However, it is getting a bit long in the tooth and I wouldn’t mind a more updated car in terms of saftey and gizmos—and I’d love something faster, of course. I love the size and handling of my Pro5 so I’m looking for something like that; a fast small car with good handling and updated content. Automatic transmissions need not apply. Now, I have two kids (they’re still small) so a strict coupe is out. To be honest, I also don’t really need a new car right now, as my Pro5 has been rock solid. But I just got a raise so it’s fun to look.

The good news is that there are some great cars in this segment and I liked everything I drove. These are all worthy cars and any one of them would be terrific. Of course, I liked some of them better than others. In worst-to-first order:

4th: Honda Civic Si
While overall I liked this the least—but let me be clear, I did like it—the Si has a fantastic shifter. Totally smooth, perfect snick into each gate. On the other hand, this is probably the slowest and worst-handling of the four. The steering wheel provides a little less feedback, the ride is a little too smooth, and it has the standard VTEC engine “torqueless wonder” problem. It’s possible to coax decent response out of the engine, but the thing is almost completely gutless until you hit about 6000 rpm. Now, this is actually doable, but requires a lot of rowing with the shifter. That’s actually kind of fun, but fundamentally the car just doesn’t seem as tight and responsive as the other three. The low torque is indeed smoother when not pushing the car and there’s something to be said for that, but it’s just not enough. Also, this particular Si didn’t have the upgraded tires, so perhaps it would have been better, but it just didn’t stick to the road the way the other cars did.

Also, I have to comment on the utterly inane speedometer. Digital speedometers are a horrible idea. It was a horrible idea on GM cars in the late 1980s, it’s horrible on the Prius, and it’s horrible in the Si. Rate of change is almost impossible to assess, it creates distracting flicker for night driving, and pretty much nobody wants to know that their speed is 57. Maybe the driver wants to know if s/he is above 55 and below 60, which is a very quick glance at an analog speedometer (is the needle in the region I care about or not?) but is harder with a digital. It’s just a bad idea.

Also, a comment to all floor sales managers: when you’ve talked to a customer who has clearly done his homework and knows rather a lot about the car, don’t send a sales guy on the test drive who knows nothing at all about it.

3rd: Subaru Impreza WRX 5-Door
The recent re-design of the Impreza line is pretty substantial in some ways and not in others. It’s a very similar engine, though the improvement in the size of the power band is certainly welcome. The body and interior are totally different, and IMO much improved. The old wagon (5-door, whatever) was ugly, and the interior more than a little on the Spartan side. The 2008 WRX has a dramatically more comfortable and well-appointed interior, and I’m in the camp that thinks the exterior also looks a lot better, too.

The ride is also a lot smoother. In fact, it’s too smooth. It still handles very well, but it’s not as stiff and responsive as the old WRX. The AWD is nice and offsets this a little bit, but Subaru’s obvious attempt to “go mainstream” here went a just a smidge too far and it took the fun edge off just enough that this car came in a bit behind the other two—but only a little bit.

In some sense the WRX is the jack-of-all-trades, but master of none. It’s not as fast and the cabin, while nicer, is still not as nice the Mazda. It isn’t as fun and with the content of the MINI, but rather strikes a nice balance between those other cars. But this is a race where I felt like one car had to be the winner at something, and this wins only at having AWD, which is nice but really not all that big a deal here. The AWD also makes it the big loser at the pump. Considering that this isn’t the high-miles car in the family (that’s our hybrid), that’s not my primary concern, but 25 highway? Really? Seems pretty awful.

Second comment to car salespeople: being knowledgeable about your product is good, but if you spend half your contact time with me denigrating the competing cars, that makes me think that that’s all you have. Sell me on what’s great about your car, not what you think are the flaws of the other cars. If your product is actually superior, that should be good enough.

2nd: Mazda MazdaSPEED3
This is the sub-$25,000 compact car equivalent of being shot out of a cannon. The Speed3 is just teeth-rattling fast. Given the numbers—263 horsepower and a whopping 280 lb.-ft. of torque—this is not a surprise. However, throwing that at the front wheels, well, it seems like a recipe for the worst torque steer ever. What was the most amazing thing to me about the Speed3 is how well-controlled the torque steer is. Apparently the computer works the limited-slip differential and limits turbo boost to manage the torque steer—and it works impressively well. Besides that, the handling is tight and responsive and feedback from the road through both wheel and tires is excellent. Certainly some people won’t like the ride—it’s very stiff—but I rather like it that way. It’s communicative and the tires seem good and sticky.

And it’s strikingly well-appointed—the interior is outstanding, particularly for a car in this price range. The driver’s seat is very good, the ergonomics are sound, the backseat and cargo area are generous (36.3” of rear legroom, which is more than some mid-size sedans); this is a terrific car, practical as well as a kick to drive. And the price is sweet. (Though I’d have to seriously consider factoring in extra expense for speeding tickets.)

I have four minor quibbles: you can’t get a moon roof (laugh if you want, but being able to vent hot air when parked in the Houston summer is not a trivial feature; note that the WRX lacks this as well), the color choices don’t appeal to me (they just dropped both the blue and the silver), no daytime running lights, and there’s a couple minor creature features I’d like (Bluetooth and real iPod integration), though those are indeed minor features. The other thing which was kind of a gotcha for me was the shifter. I think the problem is that in so many other ways it’s similar to my current car, but the gates are closer together in the Speed3 than in mine (which makes sense, since it’s a 6-speed) that sometimes I’d miss, particularly the 3rd gear gate. I think I’d get used to that in, oh, about two days. Or maybe the shifter really is a bit notchier than the other three. Hard to say for sure.

Fundamentally, this is the sensible choice. It’s what I should get if I were to replace my current car. In fact, if I really were going to replace my car now what I really ought to do is go back to the dealer on Monday and grab the last blue one before they’re all gone.

1st: MINI Cooper S (and Cooper Clubman)
I know, the MINI just seems so wildly impractical, but the new “Clubman” version seemed like it could be just big enough that with two small kids it could work.

Now, let me be clear. I am, generally, not into “retro.” However, there is something about the look of the MINI that just really grabs me. And, of course, being a lover of small cars, the size is just wonderfully appealing. But of course with two kids, the pure coupe—I don’t relish the idea of climbing over to buckle and unbuckle our 4-year-old—and the nearly zero trunk just would not work. But the Clubman looked good on paper (well, on the Web), so I had to check it out.

The dealer didn’t have a Clubman S. This is hardly a surprise, the Clubman is very new and they’re still pretty hard to come by. However, the dealer had a regular Clubman and of course many Cooper Ss, so I drove the one Clubman and an S.

First, the Clubman is a trip. When I first saw it, I had to say my impression was that of a really miniature limo—it looks just like a regular Cooper, but stretched out. I mean, it’s really not all that stretched out; the Clubman is only 9.5 inches longer, bringing the total length of the car up to 155 inches, which is still 16” shorter than my Pro5. And it drives… like a MINI. That is, spectacular road feel. The whole marketing brochure nonsense about “go-kart handling” is, in fact, not just marketing nonsense. There’s a button marked “Sport” in the car which tightens up the steering and improves throttle response—I don’t know why anyone would ever even consider turning that button off. (Well, OK, actually I do: supposedly the car delivers better mileage that way.)

And the Cooper S is just fantastic. No, it’s not rocket-fast like the Speed3, but the road feel on the MINI is just so much better than the other three cars that it feels almost as fast. The shifter is great, a very close second to the Honda, and the feedback through the steering wheel was easily the best. The cockpit is, of course, a little quirky. The truly gigantic center-mounted speedometer is weird, but unlike the speedo in the Si, this turned out not to bother me at all. I dislike the power window control not being in the door (it’s on the center console), but the driving position, pedals, and steering wheel are all very well-configured. It is simply a blast to drive. Hands down, the most fun driving experience of the four.

Being a BMW brand, just about every feature under the sun is available on these. There are a zillion options, from checkered flag side markers to Bluetooth and full iPod integration. Obviously this means it’s possible to really jack up the price, but all the gizmos are certainly available. The BMW thing also means reliability is only about average, but all maintenance included for the first 3 years/36,000 miles. The boys will outgrow the bitty backseat in not too long, so three years of total coverage would probably do the trick—that’s probably about how long I’d keep it anyway; I’d probably lease.

Oh, and the mileage is crazy good: 26 city, 34 highway. The salesman reset the trip computer when I took the wheel on the S, and I drove it very hard and still pulled 24 mpg for the trip. Again, not my primary concern but it certainly would offset the price tag a little.

And there’s no issue with color choice on the MINI. Gorgeous British Racing Green, anyone? Check this out:


As much as I’d love to jump in and lease it right now, the wait on an order for a Clubman S is now 16 weeks. Four months is quite a while. So, I think I’m going to wait for a while longer and see if availability improves and see what kind of track record the Clubman generates over the next year or so. But it’s wild good fun and I’m very positively inclined.

Always park bonnet out, right?

2009 Mazda6 In the Wild

I drive a 2002 Mazda Protege5 which I had in for service today (something covered under warranty, yay), and the dealer, which is the largest in Houston and thus has at least some pull with Mazda, had a 2009 Mazda6. It wasn’t for sale, it was just there for the staff to check out.

This is not a car that I’m particularly interested in—other than that I like to see Mazda do well because I like Mazdas in general—but it’s something of a rare find. They let me poke around in it a little, and it definitely addresses some of the things buyers in the Accord/Camry segment definitely want, like Bluetooth and iPod integration, faux wood all over the place, and the like. The seats were very comfortable and the back seat has a lot more space.

I also took some pics that I thought I should share. Unfortunately it’s overcast in Houston today (a rarity), so the light wasn’t that good and all I had was my cell phone camera, so the pics aren’t terrific. But I haven’t seen “in the wild” pics of the 2009 Mazda6 yet, so I felt obligated.





Incidentally, I’m not interested in one myself because it’s way too big for me. We have a Toyota Highlander Hybrid for family hauling duties and that’s also my wife’s daily driver. I’m mostly a commuter and recreational driver, and the cars leading my thinking to replace my beloved Protege5 are the MazdSPEED3, the Civic SI, and I really want to check out the MINI Cooper S Clubman.

Auto Safety

Recently on Edmunds.com, ratings at http://www.informedforlife.org/ were pointed to as “the most comprehensive evaluation of safety in accidents to date.”

They are comprehensive in some sense but definitely not the whole story. Any safety ratings which do not consider braking and handling–that is, active safety, or the vehicle’s ability to avoid an accident in the first place–don’t tell the whole story.

What you want to know is, if I drive this car, how likely is it that I’m injured? Crash test ratings tell you something about the probability of injury given a crash, but to get the probability of injury, you also need to know the odds of a crash in the first place. Obviously the driver is a critical component of this, but the vehicle matters a great deal, too. An alert driver has a far better chance of avoiding an accident in a good-handling and fast-braking car than in some lumbering hulk. The provided ratings don’t take that into account. For example, there’s no way a cow like the Uplander is actually safer than the incredibly nimble RX-8.

(On a side note, those “comprehensive” ratings include weighting for the crash results for rear passengers. If you never have rear passengers, why on earth should that get any weight in the final rating? I care because I have kids in the back, but if I didn’t, why should that factor in?)

Highlander Hybrid flamewars

In response to a post on Edmunds.com in the Highlander Hybrid forum:

I really don’t think Toyota has any “damage control” to do with respect to the HH’s mileage.

First, the mileage that Toyota advertises is a number generated by the EPA, not by Toyota. *BY LAW*, Toyota and all other car manufacturers are not allowed to advertise anything other than the EPA numbers. (If anyone has an actual ad from Toyota that advertises an actual MPG number with something else on it, I’d love to see it.) Best of luck suing the EPA on that score.

But I think the actual situation is being blown way out of proportion anyway. Looking at the database on GH, people with the 2wd HH are getting an average of 25.8 MPG, where the EPA combined estimate is 30 MPG. That’s 86% of the EPA number. For the 4wd, EPA combined is 29 MPG and people are averaging 25.4, which is 87.6% of the EPA number. Those are NOT BAD at all!

I would guess most people get about 85% of the EPA estimates (maybe even less) in non-hybrid vehicles, too. This is because the EPA test is unrealistic (55 mph on the highway, no air conditioning, etc.). Heck, Consumer Reports just did a big piece a few months ago on how virtually no cars got the EPA numbers in their tests. This affects some cars more than others, and maybe hybrids are more prone to this–but that’s not Toyota’s fault, it’s the EPA’s fault. Now, in absolute terms this might seem a bit disappointing because losing 15% of 30 MPG is obviously more than losing 15% of 20 MPG, but still.

Consider the V6 non-hybrid Highlander. Combined mileage 21 for the 4wd. If real-world performance is 87.6% of that, you should get 18.2 MPG, which is 7.2 MPG less than the HH. That’s not bad, plus you get all the stuff cdptrap mentioned: better safety, better emissions, better performance. People pay thousands of dollars all the time for better safety and performance (e.g. V6 Accord vs. I4 Accord), but then get *worse* mileage and emissions out of the deal. So the $4500 premium for better safety/performance and more “green” doesn’t seem like a bad deal at all. (Unless, of course, you are completely myopic and care ONLY about the mileage part–all I can say to that is “should have done your homework before blowing $35-40K.”)

Will you get the EPA mileage out of your HH? No, probably not–nor are you likely to actually get the EPA mileage out of most other vehicles, either. I see no evidence that the problem is worse in the HH than it is in other vehicles. Is the HH for everybody? No. It is undoubtedly expensive. But the HH is a very solid vehicle which I don’t think is under-delivering at all.

More car stuff

OK, so I recently drove the Acura TL. It’s a very nice car, luxurious, well-thouhght-out, and pretty fast. I can see why Consumer Reports likes it so much, as there’s little to criticize. But I don’t think it’s for me. First, it’s big. It didn’t feel quite as big from the driver’s seat as the Infiniti G35 did, but it’s truly a mid-sized car. Second, it’s too… isolating, I guess. The car seems designed to make sure everything is very smooth and controlled. To luxo. I also really hated the clutch. The car is powered by a Honda VTEC (of course), which doesn’t make much torque until you get the RPMs up. That’s OK, the throws are nice and short and the gears nice and close-ratioed. The problem is the hydraulic-assisted clutch is very soft and doesn’t give any engagement at all until right at the very tip-top of the travel. I unintentionally red-lined the car a couple times (the car shuts off fuel to protect the engine when you do this–why not just rev-limit it?) by accident because I’m used to some engagement as the clutch lets out. There’s just none, and no feedback at all as the clutch pedal comes up. I’m sure some people like that, but I like to interact a little more with the shifting process. I’ll note I had no issues with the G35 or RX-8 clutch–and nothing needs to be kept at high RPMs like a rotary. The shifter, on the other hand, is terrific. Nice quick, certain snaps through the gates, no notchy-ness at all. Very nice feel to it. Comfortable seats, too, no doubt about it. The turning radius is a bit wide for my taste, too.

I think, however, that even if I liked the clutch, I wouldn’t be that inclined to go for the TL. It also felt big to me, and I think that’s what I didn’t like about the G35, either. I think my options are starting to become clearer. I think it goes like this:

• I still need to drive the MazdaSPEED6. Based on what I’ve read, I’m sure it’ll be wicked fast but I suspect that I won’t like the nose-heavy (and just plain heavy) feel of it. And what’d odd is that despite the small back seat, the 6 is actually a pretty big car: 186.8 inches by 70.1 inches. It’s both longer and wider than the Infiniti, and a smidge longer than the Acura (though narrower). It is at least not as tall as either, so that’s something. I most certainly won’t rule it out until I drive it, but my expectations are moderated a little. Driving one is going to be a trick, though, as even my buddy the Mazda sales guy only has one (they got three on Saturday and sold two already), and they’re currently only letting serious immediate buyers drive it, which makes sense. Still, grr.

• If I go with the RX-8, I’ll lease it. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to take the small trunk and shuffling the boys in and out, and while they’re small now, if I were to keep the car for say, seven years, then my older boy will be 12. I can’t see living with a car that non-functional up to that age. And there’s the oil issue, and the flooding issue, and I’m not 100% sure the A/C is really up to the challenge of Houston in the summer, etc. Seems like a lot of hassle, though it is a joy to drive, more so than anything else I’ve driven (and I don’t expect the other Mazda or the Pontiac to beat it there). Maybe I could put up with the hassle for a three-year lease term, though, that seems more reasonable.

• I do still need to drive the S40 with a stick. Maybe I’ll hate their manual (Road and Track certainly did). If I don’t, though, and I go this route, I’m thinking very seriously about their overseas delivery program. They fly you to Sweden (yes, they pick up the plane tickets), put you up in a hotel, give you a factory tour, etc. You drive the car at least off the lot, or bum around Europe for a while, whatever, and they ship it back to you (at no charge). They take about 3 grand off the sticker so it’s a reasonable price for the car, as well. Not a bad way to beat the August in Houston heat, I’d say. But I still need to drive a stick.

• There is, of course, also the Pontiac. I guess I should drive it before I rule it out, but somehow I’m just not enthusiastic about the idea. Part of it is that it’s also big (by my thinking) being both longer and wider than the MazdaSPEED6. It meets the official criterion, but it’s not the best on any measure, and is the only one without at least a 4 year, 50k mile warranty. Not exactly confidence-inspiring.

We’ll just have to see how the drives go.

Car Ramblings

OK, so the situation is this: I’m up for a promotion at work this year, and it’s looking very positive. This is the Big One for people in my job, and since we bought a new car for my wife recently, I’ve been thinking that the proper reward would be a new car for me, since it is completely wrong that my wife now drives something faster than I do. Seriously–I’m amazed the world hasn’t spun off its axis. Anyway, even if I don’t get one, it’s fun to think about.

Anyway, the first phase is determining what that basic “must have” requirements are, and thus who the players are. Here’s the must-haves:

• Manual transmission
• Fast, and by fast I mean 0-60 in 6.5 or less, or quarter-mile in 15.1 or less
• Reasonably accessible back seats, since I have to kids to shuffle in and out
• Stability control
• ABS with EBD (turns out this disqualifies next to nothing)
• Decent handling (purely subjective)
• Comfortable driver’s seat (also completely subjective)
• Side airbags
• Non-staggering price tag. I stagger at about $34K, I think.
• Average or better reliability (sorry, VW and Audi)

It turns out this generates a pretty short list:

• Infiniti G35 Sedan
• Mazda RX-8
• Mazda MazdaSPEED6
• Pontiac G6 GTP
• Volvo S40 T5 (the AWD T5 just barely makes the speed cut)

Notable absences include anything made by Subaru (can’t get stability control), the Nissan Maxima (same problem), anything made by Acura (no manual tranny), the Lexus IS (the 250 is too slow and the 350 doesn’t have a stick option), and the Dodge/Chrysler Charger/300 platform (again, no manual tranny). [Edit: Actually, that’s a mistake, the Acuras are available with manuals. The TSX is too slow, though, but the TL should be on the list as it just squeaks in on price. I’ll get it on there eventually.]

I have a bunch of the features and information summarized in an outline. Some entries I don’t yet know, or the information I can find is inconsistent, hence the question marks. And if there’s a car I seem to be missing, let me know!

Anyway, the MazdaSPEED6 is a brand new car and I can’t yet even find a dealer who has one. However, I’m currently driving a Mazda and I have a great rapport with my sales rep and I know he’ll hook me up with a drive the next time I’m in for routine maintenance. The early reviews (including this) of this car are that it’s blazing fast but that it doesn’t quite feel like a Mazda in terms of handling. Dunno what I’ll think of that until I get behind the wheel.

Because of the Mazda connection, I’ve driven the RX-8 a bunch of times. What a terrific car to drive. Great balance, superb handling, wicked fun 9000 RPM redline, etc. However, I do have concerns about the practicality of the car with the teensy trunk and the funky doors. Lately I’ve been trying to force myself to notice when I think I would have been bothered by either of those and it happens more often than I would have thought. We don’t really need a car for hauling anything serious here, since our other car is a midsize SUV (it’s a hybrid, settle down), but with soccer season the trunk gets pretty full of gear when I’m picking up the boys for soccer practice–not sure about that gaping 7.6 cubic feet of trunk space (in practice, it’s less, because the RX-8 doesn’t come with a spare, but the optional dinky one sucks up trunk space).

One last thing on the Mazdas: through my wife’s employer, I get “s-plan” pricing, meaning I can buy a Mazda for invoice. So that’s also a factor.

I was stunned to end up with a Pontiac on the list at all. I can’t rule it out on the basis of handling or seat comfort because I haven’t driven it yet. More precisely, I haven’t driven the GTP yet. I’ve rented a base G6 once and it was surprisingly non-sucky for a GM car, although the handling was somewhat vague and elastic. However, the GTP uses a different steering system, so there’s hope. I tried to drive one the other day but they didn’t have a stick and I just had no desire to putter around with a GM slushbox, I’ve driven enough rental cars to know that game.

So, the other two, the Volvo and the Infiniti. Well, I got the chance to drive both for the first time this holiday weekend. After being shut out at the Pontiac dealer, I was not going to leave the Volvo dealer without driving something. Of course, they also had no T5s with a stick (much less an AWD T5). Well, the auto in the Volvo is a tiptronic so I gave in and took the T5 for a spin. Heck, it didn’t even have the sport suspension. It’s the slowest car in the bunch and, well, it’s a Volvo. Talk about turning into your father… (my folks have owned many Volvos and my dad still drives one). My expectations were pretty low, given that it’s a Volvo and the handicap of no stick and the softer standard suspension. So was I ever surprised–I really liked it. It’s quick (though not overpoweringly so) and very nimble and responsive. Almost no turbo lag whatsoever. Both comfortable and classy on the inside. Pretty tight quarters in the back seat but I have little kids, so not a big deal. (Heck, even has available integrated booster seats!)

I could not believe I liked a Volvo this much. Later I think I figured it out–I really like my current car, a Mazda Protege5, except that it’s slow and missing some safety and creature features I’d like to have (like stability control). The Volvo S40 shares a lot with the Mazda3, which is the successor to my car. So driving the S40 was a lot like a faster and classier (and safer) version of my car. So I guess it shouldn’t have been such a surprise that I liked it so much. On the other hand, a year ago I was lambasting this car for being a Mazda3 with double the price tag. Why not just get a Mazda3? Well, for one, no stability control, and for another, too slow. Now, when MazdaSPEED gets through with it, which I guess is supposed to happen in the next year or so, the speed thing should be addressed. I wonder about the stability control, though.

Then we went to the Infiniti dealer. They had a G35 sedan with a stick, so I took it for a spin. I was a smidge predisposed against this car because, well, because everyone already has one. They’re extremely popular here in Houston. After driving it, I can see why. It’s very nice, felt very big, and is wicked fast. 298 ponies and a slick 6-speed will do that. There was something about it I didn’t like, though. Perhaps it was a combination of the size and the sheer grandiosity of it. The car is very self-consciously a luxury car with a big engine. It was kind of hard to assess the handling because the test drive route was pre-designated (the sales guy rode with us, unlike with the Volvo, which we drove forever) and almost entirely straight with a couple of right turns at intersections, but I’m sure the handling is fine. It’s a hard car to criticize as it’s very well done and very fast. I guess what I didn’t like is the complete lack of subtlety–the Infiniti is very “in your face” about how fast and luxurious it is. It’s clearly a car designed to impress. It seems to be just short of outright having a sign that says “look at how successful I am!” Except, of course, that on a typical drive home from work I see a half-dozen of them, so it’s success without distinction. Or something like that. Perhaps I’m just not an Infiniti kind of guy. I did just about fall over laughing with the last thing the sales guy said to me: “You deserve it.” Here’s someone who sells a luxury item, all right…

If the Pontiac is indeed in its soul a GM car (though the G6 is based on the Saab 9-3 platform)–which I’m not ready to assume until I actually drive it–and that I can’t convince myself that I want to deal with the impracticality of the RX-8, then it would come down to what I think of driving the killer-turbo’d Mazda and how it compares to the S40. I know the Mazda will be way faster, but other than that, we’ll see…