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2018 Mazda3 Grand Touring – Good Looks, Good to Drive, Good Value

2018 Mazda3 Grand Touring – Good Looks, Good to Drive, Good Value

When I got word that I’d be driving a Mazda 3 for a week, I didn’t really know enough to form an opinion. Sure, I’d driven the venerable MX-5, and a couple of the crossovers in their stable, but what about the four-door Mazdas? How would I like this one, their smallest offering? Once the car arrived and I spent some time getting to know it, its subtle personality and amenities charmed me right away.

INTERIOR

2018-mazda-3-sedan-interior-whitephoto cred: MazdaUSA.com

Inside, passengers are treated to leather-trimmed sport seats. The driver’s seat features six-way adjustment and the gear shift knob and wheel are treated to leather trim too. Dual zone climate controls ensure that both driver and passenger can dial in their ideal level of comfort, which goes a long way toward matrimonial harmony on road trips. Heated front seats keep buns toasty in the winter months.

A seven inch touch screen is mounted Mazda-style in the dash, along with some controls in the console, it manipulates the Bose nine speaker stereo.  This layout is pretty intuitive, and is not terribly distracting once you get the hang of it. Legroom is good up front and adults won’t need to be folded like laundry before being stowed in the back seats.

EXTERIOR

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Outside, the Mazda 3 looks good. I like the no-nonsense styling of the profile. There are no extra bodylines added for the sake of “style.” The hood-to-trunk proportion is pleasing to the eye and the generous 18 inch alloy wheels fill out the wheel wells nicely. The rear side windows sweep up in a Hofmeister kink that lends a sporty look to them.  I especially like the front grille treatment. It looks contemporary and clean. It’s not going for cutsey appeal or boy-racer cool. It’s handsome without being overly exagerrated.

DRIVE

I was lucky enough to drive the Mazda 3 as my daily commuter and grocery getter for a week. I also got to familiarize myself with its on-track capabilities during the Texas Auto Writers’ 2018 Texas Auto RoundUp at Eagle’s Canyon Raceway. This gave me the unique opportunity to spend ample time getting to know the car around town and on the interstate and to see how it reacted to chucking it around on a race track.

DSC_1465photo cred: Kevin McCauley

Around town, the Mazda 3 is docile and comfortable. The car sits pretty low, which might be a problem for folks with bad knees or hips. If that’s not a problem though, you’ll quickly adapt to pointing your backside at the seat and trust-falling in, and then scrambling out when you’ve reached your destination. At highway speeds, this car is a little noisy. Mazda could make this car feel a little more upmarket by adding some sound deadening. Blind spot assist and rear cross traffic alert are welcome safety features that don’t feel intrusive.

On the track the 184 horsepower 2.5 litre makes quick work of pulling the car  up to speed between the bends. Electrically assisted steering offers good feedback and the suspension, brakes and chassis work together to make hammering the car in an out of corners a lighthearted game rather than hard work. And Mazda claims 36 mpg on the highway and 27 around town.

It’s not a muscle car. It’s not a sports car. It’s a family sedan that won’t flinch when you push it a little. It’s exciting to drop into a corner at speed and hear the tires protest, then lay the pedal flat after the apex to hear the four-pot go to work. In a word, it’s fun. 

THE DIRT

Even with the optional extras, this Grand Touring model is priced below the $30,000 mark. Which may sound steep for fancy trim on a compact option, but there are two more rungs on the ladder below it; the Touring and the Sport models. The Sport starts at $18,000.

Given the amenities and the quality of the drive, I’d say this car feels like a good value. Is it going to swathe you in ultimate comfort and serene luxury? Nah. But if you want a decent, efficient car that can haul the kids, talk to your phone, look good and is exciting to drive, the Mazda 3 is a good option.

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photo cred: Kevin McCauley

 

2018 Mitsubishi Outlander GT S-AWC – How Does it Stack Up?

2018 Mitsubishi Outlander GT S-AWC – How Does it Stack Up?

Previous experience with Mitsubishi products may have tainted my perception of the brand for the worse. Not that they’re terrible cars, or that I’ve heard rumor that they are unreliable. No, it’s just that they feel a bit gimmicky, as if they’re angling to grab the attention of young buyers more interested in disco lights and subwoofers than a quality driving experience. Has Mitsubishi changed their tune for 2018?

INTERIOR

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photo cred: mitsubishicars.com

First impressions upon climbing behind the wheel might be, “wow, there’s an awful lot of plastic used inside this car.” The dash lacks a little design continuity from one side to the other, but how often do you sit and meditate on your dash? Set in the dash is a seven inch touch screen infotainment interface that features Apple Carplay and Android Auto. Relative to other infotainment options, Carplay is a dream to operate, which is a plus for the Outlander. The Rockford Fosgate stereo pushes 710-watts through nine speakers including a subwoofer in the rear cargo area. The sub seems like a holdover gimic from a time when Mitsu angling for the young and hip, but audiophiles may appreciate it.

The second and third row seats lay flat for an open cargo space. Pull the handle to fold the second row down and the seat bottom leaps forward on springs. It’s a small joy to behold. This is technically a seven seater, but the third row seats are not really a viable option for adults. The interior does feel a little chintzier than other crossovers in its class, but if you have a load of kids and their friends tearing it apart, maybe you’ll mourn the stained upholstery and sticky cup holders a little less

EXTERIOR

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photo cred: mitsubishicars.com

The body was updated in 2015. This wasn’t an all out makeover, but more of a gentle massage. It holds up though, and definitely looks better than the over-bite aesthetic pre-2012 predecessor. It looks a little dated today, but mostly because it’s not chasing current trends. For example, it has reasonably sized brand marques on the grille and liftgate rather than the jumbo logos found on lots of other brands.

DRIVE

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photo cred: mitsubishicars.com

The 224 horsepower V6 in the GT S-AWD is enough to deliver adequate acceleration. However, the six speed auto transmission does feel a little indecisive at times. The adaptive cruise control could be smoother, but it hardly merits mention. Steering feel is above average for a crossover but is a bit let down by the marshmallowy suspension that allows pretty noticeable body roll.  Honestly though, if you’re looking for a vehicle to carve up windy roads, you’re probably not shopping for crossovers in this price range.

The GT touring package features cross traffic alert and bird’s eye view which makes negotiating parking lots a breeze. Inside the cabin it is quiet and comfortable at highway speeds.

THE DIRT

When you consider the the price to seating ratio, the Outlander seems like a lot of car for the money. When you begin racking up the optional extras, the deal seems even sweeter. And if going green is your thing, Mitsubishi offers a plug-in hybrid version of the Outlander. Relative to its smaller sibling, the Outlander Sport, this vehicle feels a little more grown up, which is a move in the right direction for Mitsubishi. It’s a three row SUV starting under $24k, keep that in mind and you won’t be disappointed.

 

 

2018 Toyota C-HR XLE Premium – Big Name, Small Car

2018 Toyota C-HR XLE Premium – Big Name, Small Car

The Toyota CH-R didn’t begin life as a Toyota at all. It started as a design project by Scion way back in 2014. Since then Scion has died, but the little C-HR lives on under the Toyota marque.

It seems to me the C-HR is a victim of its own design. The initial Scion concept stirred up some interest with it’s over-sized 21″ wheels and pancaked roofline. Like so many aspects of concept cars, the form takes precedent over the function. In an attempt to retain likable elements of the concept car, it seems Toyota’s production model sacrifices some functionality for aesthetics.

INTERIOR

Toyota offers any interior you want in the C-HR, as long as you happen to want black cloth. The headroom is good, but there’s a shortage of legroom in the car. You can get two adults in the rear seats, but you can’t really open the glovebox all the way with a person in the passenger seat. It also feels narrow between door panel and console. If I could sum up the interior in only one word, it would be rubbery. However, there is room behind the rear seats for groceries.

EXTERIOR

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Exterior design is a mash up of gills, vents, bulbous lights, and creases in the body lines that depart at odd angles.  If they sought to do something beautiful I’m afraid they missed the mark here. It’s not easy to design a car, so in an effort to pay the looks of this car some sort of friendly compliment, I scribbled the following line in my notes. “The front fascia looks like a satisfied cat drawn by Ghibli Studios, and isn’t that bad.” There, now this article is fair and balanced.

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Perhaps the most tragic thing about the appearance of the C-HR is how similar it is to another compact crossover, the Nissan Juke. For instance, the rear door handles are integrated into the body work, the B-pillars are blacked out for that “hardtop” look, there’s a spoiler/shade over the rear window, and the headlights and taillights creep from the ends of the car to the adjacent body panels. If Toyota sought to make a statement with this car, Nissan beat them to it by six years.

Juke vs CHRDRIVE

When you slip the car into reverse, you may look to the seven inch touch-screen display mounted in the dash for a backup camera. This is wrong. Instead you must squint into the rather small and grainy picture that appears in the rearview mirror. Or you could try a more old fashion approach. Twist around and peer over your right shoulder and try looking out the back window.

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You’ll find that this is no great improvement over the tiny image in your rearview. Toyota gave the C-HR a decent sized rear window but it’s slanted at an angle that makes it ineffective at almost anything other than keeping the rain out of the car. Presumably this was to try to maintain the silhouette of the original concept.

You can try getting a better angle by unbuckling and contorting yourself out of the driver’s seat, but do so at your own peril. The seatbelt reminder chime is unbearable and gets progressively more intense. It’s like a psychological warfare device borrowed from a Guantanamo Bay, used to crack the toughest nuts. In addition to the unusual rear window arrangement, the C-HR features very wide C-pillars which translates to big blind spots.

Power is derived from a buzzy 2.0L 4-pot which gets the job done, but without much zest. The brake pedal has an unsettling mush to it. I found myself slightly over-shooting the white line at intersections until I got the hang of it. The car is a little noisy inside but that’s not so uncommon for cars in its price range. The electrically assisted power steering does have a nice feel though.

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Photo Credit: Kevin McCauley 

THE DIRT

To paraphrase a quote from the great “Red Green Show,” “If they don’t find you handsome, at least they’ll find you handy.” This car is neither. It’s an unremarkable car in a saturated market. It’s for Toyota brand-loyalist who want to send their daughters to college in a shiny new compact crossover. If you happen to be reading this while waiting for a car salesperson to return with the figures on your daughter’s new C-HR, don’t panic. Just take a deep breath, get up from the finance table, and drive to the closest Subaru dealership. The Crosstrek has CarPlay, it’s better looking, less expensive, more capable, and you can actually see out the back window.

 

2018 Honda Civic Type R – The R is for RIOT!

2018 Honda Civic Type R – The R is for RIOT!

At the 2018 Texas Auto Roundup I had the pleasure of driving menagerie of great cars around the track at Eagle’s Canyon Raceway in Decatur, Texas. As the day wore on and the laps added up, I made a short list of the cars which were most exciting to drive. The 2018 Civic Type R has to be among the top three.

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In a previous article, I said the 2017 Civic Si could be the best Civic yet. Well That was before I had a turn in the 2018 Type R. I drove it and the 2018 Golf R practically back to back. Honda’s Type R is the clear winner for fun. However, the Golf may be a better choice for those who appreciate a less shouty aesthetic. While the Type R is $10k more than the Civic Si, it seems like a bargain when you put your foot down or chuck it into a corner. The $13k separation between the Golf GTI and the Golf R is a little less dramatic.

The in-your-face looks are a departure from the typical understated Honda styling. Its brash appearance almost beg for descent from on-lookers. The canted LED headlights glare at on-comers as if to say, “I look wild as hell, what are you gonna do about it?” It’s the vehicular equivalent of a punk rock band.  It’s fast, it’s loud, and until you understand it you may not like it. This car makes zero apologies.

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Photo Credit: Kevin McCauley 

EXTERIOR

The crazy looking exhaust makes a little more sense when you understand what’s going on with the triple tailpipes. The center pipe is fitted with a resonator. At lower RPMs you’ll hear more exhaust noise. However, when the exhaust pressure increases at higher speeds, more of the exhaust gasses are routed through the mufflers to each side. This eliminates drone on the highway.

I’d still like a pair of tips or maybe a big central outlet like the one on the Si. The over-the-top aero bits affixed to the back back of the car look garish at first glance, as if e a 17 year old boy had final say at the design meeting. But Honda is quick to assure us that all those wings and gills add up to some real downforce.

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INTERIOR

Inside, the high-bolstered, bright red, Type R front seats are plenty comfortable for a long commute. Drivers are rewarded with quality materials like a leather wrapped wheel and aluminum shift knob. Below the shifter, mounted in the console, there’s a metal plaque with the car’s serial number printed on it. There’s ample trunk space behind the rear seat which can be folded forward to almost double the cargo area. What other is so much fun to drive and has this level of practicality? Driver and passengers can both appreciate the dual-zone automatic climate control and 540-watt stereo with Apple CarPlay controlled with a seven-inch touchscreen in the dash.

Drive

Honda engineers manage to wring 306hp out of the 2 liter turbocharged four cylinder. This power makes its way to the ground through a six-speed trans, and limited slip differential. Stirring the gears in Honda’s excellent six-speed manual is a treat. When shifting down to power out of a corner, the Type R automatically blips the throttle to rev match for the down shift. The sprint from zero to 60 mph is a brief 4.9 seconds. Thanks to oversized Brembo brakes, you can brake deep into corners .

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Photo Credit: Kevin McCauley 

Unlike the all-wheel-drive Golf R, the Type R puts down all that power through the front wheels exclusively. Typically, when front-wheel drive systems are forced to cope with this kind of power they become difficult to manage. Honda engineers must have worked some kind of magic under the front of the Type R because torque steer is all but absent. There was only the slightest waggle in the wheel when accelerating hard over uneven surfaces. This is not a knock against the Type R, I think it’s what known as feedback. 

THE DIRT

In my heart, there’s a tie for most fun drive. I drove this car and the Dodge Hellcat Widebody on the same day. It’s like picking between lovers. They’re both a whole lot of fun in different ways. The Hellcat is certainly the winner for horsepower and downright insanity. Insanity can be fun for awhile, but you don’t marry crazy. Deep down, I know which one we’d put a ring on.

Maybe it’s a sign I’m getting older, but if I had to take just one home, it would be the four-door Civic Type R. It’s half the price of the Hellcat at $35k, it’s hilariously fun to drive, I can get a carseat in it and it gets great gas mileage. Oh yeah, and it probably won’t kill me in my sleep.

It’s Time to Take Another Look at Infiniti

It’s Time to Take Another Look at Infiniti

When was the last time an Infiniti product set your pants on fire? The answer might be never. They’ve had a couple hits, but how many memorable Infiniti’s can you count? The number probably fit’s on one hand’s worth of fingers. Historically, the Infinity livery has ranged from forgettable beige boxes, to a mash-up of swoopy lines you wish you could forget. That is, until now…

The new Q series looks great. They have a nose-down aggressive posture, and angry headlights on either side of a low-mounted, tidy grille. The aesthetic looks a bit like the latest Maserati Ghibli, and that’s not a bad thing. If you’re gonna look like something, it is better to look like something exceptional.

 

VC-Turbo – Variable Compression Turbo

The intrigue doesn’t just run skin deep. Infiniti revealed a new engine at last year. This isn’t just a new valve timing management system (it has that too), or a hybrid setup. It’s the first really new idea to be implemented on internal combustion engines in recent memory. Infiniti touts it as “the world’s first production-ready variable compression ratio engine.”

They call it the VC-Turbo (Variable Compression Turbo). And if all goes right, it will be the world’s first variable compression ratio engine in production vehicles.  The first ones will be available in 2018 model Infinitis.

The new power-plant dynamically adjusts compression ratios by moving the rotating assembly up and down within the engine case. The design uses a lever to move the crankshaft journals, crank, pistons, and rods, higher up into the cylinders to squish the compressed gasses into a tighter space resulting in higher compression. 14:1 to be exact. Lowering the rotating assembly will lower the compression to 8:1.  Having trouble visualizing it? This video will help clarify things.

Neat, but will it work?Well, Infiniti says they’ve been working on the design for two decades, they’ve made loads of models, and they’ve driven them a couple million miles. So, it sounds pretty viable, but it’s easy to imagine the expense when something goes wrong. And it will inevitably go wrong, that’s the nature of cars. It will be exciting to see how it all shakes out in 2018.

 

INFINITI Prototype 9 – A Retro Prototype

Infiniti started by teasing us with images in press releases and on their Instagram feed of a mid-century Grand Prix inspired concept car to be unveiled at the 2017 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

The classic boat tail styling looks beautiful. The brakes, visible just inside of those tall skinny tires, are made imitate the look of finned drum brakes. But they are in fact a set of non-boosted discs. The wire wheels with center knock-offs are things of beauty.

The body is made from steel and sits on a steel frame. The long hood arcs back from the top if a gorgeous deco-inspired grill, to a teeny tiny little windshield. In this case less is more.

The suspension up front is a solid axle under a transverse leaf spring. And out back there’s a DeDion set up, again with a transverse mounted leaf spring. For shock absorbers Infiniti chose to go with old-school hydraulic rotary dampers. Designers took the time to wrap the suspension parts in beautiful body work.

The steering is a manual system, which can’t help but have a direct feel. Chances are this thing rides like a covered wagon. But who cares? Just look at it.

You may be searching the images for some sweet looking exhaust pipes, but you won’t find them on this ride. Infiniti dropped a little 21st century technology in among all those vintage good looks. This thing is powered by a 148 hp electric motor that produces 236 lb-ft of torque. All that power in a vehicle that weighs just shy of a ton has got to be a blast to drive.

Infiniti claims Prototype 9 has a top speed of 105 mph, gets from a standstill to 62 mph in 5.5 seconds. The electric motor is powered by lithium Ion batteries that are said to deliver 20 minutes of heavy track use. You can take a look at the tech specs here.

It looks like Infiniti is attempting to redefine how people perceive the brand. Good looking cars with interesting engine technology combined with an apparent interest in creative projects sound like a recipe for further success. Love it? Hate it? Let me know in the comment section.