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Bring It Over: The New Mazda 2

October 24, 2014 by Matt

2015 Mazda 2 Demio Red

The new Japanese version (Mazda Demio) of what’s badged in the rest of the world as the Mazda 2 has won its home market’s coveted car of the year award for 2014, Autoblog reports. Fortunately, it appears the car will be sold in America, despite rumors the US market—historically unfriendly to tiny hatchbacks—would be excluded from the worldwide rollout.

2015 Mazda 2 Demio Red

I might be even more excited about the new 2’s introduction than I’ve been about its “new wave Mazda” predecessors, the CX-5, 6 and 3. The first-generation Mazda 2 was a highlight of the small car wars and a personal favorite. It maintained Mazda’s signature emphasis on the fun-to-drive factor despite the cost-cutting demands of its market niche, and I also found the design quite sharp-looking. Yes, the 2010-2013 model was a member of the previous Mazda “smiley face” design class, but its grin was much more restrained and less absurdly happy-looking than previous-generation Mazda 3’s. And now the styling has gotten a complete makeover, ditched the face and given the flanks and rear a few well-placed creases. It looks like a million bucks.

2015 Mazda 2 Demio Interior Inside Cockpit Console

As sharp as the exterior lines are, the new 2’s interior may be its trump card. Cribbing liberally from the new Audi A3’s cabin themes, the new Mazda’s interior treatment looks fresh, clean, tidy and above all, upscale—something that can be said of all recent Mazda interiors. On first glance, I can honestly say I’d rather spend time in the $15K Mazda 2 than in many cars costing several times as much.

Fundamentally, between the inside and outside styling, the engine, powertrain and chassis, the new 2 seems completely resolved. There doesn’t appear to be anything transitional or ill-advised in any element, and that confidence prompts me to reiterate the declaration I made in my post on the 2010-2013 car: If I were in the market for a small hatchback and I had to buy new, a Mazda dealership would be the first stop on my shopping list. If I get a chance to do a test drive review, I will. Stay tuned.

Image credits: netcarshow.com

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Underrated Lookers:
The ’89-’91 Oldsmobile
Cutlass Supreme Coupe

October 17, 2014 by Matt

1991 Olds Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme White

Let’s get a few things out of the way here:

  1. Am I reaching a bit? Maybe.
  2. I hate the name. Hate everything about it. As I wrote in my post on car names, it sounds like a pirate’s dessert. Yarrrgh.
  3. Is it FWD and a turd to drive? Yes and probably.

Still—whenever I come across an ’89-’91 Olds Cutlass Supreme coupe during my commute, I notice it. It’s the proportions that really distinguish it. Examine the car in profile, and a clean, if somewhat boxy teardrop shape emerges. Most of the credit for that goes to the expansive, gently-tapering backlight and the way the rear quarterlights meet the back glass in such a way that they conceal the C-pillar, creating a kind of wraparound “cockpit” look. The nose detailing, too, is very understated and clean. The front overhang is a bit long—thank the Cutlass’ FWD platform for the way the wheels are pushed back—and keeps the car from exhibiting truly European sports sedan proportions, but it’s not a glaring aesthetic flaw in the vein of Chrysler’s cab-forward styling phase. The mounting of the door handles on the B-pillars is an unnecessary touch, but it’s not a debit, and it does clean up the car’s flanks a bit.

1991 Olds Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme White

The ’89-’91 Cutlass coupe’s cheapness and the fact that it’s a bit of an unsung hero from a design standpoint means more than a few have been uglified and tarted up with all kinds of stripes, stickers and chrome appendages, obscuring the fact that underneath it all, it’s basically a very handsome car. The big Olds coupe underwent a styling refresh for the 1992 model year, in the process adding a dollop of superfluous body cladding and replacing the crisp headlight treatment with an ill-advised “hex-mini-light” design. The proportions are still there, but the details are overdone and distracting. As for the original ’89-’91 Cutlass coupe, it’s a shame it doesn’t get more credit.

Image credits: cardomain.com, edmunds.com

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series featuring cars whose design we find appealing, in contrast to mainstream opinion. Read the other installments here:

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Another Boxy ’80s Audi:
The Early Coupe GT

October 10, 2014 by Matt

1983 Audi Coupe GT

I think this might have been what I always wanted. I just didn’t know it.

I’ve written about the ’81-’87 Audi Coupe GT before; it’s a personal favorite of mine. I daily-drove a 1986 Audi 4000 quattro for a couple of years, a car that shares the Coupe GT’s interior, engine and basic structure, only with a pair of rear doors and AWD instead of the Coupe’s FWD. So I learned to really appreciate what Car and Driver lauded as an “uncluttered,” “simply and tastefully trimmed” interior coupled with “dead-nuts accurate” steering “full of road feel.” For any car with sporting pretensions, getting those elements right, among others, is a great place to start.

My ownership experience wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine, though. The 2.2-liter straight-5 made a nice burble, but 110 hp was completely inadequate when it came to moving the little sedan along with any kind of alacrity, despite the best efforts of the close-ratio 5-speed. Blame the car’s 2,800-lb weight for that.

1983 Audi Coupe GT Interior Inside Console Cockpit

But most significantly, I fell into what I’ll call Enthusiast AWD Delusion Syndrome. My reasoning was as follows: I appreciate the superiority of RWD over FWD the standpoint of engineering balance and how that affects the driving experience. Architecturally, my Audi 4000 was effectively a FWD car with a driveshaft, rear diff and axle shafts tacked on. In my mind, though, the mere fact that the rear wheels were driven meant it seemed more like a RWD than a FWD car. Naturally, this conceptual shift was completely at odds with the 4000’s behavior on the road, where it felt very nose-heavy, understeered resolutely and didn’t exhibit any of the fun tail-happiness characteristic of the best RWD mounts. But, just to underscore the point, my idea of the car changed when I discovered it had AWD; in my little automotive world, I felt like I was more of a true enthusiast because I hadn’t compromised and bought a FWD car, never mind the fact that the Audi’s balance and handling were, for all intents and purposes, identical to those of the layout I was trying to avoid. Furthermore, I have a feeling Enthusiast AWD Delusion Syndrome is more widespread than is generally realized, but that’s a topic to expand upon in another post.

So what does any of this have to do with the Coupe GT? Simply put, it shares all of the positives its sister car, my little 4000, and shores up the two deficiencies noted above. Is it RWD? No; it’s FWD, but it doesn’t deceive the enthusiast into thinking it’s more balanced than it is, and the lack of rear running gear nets a 400+ lb weight savings over the 4000, sharpening the car’s responses even further and, more significantly, freeing up the powerplant to shave a good second and a half off the 0-60 time. The Coupe GT is lighter, more tossable, quicker, less complicated and more straightforward than the 4000.

1983 Audi Coupe GT

It’s a great looking car, too. From an aesthetic standpoint, in spite of their more prominent black bumpers, I much prefer the early, pre-facelift ’81-’84 GT to the ’85-’87 car. The refresh may share the earlier car’s proportions and stance, but in being smoothed out and cleaned up, it lost some wedgy-ness, some of the attitude of the ’81-’84 model. The earlier, boxier car share a visual kinship with the first-generation VW Scirocco and Golf GTI, good company indeed, and a pair of cars, like the Coupe GT, their automaker got just right the first time. I just wish I had known it.

Image credits: topcarguide.com, audiworld.com, coolcarswallpaper.com

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A Local Find: 1968 Opel Kadett

October 1, 2014 by Matt

Opel Kadett Green

Some long-time Spannerhead readers may be aware of my affection for the 1970-1975 Opel Manta. I featured an example of the spy little coupe in my first Ones That Got Away series post, and mused on it again more recently. I’d love to own one, and seeing as how one of my default downtime Internet activities is Craigslist tire-kicking, I type the term “Opel” quite often in the Craiglist search field.

But Mantas are rare beasts in the US, and what pops up most frequently are GTs, Opel’s more popular, plastic-bodied mini-Corvette. Last week, though, an ad for the 1968 Kadett shown in this post appeared.

Opel Kadett Green

Built from 1965 to 1973, the Kadett B, as it’s called, is mechanically similar to the Manta, but doesn’t quite match its stablemate’s delicate proportions and detailing. The Kadett is much more prosaic-looking, but it still has a great deal of charm. This particular car has been repainted, as evidenced by the color of the engine bay and door frames, among other bits, but at least the deep green is a lovely, classic choice of hue.

Opel Kadett Interior Inside Cockpit Console

The interior needs some help. The dash is cracked in multiple places, but the seats appear to be in good shape. It’s possible the owner added the aftermarket gauges because the originals were too difficult to repair or too rare to find working replacements for.

Opel Kadett Interior Inside Cockpit Console

Some rust is in evidence on the door sill, probably a sign of additional rot elsewhere.

Opel Kadett Back Rear Seat

As with the fronts, the back seats seem to be in very good shape.

Opel Kadett Engine Motor

As far as I can determine, the engine fitted to this Kadett is a 4-cylinder, 1.5l, 64-hp CIH unit. It’s certainly not going to win any races, but the appeal of the car isn’t the performance, but the style and the experience. It’s a fair bet the carb isn’t original, but overall, the engine bay is remarkably clean. A little elbow grease and it would be very presentable indeed.

Opel Kadett Literature

The seller also includes OEM literature, always a bonus. I wonder if the car was painted to match the covers?

I’ve tried to figure out what it is exactly that draws me to these little vintage coupes, and I’ve decided it’s what I’m going to call the European Mustang Effect. As Ate Up With Motor discusses in its excellent history of the contemporary Ford Capri, small coupes like the Kadett, Manta and contemporary Capri filled the niche in Europe the Mustang did in the US: Plucky, stylish personal statements that were thoroughly customizable to each buyer’s specific preferences. They had a dash of performance (the Capri and Manta more so than the Kadett coupe), but like the Mustang, above all, their most prominent attribute was that they were—and are—incredibly cool. Other cars were faster, and cheaper and handled better, but none cornered the market on cool quite as effectively as the Mustang in America, or the Capri and Manta in Europe.

Having spent 5 of my formative years in France, and that period being the real genesis of my automotive interest, it’s understandable my initial tastes would have been shaped by what was around me at that time. So as much as car buffs who grow up in the States have an ingrained affection for the apple-pie-American Mustang and its domestic flavor of cool, I think I was weaned on the European variation of that quality. As a result, I’ve always had a semi-conscious affection for sporty RWD coupes from that side of the pond. That’s the formula that holds the greatest appeal for me.

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Taking a Look at
the Production Porsche 918 Spyder

September 25, 2014 by Matt

Porsche 918 Spyder

I take it back. I take it all back.

I lambasted the prototype 918’s goofy stickers and stripes and its seeming lack of fit and finish for an $800K+ car, but had I known Porsche would rectify all those faults (and how!) I would’ve muted my critique.

Porsche 918 Spyder

No, the production car is a drop-dead stunner, more beautiful than even the italianite Carrera GT and more resolved than the 918 RSR Concept I praised in my previous post. The RSR now looks stumpy and compact where the production 918 is consummately low, long and wide. The 918’s looks are now perfectly calibrated for a show-stopping arrival at, say, the famous Casino in Monte Carlo—a prime criterion for a proper supercar.

From a design perspective, the two focal points of the 918 are the side air intakes and the way the body of the car is pushed down, Le Mans racer-style, enlarging the wheel arches. The intakes, beginning at the bottom of the side cavities, resolve themselves perfectly into the roof line, pulling the flanks of the car inwards for a leaner, more lithe look that reflects the 918’s actual agility in spite of its considerable 3,750-lb weight. As for the wheel arches, their size gives the car a very aggressive, sled-like stance, while the overall proportions are a nice hat-tip to Porsche’s endurance racing heritage while serving an actual, center of gravity-lowering function.

Porsche 918 Spyder Interior Inside Cockpit Console

Even the interior is beautifully resolved, with neither the clutter of the Ferrari LaFerrari (I still cringe every time I type that name) nor the kit car feel of the McLaren P1. The 918’s cockpit conveys a Teutonic sense of businesslike restraint in the midst of its high-tech trappings. To reuse a couple of words long since rendered cliche by automotive journalists, it’s purposeful and elegant. There’s just no other way to describe its functional yet “concept car” feel.

Yes, compared to its direct competitions in this generation of hypercars, the Porsche 918 is unquestionably the looker of the group.

Image credits: netcarshow.com

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The Best Snake:
2nd-Gen Dodge Viper GTS

September 18, 2014 by Matt

Dodge Viper GTS Gray Grey

I’m not a Dodge Viper fan per se, but I have to concede that this is one of the most impressive American cars ever made.

Credit the automaker for not saying “Well, that was fun while it lasted” and closing up the Viper shop after the initial 1992-1995 run of crude 1st-generation cars. The automotive world is replete with flawed attempts by new players to mix it up with established heavy-hitters like the Porsche 911 and Corvette. In most cases, those efforts flicker out within a few years—but not the Viper. Dodge realized the formula had merit and there was room in the marketplace for more than one “authentic” American sports car, and injected development capital into the program, resulting in a 2nd generation car that was just as brash as the original, but less intimidating to drive, and much more progressive and capable.

Dodge Viper GTS Gray Grey

The characteristic 8-liter pushrod V10’s output was bumped up from 415 to 450 hp while the car’s weight actually fell by 60 lbs compared to the 1st gen Viper. Thanks in part to the addition of the roof, the car’s rigidity increased significantly, which allowed the thoroughly reworked suspension to interface with the road with far more fidelity than that of the ’92-’95 car. So while the 2nd gen Viper was still rough around the edges, rewards existed for those willing to contend with its challenges. In a track setting, a contemporary Car and Driver comparison test extolled the GTS as an “an easy and forgiving partner” and for its “benign behavior at the limit,” things that would never have been said of its predecessor.

Dodge Viper GTS Gray Grey

Still, it’s cartoonish to look at. Exaggerated, dramatic, visually aggressive—and yet somehow, it all holds together perfectly. I could even call it pretty, if I were into that sort of thing. I much prefer the later, solid-color 2nd-gen cars; the racing stripes are iconic but load the already-busy lines with even more clutter. Less turns out to be just right in this case. An indication of just how enduring the GTS’s look turned out to be is the design of the latest, 5th-generation car, which copies the 1996-2002 car almost line-for-line, except for a little ill-advised softening (read: melting) around the edges. With the original GTS, I really think Dodge got it right the first time.

Image credits: carpictures.com

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I Hate In-Dash Navigation Screens

September 11, 2014 by Matt

Infiniti M45 2006 Interior Inside Console Cockpit

It’s a question of focus.

Since the dawn of the automobile in the late 1800s, the focus of every car’s cockpit area has been the steering wheel, and by extension, the activity that should occupy the majority of the driver’s attention while behind said wheel; namely, actually driving the car.

In the past few years, though, with the emergence of large in-dash navigation screens on even basic commuter cars like the Ford Focus and VW Golf, the steering wheel’s visual preeminence in the average car’s interior has been steadily watered down. Whenever I consider a photograph of a new car’s inside, my eyes are pulled in two different directions, alternately drawn by the steering wheel and then by the massive screen squatting in the center console. As an enthusiast, it creates a kind of uncomfortable tension in my brain where I’m subconsciously unsure of the car’s emphasis simply by glancing at the interior. There’s a visual competition going on in the cockpit, a conflict where before there was certainty, simplicity.

Mercedes Benz CLA Interior Inside Console Cockpit

So is this design shift just a personal preference, a nit-pick without larger implications? No—I don’t think it overstates the case to say that the uneasy power-sharing arrangement going on in the modern car’s interior is a bellwether of a changing societal relationship with the automobile.

Since their inception, cars have been made steadily easier to drive. Engineering ingenuity has progressively done away with the need to manage things like spark advance, choke setting or even gear changes. The tedious chore of driving now approaches the convenience of taking a stroll down the street or cooking a meal in a microwave oven. Start the car, alternately press the “go” and “stop” pedals, occasionally turn the large circular thing positioned in front of you while enduring a period of isolation in your transportation appliance, and arrive at your destination. Why not give the car’s occupants a little television to play with during the trip? It’s not like anything else of note is making a demand on their time.

I’ll admit I’m being a bit obtuse; I know full well that not everyone is a driving enthusiast, and nowhere is it written that every car owner shall read the entire owner’s manual from cover to cover and make every effort to bond with their automobile. And yes, I multitask while driving; I fiddle with the stereo and talk on my cell phone, among other things. The tipping point for me hinges on the design statement, the visual prominence given to the in-dash screen and the emphasis it usurps from the steering wheel. Aesthetically, the stereo is just one of many secondary controls, and I can put my cell phone away, but a built-in touchscreen is always there, always demanding my attention. And even if I choose to ignore it, the design decision to place it on equal footing with the steering wheel comes from someplace; it wouldn’t have been made if there wasn’t a demand for it. As drivers, we have a finite amount of attention to devote to the range of tasks available behind the wheel. I’m just saddened to witness a symbol of the shrinking slice of our “attention pie” devoted to the act of driving.

Image credits: jbcarpages.com, acarisnotarefrigerator.com

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