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400 Horses for a 2017 Mazda RX-7?

July 30, 2014 by Matt

Mazda 16X New Rotary Wankel Engine Motor

With a rumor mill almost as productive as the one prophesying the return of the Toyota Supra, the latest scoop from the “new RX-7″ cloud of unsubstantiated gossip foresees 400+ horsepower from a next-generation rotary powerplant.

People tend to forget that car specifications—power, weight, grip and the like—are driven more by what market niche the car is intended to fill rather than what’s technically possible. So let’s assume for a moment, contrary to all actual and official evidence, that Mazda really does plan to unveil a true RX-7 successor in the next few years. A better way to speculate about the new car’s eventual output would be to “think like a marketer” and determine which corner of the sports car spectrum the car would be designed to occupy. I can think of three possible targets for Mazda’s new performance flagship:

  1. Toyota/Subaru GT86/BRZ competitor: Unlikely. The Toyotaru Twins offer slightly better performance than Mazda’s own Miata but adhere to a similar “driver-first” ethos. Making what amounts to a marginally faster hardtop Miata with a rotary engine would be a lot of fun, and would take advantage of the current mini-backlash against the current crop of overpowered, inert speed appliances, but fundamentally, such an approach would still edge too closely to the Miata’s territory.
  2. Pony car / Corvette killer: The article alludes to this possibility when it conjectures that a new RX-7 would “seriously challenge the Porsche 911.” The problem with this theory is that the high-end performance car market segment is currently engaged in a DEFCON 1, no-holds-barred arms race, outputs soaring above 600 hp with roadholding to match. In theory, Mazda could make a strong showing in this category by replicating yet amplifying the third-generation RX-7 formula: A high-strung turbocharged rotary offering competitive power in a lightweight chassis with hair-trigger reflexes. They certainly have the technical chops. But the matter of resources rears its ugly head: The automaker simply doesn’t have the capital to develop and support such a car on a mass-production scale. The fact that residents of this market segment like the Mustang, Corvette, Viper and Camaro are upping the power ante practically ever other week doesn’t help either. Besides, this niche is the obvious choice, and while Mazda’s approach to it would be unique, I’d like to think their target selection would be a little more…nuanced.
  3. Porsche Cayman / Nissan 370Z alternative: This makes more sense. Does it basically take over from where the RX-8 left off? Yes—but with the power and styling the RX-8’s chassis always deserved. If an RX-7 successor can take what actually worked about the ‘8—and given Mazda’s track record, there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t—and shore up the areas in which it was deficient, sharpening the car’s focus by axing the back seats and giving us a bonafide sports car, they might have a winner on their hands. Here’s the recipe for success in this niche: A direct-injected, 300+ hp rotary; 2 seats; perfect (and I do mean perfect) looks, transcendent driving dynamics and a curb weight under 3,000 lbs. The time is ripe; the 370Z’s basic platform has been around since 2003 and has always been somewhat awful when pushed to 10/10s. And while the Cayman is as dead-nuts perfect as a sports car can be, it’s been rampaging alone in its market segment for far too long. It’s time, Mazda.

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Swedish Bolide: Saab Sonett III

April 22, 2014 by Matt

Saab Sonett Sonnet Sonnett Sonet III 3 Green

I think it’s time to feature another barely-imported, obscure-yet-cool classic. I considered putting the Sonett III in my FWD Champions series, but somehow—I can’t quite put my finger on the exact reason—the car just doesn’t manage to elevate itself into that category. I’ve already featured the original Saab 900; maybe one Saab is enough? Who knows.

Saab Sonett Sonnet Sonnett Sonet III 3 Orange

Regardless, the Sonett III, a front-wheel-drive coupe produced by the Swedish automaker between 1970 and 1974, ticks more than enough of the boxes on its “cool” application. It’s rare, classically quirky, not unattractive in a sort of hybrid Scandinavio-Italian way and blessed with an uncommon engine configuration: A 1.7l, Ford-sourced V4 blessed with 65 pavement-rippling horsepower. Fortunately, they only had 1,950 lb to haul around, so the 0-60 time of around 13 seconds, while glacial by today’s standards, was at least semi-peppy for its day.

Saab Sonett Sonnet Sonnett Sonet III 3 Engine Motor

Like the Corvette or contemporary Opel GT, the body is constructed of fiberglass mated to a metal frame. While lightweight and trendy, the material had some problems: Saab’s relative inexperience with mass-production of fiberglass meant that most cars left the factory with slight (but perceptible) waves in the bodywork. Also, just because the body panels were made of a rust-free material didn’t mean the chassis couldn’t be afflicted with automotive cancer; indeed, rust is a major concern for those looking for a good Sonett III on the market today. Furthermore, the needs of the material meant the all-of-a-piece front bodywork only allowed a small door for engine access, a real bummer for maintenance and service.

Saab Sonett Sonnet Sonnett Sonet III 3 Dash Cockpit Console Interior Inside

The owner of the car shown above has added additional instrumentation below the center console, but the aircraft-inspired quirkiness of the Sonett III’s interior is still apparent. Note the pull handle operating the manually-concealed headlights, the clear bank of instruments and the large red buttons to the left of the steering wheel. It’s clean and very cockpit-like.

Saab Sonett Sonnet Sonnett Sonet III 3 Console

Naturally, against all common sense, I really like the car and would love to own one. I admire the little details like the sliders and toggle switches on the console, the ultra-wide 5-bolt lug pattern and the “cupped” door handles. And I appreciate the car’s overall proportions, which make it look like absolutely nothing else on the road. Add a dash of handling flair, and rarity—only a little over 8,000 were made; with an unknown percentage of that making the trip to the US—and I’m sold.


Is Audi’s Design in a Rut?

March 20, 2014 by Matt

2012 Audi A5 White

“Awfully familiar” is how a recent Car and Driver article described the evergreen A5/S5’s looks, now its 7th model year. And yet in the final tally, the Audi ended up with only a 1-point deficit in the “Exterior Styling” category to the brand-new, sultry BMW 435i. Audi’s designs have staying power; that much is certain. But in spite of their objective attractiveness, is it time to move on to a different, or at least more significantly updated set of visual themes?

Audi S3 Red

The conservative looks of the new A3/S3 sedan could be construed as evidence the automaker is out of ideas. Aside from various detail updates, the car looks like an 75% facsimile of Audi’s current-generation (and rather long in the tooth) A4. It looks buttoned-down, tasteful, taut and sporty, but isn’t it time to push the styling envelope a bit?

It’s risky to introduce new themes to such an established brand, and the industry is replete with failed examples of automakers attempting to roll out a fresh new look for their lineup, most recently Lexus with their hideous “hourglass” grille shape.

Success stories do exist, however; recall Mercedes’ transition to oval headlights in the ’90s and more recently Jaguar’s jettisoning of basically their entire classic design vocabulary with the XF and XJ. In both cases, the automakers’ efforts were well-received and unlocked new styling possibilities across their respective model ranges.

2015 Audi TT Coupe Blue

2015 Audi TT Coupe Blue Rear

As far as Audi is concerned, small indications exist that they’re trying to move beyond the current design playbook. With its revamped fascia, the new 3rd-generation TT gives glimpses of what a new styling direction could be like, even if the rest of the car actually takes a stylistic step backward in apeing the 1st generation car more than its immediate predecessor; the rear fenders and overall profile look like they haven’t shifted a millimeter in the past 10 years. Granted, it’s difficult to improve on a shape that was acclaimed as a design icon when it was released, but still, coupes are most brands’ styling vanguards; Audi could stand to be a little more radical without “endangering” sales of their bread-and-butter models.

Rumors are flying of a new Sport Quattro coupe; here’s hoping that serves to introduce a positive new design direction.

Image credits:


The Psychology of Car Colour

February 26, 2014 by Our Sponsors


When it comes to buying a car, the decision-making process is often a lengthy and sometimes convoluted one. For anyone deciding between manufacturers, models and engine specs, the options have a nasty habit of growing in size instead of reducing. Selecting the colour you’d like your vehicle to be can dramatically aid you in your choice of car – particularly if you’re shopping in the used car market. Once one factor is taken care of, you can concentrate on other elements you need your motor to comprise.

The colour of your car might initially seem like the easiest aspect to decide upon, but how much does the colour of your car actually say about you? According to a survey conducted by Trusted Dealers, the psychology behind your choice of car colour can speak a thousand words – and we’re seemingly just as judgemental when it comes to the colour of other people’s cars, too.

Half of us reckon that there’s a relationship between irresponsible driving and car colour, with a fifth of us pegging owners of red cars as the culprits – and apparently, this perceived recklessness only increases with age. Gone are the days where boy racers seek out a red car, as only 15 per cent of 18 to 34-year-olds agreed with the idea that drivers of red cars are more careless. Compare this with the statistic that shows a quarter of over 55-year-olds reckon there is a correlation, and you’ve got an interesting show of the generation gap between car owners.

Neil Addley, MD of the used-car site Trusted Dealers has commented on how curious this notion is, saying: “Older people have seen enough trends come and go to develop a stronger association with different car colours, and their response in this survey has given us a fascinating glimpse into the cultural impact that car colour can have on the industry as a whole.”

The poll’s results indicate that the colour pink would be avoided entirely when looking at making a vehicle purchase, even though the association between pink and recklessness is seemingly non-existent.

Black cars took second place on the grid when it comes to association with reckless driving, with 17 per cent of survey respondents making the connection. Addley commented: “There’s no correlation between reckless driving and car colour that we know of, but the fact that people hold these emotional associations shows that there’s a real connection in the way different cars are perceived – whether that’s through the media or elsewhere.”

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One More Year:
4th-Gen Mazda Miata to Bow in 2015

February 19, 2014 by Matt

2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Concept Rendering White

Autoblog reports enthusiasts pining for a long-overdue fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata will have to stick it out for one more year.

Fortunately, there are three big upsides to such a long wait:

  1. The automaker’s recent product offerings have been roundly praised in top-flight publications, giving the company a fair bit of brand momentum.
  2. The introduction of the Toyota/Subaru 86 twins presents a fresh challenge to the Miata’s market segment. Nothing like a little healthy competition to sharpen the mind and re-focus development.
  3. Mazda’s achingly lovely Kodo design language—as seen on the new CX-5, 6, and 3—has firmly supplanted the old, unlamented smiley-face theme, and the new version of Mazda’s iconic roadster will reap the benefits, eschewing the cartoon-y grin for an altogether more sophisticated look.

Regarding that last one, according to the Autoblog article, a Mazda insider has pegged it as “our best-looking car ever.” Frankly, I really wish they wouldn’t. Not only is that a mighty tall order with a car like Mazda’s nail-bitingly sexy 3rd generation RX-7 in the history books, the automaker should learn from its mistakes and let the car’s looks speak for themselves. To whit: During an initial review of the awkward, fussy (though dynamically excellent) RX-8, Patrick Hong of Road & Track embarrassed himself with a bit of effusive hyperbole by declaring it “perhaps the prettiest looking car to come out of Japan—ever.” Err…no. And on the powerplant front, Mazda was forced to offer to buy back early production cars after independent dyno tests found the Renesis rotary engine producing 12-odd horsepower less than its advertised output. Whoops.

2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Concept Rendering Blue

The lesson in all of this? Under-promise and over-deliver. Mazda already has with a trifecta of excellent models (the aforementioned CX-5, 6 and 3); here’s hoping the new MX-5 makes it four.

Editor’s note: The images gleaned for this article are concept renderings produced by automotive publications and may or may not reflect Mazda’s actual design.

Image credits:,


2015 Ford Mustang:
The Only Question that Matters

January 15, 2014 by Matt

2015 Ford Mustang GT Red

Is it cool?

No, really. Forget horsepower numbers, quarter mile trap speeds and lap times (especially Nürburgring ones); the only real question Ford’s development team should have concerned themselves with during the car’s gestation should have been: “How can we redesign this car and still keep it cool?”

To their immense credit, it looks like that question was affixed prominently atop the dry erase board in the conference room, because the 2015 ‘Stang exudes coolness in spades.

That’s really been the key to the Mustang’s enduring popularity in spite of periods of abysmal performance, hideous design choices and suspect quality control. Chevy fans scratching their heads, wondering why the often superior on paper Camaro has always nipped at the Mustang’s heels sales-wise have their answer. Young or old, rich or poor, it’s always been nearly impossible to drive a Mustang and appear—or at least feel—uncool. Sure, the Camaro, Firebird or whatever Dodge muscle car happened to be on sale that week may have been cooler to particular subsets of the buying public for limited periods of time, but arguably no automobile has maintained a durable coolness in the eyes of the general public more effectively than the Mustang. With occasional peaks and dips, capturing that intangible year after year amounts to something of a miracle given the average American consumer’s obsession with the new.

2015 Ford Mustang GT Red

I don’t want to minimize the significance of developments like the long-overdue transition to independent rear suspension or the reintroduction of the turbocharged 4-cylinder to the engine lineup (the latter would have been much more contentious if the ’80s SVO hadn’t blazed a trail), but I think we can call the new Mustang a success even before its first road test or lap time. A casual glance at its proportions, detailing and overall image confirms its coolness is intact. Kudos to the powers-that-be at Ford.

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On Losing a Car

December 30, 2013 by Matt

BMW E34 540i 540 1995 Gray Grey Arctic Gray Arktisgrau

I sold the BMW a couple of weeks ago.

Here’s what I wrote about it in the immediate aftermath:

I’m gutted, to tell you the truth. I’ve had twinges of regret seeing cars drive away, and I don’t know if this was the worst, but it’s up there. The car was my little piece of home when first started the job out here in Tennessee, and took me over the mountains with absolutely no complaints at least 20 times. That and my familiarity with the E34 platform, watching it drive away was almost like watching that body of knowledge disappear, even though it doesn’t, but that’s something of value, you know?

The idea that I would be able to avail myself of my awareness of the ins and outs of the BMW E34 was a primary reason why the transition from my old 1995 525i to my (now sold) 540i was so relatively painless. Despite the much larger engine of the latter, the two cars’ chassis are 95% similar, and the knowledge I had accrued wouldn’t go to waste. If there’s anything that circumscribes the way I see the world, it’s a sense of purpose, and it causes me a certain amount of cognitive dissonance to possess knowledge and yet but unable to use it. Knowledge for its own sake is fine and good to a certain degree, but its inescapable value is what provokes such an acute sense of loss when a car, an activity, an area, a friendship or any number of things is suddenly gone. It could be argued many car enthusiasts feel this way, and linger around message boards long after they’ve sold their pride and joy as a way of “exercising” that knowledge, as it were. I have a feeling I’m not alone.

Anyway, what did I replace it with? Behold, my new daily driver:

1999 Ford F150 Green

Yep. I’m a Ford truck owner. Sure, it’s a step down in the enthusiast department, but let’s consider the facts:

  1. The roads around Chattanooga are terrible. No, they don’t have car-swallowing potholes like the roads in Michigan, but the BMW still took a beating every day on the way to and from work.
  2. My commute is 25 minutes of stoplights and stop-and-go traffic. The car hated it, as did I. My old commute was 20 minutes of highway mileage where the car at least had an opportunity to stretch its legs. As it was, it felt like the 540i was suffocating.
  3. It was a distraction. My 240Z restoration was languishing and all my thoughts re:car improvements and repairs tended toward the BMW to the exclusion of the Datsun. The truck greatly reduces that temptation. Frankly, I don’t care about it as much. It’s a truck, a workhorse; it’s going to get beat up and I’m fine with that. Done. Next.
  4. I needed some way to get the 240Z here from our old house in North Carolina. The F150 provided that way, and allowed me to transport the rest of our items in storage besides. The Z is presently warm and dry in the garage here in Tennessee.
  5. I bought the truck for less than I sold the BMW for, and the difference was put to good use around the holidays.
  6. The BMW never set my hair on fire. It was an extraordinarily nice car, quick, easy to work and well put-together, but as far as I was concerned it always lacked that special something. It just wasn’t me. If I’m honest, it was a compromise choice at best.
  7. I want to lay a foundation for future car endeavors. With the truck in the driveway, not only do I not have to worry about how I would get a prospective long-distance purchase home (drive the truck and tow it), the logistics of a great number of other matters are simplified. And I don’t have to maintain the same kinds of practical criteria when considering future project cars; the sky’s the limit now that we have another vehicle with a back seat, an automatic transmission and the capacity to haul lots of stuff. It’s liberating.

Considered in light of the above, buying the truck is quite possibly one of the more rational car purchase I’ve made, and I’ve not made many. It’s in very good shape and drives quite well. I really can’t complain.