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Missing the Minivan

April 27, 2015 by Matt

2005 Mazda MPV Gray Grey Side View

I miss our little MPV.

After 5 years of ownership, during which time we actually managed to pay it off, last spring we unloaded our ’05 Mazda MPV for an ’06 Volvo XC90, reasoning that our minivan days were over. I still daily-drive my truck, mind you, so the Volvo is my wife’s car, and she enjoys it. The XC90 is smooth and fleet, and with the 2.5-liter turbocharged 5-cylinder engine (not the optional 4.4l V8) and 2WD, fairly frugal, even if it does need to drink premium at the pump. The steering is sharp—well, most anything would feel sharp compared to my truck’s vague sense of straight ahead—and the leather-trimmed interior smells of plane trips and IKEA™. The kids like the DVD screens built into the backs of the headrests, and of course we’ve been freed of the “minivan stigma.”

Thing is, part of me misses, if not the stigma, then at least the practical, sensible aspects of minivan ownership. We bought our MPV for a song, in near-perfect condition, when it was only 4 years old. A quick scan of Craigslist confirms that minivan resale prices are ridiculously low compared with SUVs of equivalent size, age and mileage, and the cost of acquisition is even lower if your search terms don’t include the words “Odyssey” or “Sienna.” The MPV could be classified as a “mid-size” minivan, unable to carry a 4ft by 8ft sheet of plywood flat in the cargo area with the rear seats lowered, another fact that contributed to the car’s low profile in the eyes of a typical minivan shopper, interested only in “full size” models such as the aforementioned Japanese wonder twins and Yanks like the Town & Country. So we reaped the financial benefits of the minivan stigma and the Mazda’s lack of name recognition in the marketplace.

2005 Mazda MPV Gray Grey Cloth Interior Inside Cockpit Dashboard Console

Still—it was plenty big enough for us. During our annual beach trip last year, I had to exercise a previously unrequired level of packaging creativity when loading the XC90; with the MPV I simply tossed everything in the back and had no concerns over leaving myself a slit with which to use the rear view mirror while driving. The engine—a 3.0-liter V6 member of Ford’s Duratec family—was easy to work on as well, even if the intake manifold was a bit tucked up under the cowl, and parts were cheap and plentiful. The plumbing associated with the XC90’s engine is more daunting, and parts prices for our European ride are typically half again more expensive than those for the MPV.

I wouldn’t ask my wife to return to a minivan—she’s signed off on that stage of her car life—but I have pondered from time to time the pros and cons of trading the truck for one. The truck’s mileage is high (over 250K) but it’s in great shape, and chances are a straight trade would yield a minivan in good condition. And I can say with a fair amount of confidence that after a year and a half of driving a vehicle I bought with the expressed purpose of owning something I don’t care about, my car ego, at least when it comes to my daily driver, has been tempered to the point where practical considerations are well and truly king of the decision-making process. In other words, I’d be secure in my manhood even behind the wheel of a minivan, knowing that whatever reasons justified its purchase, they were good and rational ones. My sense of internal satisfaction would trump any superficial concerns over my “image” as a man.

2005 Mazda MPV Gray Grey Side View

I haven’t reached a tipping point yet, though. The truck has a ruggedness few minivans can match, parts are ubiquitous (it’s an F150) and the ability to just throw whatever I’m carrying in the bed, without having to consider height or dirtiness, is very appealing. Best of all, the truck is paid off, and at the end of the day, I think that—besides our 5-year family history with it—is what I miss most about the old MPV. Actually having the car’s title in my own filing cabinet (and not at the bank) gave me a transcendent sense of ownership over the vehicle, and felt fantastic from a financial standpoint as well, knowing that if anything went wrong with it, we had that many more options since the Mazda wasn’t tied to the bank. All that said, I’m sticking with the truck for now. It’s been a great vehicle so far; no complaints.

In the meantime, here’s hoping that minivans will experience something of a sales renaissance. Who knows; maybe all the Millennials who grew up in them will spearhead a nostalgia-driven resurgence of the body style sometime in the near future. Stranger things have happened, and goodness knows the unloved, workhorse minivan deserves its due.

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Audi Concepts: The RSQ

December 28, 2014 by Matt

Audi RSQ

Audi RSQ

More than any other automaker, Audi’s styling gives us a sense of “you can get there from here.”

What do I mean? Examine the various generations of Audi cars and there’s a clear aesthetic progression from one to the next. There’s no jumping off the deep end design-wise, a la Bangle-helmed BMW in the 2000s; instead, Audi’s corporate styling themes seem to move forward in even, incremental steps. And while this approach sometimes raises the question of whether their aesthetic evolution is too gradual, the easily-traceable progression makes it easier to extrapolate Audi’s future styling direction. In other words, it’s easier to fill in the gaps between Audi’s present lineup and the look of its concept cars, which in turn makes the concepts seem nearer, less fanciful and more real. While that might be a downside for those who enjoy concept cars as pure flights of fancy, aesthetic puff pieces with no connection to an automaker’s current offerings, most car buffs at some point imagine themselves behind the wheel of a car rotating slowly on the dais. Cultivating that connection means that a less extreme suspension of disbelief is needed to fantasize about driving a concept car, and renders it more attainable, so to speak, and thus more desirable.

Audi RSQ

Audi RSQ Interior Inside Cockpit Console

Take the car featured in this post, the RSQ. Created in 2004 especially for the Will Smith sci-fi action flick I, Robot (itself nothing to write home about, but that’s another matter), the idea behind the car was to create a realistic vehicle for the year 2035, when the film is set. Naturally, it has futuristic overtones, especially the spherical wheels. But because of Audi’s progressive design philosophy, there’s still a connection with their present-day cars; when you see it there’s a sense that, “Yeah, I could drive that.” That attainable quality stands the RSQ in contrast to other sci-fi movie cars like Lexus’s vehicle in the Tom Cruise flick Minority Report. Compared to Audi’s concept, Lexus’s offering looks downright alien. Now, does that mean I consider the RSQ objectively desirable, in that I would choose it over other, present-day Audis? No, but I still appreciate its visual kinship with those models.

Image credits: netcarshow.com, audiworld.com

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series discussing Audi’s rich history of noteworthy concept cars. Read the other installments here:

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Love It Or Hate It? BMW M Coupe

November 28, 2014 by Matt

BMW M Coupe Z3 Silver

It’s awkward. But is it awesome?

The 1998-2002 BMW M Coupe was the German automaker’s attempt to graft a roof onto their Z3 convertible, introduced in 1996. Eschewing a traditional fastback look, BMW graced its new coupe with a shooting-brake-style boxy profile, with a predominantly flat roof and a more upright backlight.

The automaker also offered a non-M Z3 Coupe concurrently with the top-of-the-line M model; the lesser car shared the M Coupe’s roofline without its swollen fender flares and other aero bits. For our purposes, I’d like to focus on the M Coupe, since it represents the fullest expression of BMW’s styling intentions.

BMW M Coupe Z3 Blue

Dynamically the car was a hoot. Powered by a 315-hp version of the M3’s S54 straight-6 for the last couple of years of its model run, the M Coupe’s compact wheelbase, muscular engine and warmed-over version of the then-15-year-old trailing arm rear suspension from the E30-generation 3-series made it quite a handful at the limit. While capable of a 4.8-second sprint to 60 mph, from a handling standpoint, Car and Driver noted “The M coupe provides the performance pieces and says, ‘Good luck.'”

BMW M Coupe Z3 Interior Inside Cockpit Console

The cockpit reflects the gothic pretensions of the exterior styling with its chrome-ringed instruments and secondary controls. It’s a bit of a jarring statement from an automaker known for its aesthetic restraint. On the other hand, maybe BMW finally “cut loose” with the M Coupe’s styling and dynamic qualities. As different as it was from the rest of their understated lineup at the time, it’s easy to view the M Coupe as a back-of-the-napkin project, the kind of endeavor designers and engineers cook up on their lunch breaks and weekends. That quality gives it a kind of “Skunk Works” appeal.

I hate the way it looks, but I can see why it’s the holy grail of many BMW enthusiasts. It integrates visual and driving character like few sports car have. It looks fast, fun and ugly—and that’s exactly how it drives. What you see is what you get. In many ways it’s the Dodge Viper of BMWs, but with an ever-so-slight dose of German refinement just to make the whole experience bearable.

The 1998-2002 M Coupe polarizes enthusiasts as few do. Maybe, in the end, that’s the measure of its success?

Image credits: netcarshow.com, caranddriver.com

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A Look at the New Toyota Supra’s Inspiration:
The FT-1 Graphite

November 14, 2014 by Matt

Toyota FT-1 Graphite

Much like the 1993-1998 Supra was criticized for being a mashup of details lifted from various sports cars, Toyota’s FT-1 Graphite concept, allegedly the inspiration for the upcoming resurrection of a Toyota sports GT, reveals various styling influences.

I think it’s a great looking concept. I appreciate the fact that the nose is “enclosed” and doesn’t feature a gaping maw like the latest designs from Toyota’s upscale brand, Lexus. However, the nose does recall those on two of the most aesthetically-successful Lexus designs: The first-generation SC coupe and the latter-day LFA. As styling inspirations go, Toyota could certainly do worse.

Toyota FT-1 Graphite

The deeply-drawn nose intakes give the nose and fenders an almost separate, “podded” look. Toyota pulled the plug on its factory Formula 1 team five years ago, but the visual similarities between the FT-1 Graphite’s front clip and the nose and front wing area of an F1 car are hard to deny. I see some of Panoz’s paradigm-bucking, front-engined GTR-1 endurance racer in there as well.

Toyota FT-1 Graphite

The new concept’s most obvious connection with the late, great Supra is in profile, where it adheres to the classic hunkered-down road-eater aesthetic featured by its predecessor and common to all great GTs. It’s a traditional long-nose, short-tail look that even the complex body sculpting doesn’t overpower. The quarterlights are a bit of a head-scratcher, though, since they sport a very Nissan Z-Car-like turn-up kink as they taper toward the rear. From a visual standpoint, it works, but it will probably be difficult for Z-Car buffs to ignore that detail.

Toyota FT-1 Graphite Interior Inside Cockpit Console

The interior is more traditional, if unadventurous, concept car territory, which is to say it looks like Ikea designed a fighter jet cockpit. At least it has a slight nod to the Supra’s interior styling with the quasi-wraparound element to the right of the steering wheel. Naturally, there’s no hint of a third pedal because, well, that’s the way the performance car world turns these days.

From an aesthetic standpoint, the FT-1 Graphite is a winner. A few things remain to be seen, among them how much of its styling Toyota intends to translate to a production car and the all-important question of what exactly will motivate the resultant Supra sequel. My money’s on either the Lexus RC-F’s V8 or, more likely, a cutting-edge hybrid setup that would allow the automaker to leverage the expertise it’s gleaned building hundreds of thousands of Priuses in a more performance-oriented direction. Naturally, I would love to see a revival of the turbocharged inline-6, a configuration the Supra utilized to spectacular effect but effectively extinct from the modern car marketplace except for BMW’s efforts. We’ll see.

Image credits: netcarshow.com

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A Local Find: 1972 Alfa Romeo GTV 2000

November 6, 2014 by Matt

1972 Alfa Romeo GTV 2000

This would test the dedication of even the most diehard Alfa Romeo enthusiast. It would be a labor of love, no doubt about it.

But really, what better car is there to fall in love with an than an Alfa GTV?

1972 Alfa Romeo GTV 2000

This 1972 model is obviously pretty far gone. The external rot is just the beginning; it’s a certainty the cancer extends far underneath the skin.

1972 Alfa Romeo GTV 2000

Still, the GTV’s classic proportions shine through. Restored and sitting on some proper period wheels (maybe a set of Minilites/Panasports?), the little Alfa is a real head-turner.

1972 Alfa Romeo GTV 2000

The large bumper overriders detract a bit from the purity of the car’s lines. I wonder how feasible an earlier bumper swap would be? At least hideous, blocky 5-mph impact bumpers hadn’t yet been mandated in 1972.

1972 Alfa Romeo GTV 2000

The interior is, as expected, completely trashed. The dash is cracked, plastic instrument bezels are glazed and the seats are in a sorry state.

1972 Alfa Romeo GTV 2000

The interior restoration might prove more time-consuming than the bodywork. A multitude of clips and trim pieces need to be refurbished or sourced and replaced. Attention to detail counts for a lot here.

1972 Alfa Romeo GTV 2000

The GTV’s 2.0-liter DOHC 4-cylinder engine was rated at 130 hp and was fuel-injected, all the way back in 1972, giving the 2,200-lb car sparkling performance for the day. It wasn’t quite as fast as a 240Z, but very competitive with a BMW 2002. Not only that, the Alfa had real handling chops and a competition pedigree; its beauty was more than skin-deep.

1972 Alfa Romeo GTV 2000

The seller is asking $4,450. It sounds high, given the car’s decrepit condition, but consider that a nicely restored example can command $15,000 or more…

What do you think?

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Styling Misfires:
The 1989-1997 Ford Thunderbird

October 29, 2014 by Matt

Ford Thunderbird Beige

They never could figure it out.

The nose, I mean. They tried four times—four—over the course of the tenth-generation T-bird’s eight-year model run and still couldn’t get it right.

Sure, the various noses were representative of certain engine options and trim packages, and it’s common for automakers to tweak a car’s appearance based on the extras the buyer specifies, but still—it’s noteworthy that none of Ford’s fascia treatments of the ’89-’97 car is successful.

Ford Thunderbird Red

The design of the rest of the car isn’t much to write home about either. It clearly apes the proportions of the BMW E24 6-Series in profile—not a bad car to copy styling-wise—though with far less panache and character. That said, the lines are relatively straightforward, so it shouldn’t be that hard to pen a fascia that coheres with the rest of the car, right?

Ford Thunderbird Blue

What’s the issue? Simply put, the bumper is too big relative to the headlight-grille area. The bumper-to-grille ratio of the ’89-’97 T-bird’s inspiration, the BMW E24, is much more balanced and thus, successful. Compounding the problem is the fact that in two iterations of the car’s nose, prominent bumper intakes draw far too much attention to the ill-proportioned area, like a pimple on an oversized nose. Furthermore, the later “refresh” cars’ bumpers and headlights (shown above and at top) have a curvy, organic quality completely at odds with the boxiness of the rest of the car. There’s a huge disconnect.

Ford Thunderbird Blue

Arguably the most successful nose is that of the pre-refresh non-Super Coupe car, shown above. The area around the emblem is closed, and the visually-overpowering bumper intakes are absent. It’s more understated—but very bland, and still a long way from attractive.

Underneath the skin, the tenth-gen T-bird was a nice car, if a couple hundred pounds overweight. It was technically interesting, featuring independent rear suspension and the option of a supercharged V6 and 5-speed manual transmission. Later cars could be spec’d with the 4.6l SOHC version of Ford’s very competent Modular V8 engine, albeit only with an automatic attached to the back. It’s a shame the styling didn’t live up to the chassis and powertrain’s promise, contributing to the ’89-’97 car’s demise, and ultimately, except for the last-gasp, retro-themed ’00-’05 car, the end of Ford’s storied line of personal coupes.

Image credits: binatani.com, auctionsamerica.com, autoevolution.com

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series wherein we discuss unsuccessful cars whose styling was their overlooked (or denied) Achilles heel. Read the other installments here:

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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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