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No Stickshift for New Z4:
What is BMW thinking?

December 23, 2018 by Matt

Buried in Car and Driver‘s report on the new BMW Z4 is this little gem of a statement:

Sadly, there is no manual-transmission option; a ZF eight-speed automatic will be the only transmission…

It’s not entirely unexpected given that the upcoming BMW 3-series, the G20, is equally bereft of a manual transmission option, but the fact that it isn’t even an option for the Z4 is utterly baffling to me. The new BMW roadster is positioned as the most driver-focused, most “compromised” car in the automaker’s lineup, so why shouldn’t every option that fosters driver engagement be at least available? Especially if the car’s primary targets—the Porsche 718 Boxster/Cayman twins—practically flaunt their third pedals by comparison…

What if tomorrow Mazda announced it was discontinuing the manual option on the MX-5 Miata? Or Toyota decided to pull the plug on the 86’s stickshift? I understand rowing your own gears is a dying art, and completely void of any kind of performance advantage the way it used to be. Still—if an automaker positions itself as the enthusiast’s choice; offers a model purporting to carry the top-down, classic roadster torch; and wants to maintain any kind of enthusiast cred whatsoever, it should develop a manual option for that model, even if the take rate is too low to make sense economically. Sell a few more X5s and you’ll break even, BMW.

The other thing that confuses the hell out of me is the fact that BMW offers a manual option with all 2-series models—an arguably less driver-focused and certainly more practical car than the Z4. But that could just be a “legacy transmission” BMW keeps on the option sheet until the next-generation 2-series bows a year or two from now…

The new Z4’s performance is irrelevant. I don’t care if it laps the ‘Ring five minutes faster than the old car, the steering brings back the classic BMW feel and the (admittedly turbocharged) I6 under the hood sings from the classic BMW engine hymnal—without a manual transmission option, it’s nothing more than a boulevardier, a car for retirees to cruise along the A1A at sunset with the top down. It’s a shame.

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What is BMW thinking?

Mazda’s New Ad Campaign Shines

September 15, 2015 by Matt

Mazda MX-5 Miata Ad Advert Advertisement Desert Track 2016 ND

Via Autoblog, I have next to no hope that this will gain them any traction with the buying public (of whom a vast majority are simply interested in basic transportation appliances instead of a vehicle they would actually enjoy to drive), but Mazda’s new marketing campaign resonates with enthusiasts. Supplementing their long-running “Zoom-Zoom” tagline, the automaker recently rolled out a new slogan: “Driving Matters.” Greeted by a collective “YES!” from car buffs everywhere, the new campaign explicitly reminds us how closely Mazda’s car-building philosophy aligns with our priorities in choosing and enjoying our vehicles.

And yet, as much as I want to preach Mazda’s slogan from the rooftops and shout it to the unenlightened masses, I realize that it takes more than just a fun-to-drive car to derive pleasure from the act of driving. The right road is an equally essential ingredient, and therein might lie another obstacle in the Japanese automaker’s attempts to convert their enthusiast-first philosophy into sales success. Put another way, it would do me no good to insist that a friend is selling himself short from a driving perspective by buying a boring car when his daily commute consists solely of 45 minutes of bumper-to-bumper traffic. He may heed my advice and buy something dynamically enjoyable, but have nowhere to use it aside from forays onto winding back roads. And those excursions take a level of intentionality even harder to expect from someone whom I’ve already had to convince to buy something he wouldn’t have normally chosen.

The antidote to all this, of course, is to build compromise-free cars; in other words, cars that function equally well whether being used as commuting appliances or back-road burners. And as Mazda’s recent string of comparison-test wins indicates, they’re the current undisputed masters of that formula (6 straight outright victories in Car and Driver alone). Here’s hoping their new ad push can bring more buyers around to that fact.

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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.

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The FT-1 Graphite

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.

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Finally: 2016 Mazda Miata Revealed

September 4, 2014 by Matt

2016 Mazda Miata ND Red

Yesterday evening, in a live-streamed event featuring an appearance by ’80s New Wave group Duran Duran, Mazda finally pulled the wraps off its long-awaited 4th-generation (ND) MX-5 Miata.

Other than a claim that Mazda managed to trim the evergreen roadster’s curb weight by an eye-opening 220 lbs, as of this writing, hard numbers like horsepower, torque or even engine displacement haven’t yet been disclosed, so all we have to really discuss at the moment is the way it looks and speculate based on what we can make out in the photos provided.

Chris Paukert has a nice writeup over at Autoblog, and the successful concealment of the ND’s appearance up until its premiere last night—in itself an amazing feat in our digitally-interconnected age—means that discussion of the car has glutted the automotive interwebz over the past day, so I’ll just volunteer a few observations:

2016 Mazda Miata ND Red

  • My initial thought when I first saw the new Miata’s face was, “Oh no; they’ve regressed to the smiley faces of Mazda’s previous design language.” But when I consider the car’s stylistic lineage, it’s easier to appreciate its front end design: All generations of Miatas have had a friendly, somewhat anthropomorphic fascia. And as much as I pine for the 1st generation’s pop-up headlights to remove some of the “grin,” I need to resign myself to the fact that they’re never coming back, and shelve my opinions about cars with faces.
  • The biggest change to the car’s styling compared to the third generation’s is obvious in profile: No longer a symmetrical front-to-back “bar of soap” shape, the Miata now has proper hips and much more cab-rearward proportions, even if the actual placement of various components hasn’t moved much. Other than giving the car a healthy dose of visual aggressiveness—but still playful, mind you—the more pronounced rear fenders give me renewed hope that a coupe version of the car could really be in the works this time around. A fastback design would be much easier to reconcile if the car’s hips “met it halfway,” so to speak, rather than requiring it to plunge all the way to a nearly flat decklid like the third generation’s.

2016 Mazda Miata ND Red

  • Also bolstering my hope for a coupe is the fact that Mazda has been mum on the subject of whether the NC’s folding hardtop will return. It’s difficult to imagine the automaker touting the ND’s 200+ lb weight reduction and then adding it all back with a heavy, complicated origami roof mechanism. The hardtop version of the NC was, for all intents and purposes, the “coupe” version of that car, and if Mazda doesn’t retain the concept for the 4th gen, it’s natural to imagine something has to fill that niche in the car’s list of options. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.
  • I agree completely with Paukert’s statement: “Largely free of adornments, I think this is a shape that will age well.” I love Mazda’s styling restraint with the new Miata, and the fact that they refrained from chintzing it up, instead letting the proportions do the visual work. The car will be instantly recognizable on the road—and that in a good way.
  • I wonder if the added bite of the ND’s looks will allow the Miata to once-and-for-all shed its popular image as a “hairdresser’s car?” As mentioned above, the styling expertly communicates a kind of lighthearted aggression, if you will, a rogue-ishness that may, with any luck, turn off the kind of folks who might buy a Miata for the same reasons one might acquire a toy chihuahua: For the image alone. With the departure—or at least attrition—of that group, maybe the 4th gen’s styling will allow the car to be seen more exclusively as a proper driver’s car by the general public? Hope springs eternal.
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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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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.

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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.

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4th-Gen Mazda Miata to Bow in 2015

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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The Only Question that Matters