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  • 2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring

    Sports car for the real world

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata

    2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata

    The Mazda Miata is not a particularly practical car for buyers with active lifestyles. It’s very small, even for a two-seater and has a cargo area that on a good day will hold a dachshund. Visibility in dense traffic is atrocious, not because of the car itself but rather the fact that every other vehicle on the road is taller. Although fuel economy is quite good, the fuel tank is rather small so driving range isn’t great.

    Despite that, I doubt any athlete who gets behind the wheel of a Miata will have a bad word to say about it. Why? Because the Miata is one of the most athletic cars on the market, and also one of the most affordable true sports cars. With its peppy two-liter engine and close-ratio six-speed manual gearbox, the Miata is stupidly fun to drive. It is the Paul Tergat of the automotive world.

    When Mazda chief designer, Tom Matano, and his team developed the original MX-5 a quarter century ago, their inspiration was the classic British sports cars of the 1960s. The Miata was to capture the spirit of those cars but in a more affordable and dare I say more reliable package. They nailed it.

    Although the audience for MGBs and Triumph Spitfires has waned a bit in the ensuing years, enthusiasm for the Miata has not. As long as there are people who love to drive, there will be those who have a passion for the Miata. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Mazda3 Grand Touring

    Redesigned compact sedan with Skyactiv technology

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Mazda3

    2014 Mazda3

    Every time I drive a new version of the Mazda3, I think that the car can’t get any better, but it does, and in every respect. The 2014 model exceeds the 2012 car’s 40 mile-per-gallon fuel economy, with evolved styling, safety and infotainment features to boot.

    Best of all, it’s a hoot to drive, with ride and handling so good that it’s hard to believe base MSRP is less than $17,000. Buyers can opt for either four or five-door configurations. There is also a choice of engines, including the base two-liter four-cylinder block rated at 155 horsepower and a 2.5-liter 184-horsepower powerplant. Both are available with six-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmissions.

    The test car is the upscale Grand Touring model with the two-liter engine and automatic transmission, priced from $23,795. With the exception of a $70 cargo mat, the car is fully loaded, including 16-inch alloy rims, power driver’s seat, keyless entry and start, dual-zone climate control, satellite radio, touch screen display with navigation, Bluetooth phone and audio, Bose sound system and high-definition radio. Final MSRP including the $795 destination charge is $24,785. Read the rest of this entry »

  • Heels and Wheels 2013

    Annual conference puts women in the driver’s seat

    By Nina Russin

    Aston Martin DB9

    I feel like the Queen: not the one with the Queen wave and frumpy clothes, but rather a Pussy Galore queen with Sean Connery by my side, oozing sex appeal and confidence. I don’t typically have Pussy Galore hallucinations, but I don’t usually get behind the wheel of an Aston Martin DB9 either. The experience was the highlight of my trip to the third annual Heels and Wheels women’s automotive conference in Bend, Oregon

    Of course, there was a more serious aspect to the event, its primary focus being the buying power of women, which currently accounts for at least 50 percent of all new car purchases and up to 80 percent of car buying decisions.

    According to Kelley Blue Book research Toyota, Honda, Ford, Chevrolet, Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, Subaru, Mazda and Volkswagen are the most popular brands among female buyers. Women tend to favor crossover vehicles and SUVs over sports cars and pickup trucks, with models such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 topping the popularity charts.

    The internet has become the most popular source of information among women shopping for a new car, due partly to the unease with which many women approach dealerships. KBB visitors typically research a vehicle for two months, take about three more months for the purchasing process and keep their cars between 8 and 10 years.

    Connectivity features are playing a larger role in purchase decisions, with Bluetooth and GPS both included among must-haves. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Mazda6 Grand Touring

    Third-generation sport sedan gains Skyactiv technology

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Mazda6

    First the coffee group has to like the car. While most members are IT engineers, all but one are dedicated gearheads, owning an Audi TT RS, Mercedes-Benz CLS 500 and Porsche Cayenne between them. So when I see their collective noses smashed against the front window as I slip the Mazda6 into its parking spot, I take that as a positive sign.

    Turning heads isn’t the only thing the newest version of Mazda’s midsized sedan does well. It is also fuel efficient, averaging 34 miles-per-gallon on my 200-mile test drive. The 2.5-liter direct injection engine is powerful off the line, and the six-speed automatic transmission crisp and responsive.

    The sedan is also affordable, with a base sticker price of $20,880, excluding the $795 destination charge. The upscale Grand Touring model tested starts at $29,495. It comes loaded with comfort and safety features so there are very few options. Those on the test car include adaptive cruise control and smart city brake support, raising the final MSRP to $31,490. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2014 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring FWD

    Five-passenger crossover with fuel-saving technology

    By Nina Russin

    2014 Mazda CX-5

    The newest version of Mazda’s CX-5 compact crossover is the first to come with Skyactiv: the automaker’s proprietary fuel-saving technology. The theory behind Skyactiv is simple: build a better mousetrap. Internal combustion engines are inherently inefficient. About 40 percent of what goes into the gas tank goes to waste, due to incomplete combustion and internal pumping losses.

    The execution is a lot more complicated, since the relatively simple measures to improve efficiency took place with the advent of on-board engine computers. So the Mazda engineers dug deeper, making changes to the engine compression ratio, increasing the amount of time the automatic transmission uses a friction rather than fluid coupling, shaving weight off the chassis, etc.

    The result is impressive. The CX-5 Grand Touring model, that uses the larger of two available four-cylinder engines, averaged 29 miles-per-gallon on my 130-mile test drive.

    Being Mazda, it’s implied that none of this detracts from the car’s performance. The CX-5 is a hoot to drive, with plenty of power off the line, responsive steering and a crisp transmission.

    It’s also affordable. Base price for the test car is $27,620. A technology option package adds keyless entry and start, satellite radio, navigation, high-intensity discharge headlamps, smart city braking support and adaptive front lighting ($1625). The $795 delivery charge brings the final MSRP to $30,340. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2013 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring

    Skyactiv technology stretches gas mileage for five-passenger crossover

    By Nina Russin

    2013 Mazda CX-5

    Two years ago, Mazda introduced new fuel-economizing technology called Skyactiv. The idea was to improve efficiency for a traditional gasoline engine enough to be competitive with hybrids and diesels. Skyactiv, which first appeared on the Mazda3 compact hatchback and sedan, now comes to the 2013 CX-5 crossover.

    During my 200-mile test drive I averaged 31 miles-per-gallon: two better than the 29 mpg EPA estimate. With average temperatures well over 100 degrees, I ran the air conditioner throughout the week. On a road trip down to Tucson, I also fought 30 mile-per-hour crosswinds at speeds of 75 miles-per-hour. The elevation gain between Phoenix and Tucson is 1000 feet.

    Pricing for the base grade starts at $20,695. MSRP for the front-wheel drive Grand Touring model tested is $27,045 excluding the $705 delivery charge.

    The upscale model comes loaded with comfort and convenience features, including leather upholstery, keyless start, power driver’s seat, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel with redundant controls, TomTom navigation system, satellite radio and more. It also includes some advanced safety features such as blind spot monitoring and a rearview camera. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2012 Mazda3 Grand Touring Sedan

    Skyactiv technology boosts gas mileage to 40 mpg

    By Nina Russin

    2012 Mazda3 Sedan

    A refreshed exterior on the 2012 Mazda3 is just the appetizer: bigger changes under the hood include a brand new engine and transmission which give the compact sedan fuel economy comparable to some gasoline/electric hybrids. Engineers redesigned fuel nozzle jets and gave the new two-liter engine a compression ratio comparable to a race car: 12:1.

    The compression ratio indicates how much pistons compress the air-fuel mixture in the engine cylinders before the spark plugs light it up. A higher compression ratio makes the engine burn fuel more completely but can also lead to detonation. By changing the shape of the piston heads and shortening combustion times, engineers minimized the possibility of preignition, so the engine can run on regular gasoline as opposed to high-octane premium.

    The new engine, which is also 4.4 pounds lighter than the block it replaces, achieves 28 mpg in the city and 40 on the highway, according to EPA estimates, with a range of over 500 miles between fill-ups.

    In addition to its large overdrive gears, the new six-speed automatic utilizes a lockup torque converter with friction couplings to boost gas mileage. Engineers redesigned the manual transmission as well, making it lighter than the gearbox it replaces for similar fuel economy gains.

    But being Mazda, extending gas mileage wasn’t enough. The new powertrain had to satisfy the needs of the automaker’s core audience of driving enthusiasts. Having put 200 miles on the Mazda3 sedan, this writer believes that Mazda has fulfilled its mission. The newest version of its compact sedan maintains the responsive handling and peppy acceleration of its predecessors, at a price which won’t break the bank.

    MSRP for the upscale Grand Touring model is $22,300, excluding the $795 destination charge. A $1400 technology package adds blind spot monitoring, perimeter alarm, bi-xenon adaptive headlamps, satellite radio and rain-sensing wipers, bringing the price as tested to $24,495. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2012 Mazda5 Sport

    Mazda’s mini-minivan is big on versatility

    By Nina Russin

    2012 Mazda5

    Mazda’s new compact minivan epitomizes what active lifestyle vehicles are all about. It’s small enough to park on the street, fuel efficient and affordable. A versatile interior holds up to six passengers, as well as bicycles, camping equipment, skis, snowboards and wetsuits.

    Best of all, the Mazda5 is a hoot to drive, with a peppy 2.5-liter engine and six-speed manual transmission. The smiling grille says it all.

    While the front-wheel drive car doesn’t have the traction in rain and snow that an all-wheel drive crossover would, it’s a package that will fit the squares for a lot of readers, and their budgets as well.

    The minivan comes in three grades: Sport, Touring and Grand Touring. Base price on the Sport model tested is $19,195, not including the $795 delivery charge. The upscale Grand Touring model starts at $23,875.

    Standard comfort and convenience features on the Sport include remote keyless entry, dual-zone climate control, an AM/FM/CD audio system with satellite radio compatibility, steering wheel audio and cruise controls, and an auxiliary outlet for MP3 players. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2011 Mazda RX-8 Grand Touring

    Iconic Sports Car is Forever Young

    By Nina Russin

    2011 Mazda RX-8

    The Mazda RX-8 is as much a product of the 1960s as it is the twenty-first century. It is the only mass-produced car which uses a rotary engine, based on the design Felix Wankel developed in 1957. The engine uses a triangular-shaped rotor rather than reciprocating pistons to compress and ignite gasoline. The engine, which is shaped like a cocoon, is a fraction of the size of a traditional block; yet it can develop exceptional power.

    When I was a kid growing up in the 1960s, the Wankel engine was big news. I remember seeing one on display at the 1964 World Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York, and I also remember seeing its first production application, in the Mazda Cosmo 110S. I was amazed that such a small engine could produce so much power. Frankly, I still am.

    Even after the advent of computer controls, the rotary engine continues to outperform other engines of its size in terms of horsepower and torque. For example, the 1.5 liter engine is the Mazda2 develops 100 horsepower, as opposed to 232 horsepower from the 1.3-liter rotary Mazda RX-8 engine.

    There is a downside to the engine: that being fuel economy. In order to produce adequate power for a 3100 pound car, the rotary engine revs very high: about 3500-4000 rpm under normal driving conditions. Fuel economy for the test car is about 18 miles-per-gallon on average, and the high-revving engine requires premium gasoline. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2011 Mazda2 Touring

    Sporty subcompact hatchback for active urbanites

    By Nina Russin

    2011 Mazda2

    I have a big soft spot in my heart for little cars. Perhaps it’s because I’m a small person, or that I am, according to a colleague, a ‘raging greenie.’

    Being small in a big car world comes with sizeable challenges. Small cars need to keep up, in terms of both comfort and performance. They must be safe. And while they don’t offer the passenger or cargo capability of their bigger siblings, small cars need to have efficient interiors with enough versatility to meet their owners’ lifestyles.

    The 2011 Mazda2, a subcompact five-door hatchback, does all of the above surprisingly well. Power comes from a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 100 horsepower, and choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions.

    Despite the small engine size, power is ample, thanks to variable valve timing and the right software. Engineers smartly let the transmission hold onto gears and shift at higher engine speeds. The result is more linear acceleration and better torque. Read the rest of this entry »