Tuesday, March 5, 2013

First Drive Review: 2014 Mazda 6 Grand Touring

If you read Red's last post, you already know there is one big problem with the new Mazda 6; its lack of a more powerful engine than its base 184 hp 2.5 liter Skyactiv-G four cylinder.  And really, that's about the worst thing you'll read in this review.  Mazda appears to have moved past their habit of creating more problems by fixing others, and has fixed everything about the 6 except for that one, glaring issue.
Don't get me wrong, the 2.5 Skyactiv is a fantastic base engine.  It's relatively smooth and quiet, and makes good torque for a four; 34 lb/ft of torque better than the flat four in Subaru, Toyota, and Scion's FT-FR-GT-BRZ-II-S-86.  And, unlike that car, Mazda has resisted the urge to boost the throttle input on stepoff, which would give the driver a false sense of power that isn't there.  In fact, the throttle itself is clearly a place Mazda put forth a lot of effort, taking a few pages from VW's book and improving upon the design.  Like a VW, the pedal is floor mounted. Also like a VW, there is a detent at the end of the pedal's travel.  Most people who buy a new 6 will probably never know that they have only experienced 90% of the engine's power.  For those of us who care about such things, however, Mazda's new throttle system is pretty cool.  Stomp all the way down on the pedal and the the 6's voice changes.  The intake snarl turns from an upset house cat, to a furious wolverine whose young are threatened.  Toggling back and forth between 100% and 90% makes the sound difference very evident.
Helping make the best use out of the average power is the six speed Skyactiv Drive automatic transmission.  It's not a dual clutch or anything fancy, it's a slushbox with some tricks up its sleeve.  Most automatics slip the torque converter about 50% of the time for smooth operation.  The Skyactiv drive locks up about 80% of the time.  It actually feels like a dual clutch gearbox, without the bucking.  Shifts are smooth and accurate, and the shift paddles respond quickly and efficiently.  When coming to a stop, the transmission shifts into neutral to further save gas, and has the added bonus of cutting down vibration.  Let your foot off the brake and it goes right back into gear.  The typical midsize buyer will never notice.
Mazda has succeeded in making a car that will appeal to both enthusiasts and non enthusiasts alike.  When driving around town, the 6 is remarkably quiet and smooth, with little to no indication that this is a car that likes to play.  The suspension is taut but not overly so.  The rest of the Japanese auto makers could learn a thing or two about ride-handling balance from Mazda here.  There's a sort of Germanic planted feeling mixed with an athletic Japanese lightness to the way it pours itself down the road.  It responds to changes in direction as if its muscles are tensed and ready to go, though steering feel is a bit lacking.  Mazda's Electro-Hydraulic Power Assisted Steering (EHPAS) is one of the best electric systems in the business, but it still can't quite match the feel of a sorted fully hydraulic unit.  Still though, it responds with enough urgency to make up for it, and the steering wheel's diameter is sportingly small.
As I said before, the 2.5 Skyactiv is a good engine.  The Mazda 6 deserves a great engine, however.  The chassis is solid and sporty, the steering is sharp, the responses deliberate.  In my humble opinion, a V6 would not improve this car, nor would a turbocharged four cylinder.  What it really needs, is an engine with a little more grit and soul; something a bit higher strung.  With Honda giving the Civic Si a bigger engine and lower redline, the market is sadly devoid of high revving, naturally aspirated engines.  Such an engine would elevate the 6 from greatness to best-ness.  With a more aggressive cylinder head and valvetrain, it's not unreasonable to expect 220 hp and an 8000 rpm redline, without the added complexity of a turbo, or the added weight of a V6.  That is the kind of engine the 6 deserves.  Unfortunately, What Mazda has done, is put running shoes on a gazelle.  The engine is just at odds with what is otherwise a perfect midsize sedan.
Still though, I'd rather deal with a lack of power, than a host of other foibles.  For that, I applaud Mazda.  Unlike Suzuki, Mitsubishi, and, to a lesser extent, Subaru, who all seem to be struggling with a changing market, Mazda is not sacrificing their identity to stay relevant.  Rather, they are defining and refining it.  As an enthusiast, I look forward to seeing Mazda mature and settle into their niche.  Stay tuned.

Tesla’s Government Fueled Innovation Is What Electric Cars Need

I want to talk about the Tesla Model S today.  First, I think it is a great car and the amount of controversy it is creating is only a testament to how good it really is.  Is it heavily subsidized?  Yes, it is, but it needs to be.  It is a good investment for our government to be making because it is the best path for the government to achieve it’s goal of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.  But the Model S brings up another very good question: why is it that a Silicon Valley start-up company can build such a good electric vehicle when highly funded automotive corporations seem to be still spinning their wheels, pardon the pun, with hybrids and plug-ins that can barely travel forty miles on batteries alone.

I won’t go into too much detail about the technical specifications of the Tesla Model S but they are quite astounding.  I will focus on the highest end of the spectrum since the vehicle is available with three different batteries and two motor choices.  The top model of Tesla Model S comes with an 85 kw/h battery that can provide a range of 265 miles before recharging but also is available with a 443 horsepower motor.  So unlike the “eco” offerings of other manufacturers, the Tesla offers performance on top of using no fuel.  It is quick to say the least, returning a 4.0 second run to 60 and a 12.4 second run in the quarter mile.  For a massive, nearly 5,000 pound sedan, these numbers are nothing short of astounding.  Of course, getting those astounding numbers costs cash, $105,000 in cash, but the Tesla offers luxury and performance that buyers purchasing that much car would expect.  If that is too much, the Model S can be had for as little as $58,000 but with a penalty in range and performance.

So it offers great numbers on paper, but it’s expensive.  But how expensive is it really?  If we look at the closest mass market competitor, the Nissan Leaf, we can see that in reality the full electric offerings from major are nearly the same in price.  The Leaf comes out to around $37,000 before tacking on options and offers a third of the power and a third of the range of a base Tesla S.  Ford’s Focus EV sells for $40,000 and can’t offer the range or power either.  So the question exists, is it worth the extra money to not have to drive a toaster with a motor?

The picture starts to paint itself more completely when one considers that history has shown that the major automakers don’t want electric vehicles to catch on.  They want them to be viewed as the expensive counterpart to gas powered vehicles that cannot travel outside the city because the alternative is that electric powered cars could overpower the gas powered market.  So when a major automaker releases an electric only version of their volume sellers, the vehicle perpetuates all of the worst stereotypes about electric cars.  Let’s have a look at Ford’s Ecoboost engine line.  The goal is to offer high, instant torque with high fuel economy.  This is supposedly what the market is begging for.  You know what else offers good economy with high, instant torque?  Electric motors.  In fact, the economy is higher and the torque is more instant.  The electric motor is what the market is begging for.  So instead of spending all that R&D to develop a turbo engine with all the same characteristics of an electric car, why not put that effort into better batteries?  With better battery technology, all but the cars sold to purists would become electric, in other words, every single volume seller.  If someone could get 300 horsepower and still be able to travel nearly 300 miles before having to recharge for a reasonable price, why would they ever want to buy a gasoline powered car again?

Do I want electric cars?  Frankly, yes I do and I think that Tesla and companies like it are the answer.  We cannot rely on our existing major companies as they would effectively shoot themselves in their own foot to do it.  Competition is always good in the market and I think that adding electric cars to the mix would have a side effect of actually bring gasoline prices down.  Supply would remain the same while demand would go down.  I personally would use an electric vehicle as a daily driver.  I never go on single trips longer than a couple hundred miles.  But I will not be punished for having one.  I want 250 horsepower and 200 miles.  The tech exists, it just needs to get affordable.