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Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Random Thoughts - Mazda Are Cool, Not All Crossovers Suck

Hipster Dacia Duster Pikes Peak had GT-R power before Nissan thought it was cool. Also rocks of varying heaviness.
As well as cars, I'm passionate about music. I like to think the variety in my music collection is diverse, with plenty of rock (with varying heaviness), some jazz, some classical, plenty of electric music, a few soundtracks and so on, and I make a point to only listen to good stuff. I don't care (or even know) who's in the charts, because it doesn't in any way mean that it's actually good. People just love to buy crap, you see, which is why Big Brother and US sitcoms get so much airtime (and so many rehashes) on TV. Anyway, while I have my prejudices about music, you'll occasionally stumble upon a song from a pop group or some drainpipe indie band in my collection. I know music like that is all the same, unimaginative, commercialised and various other things that make it wrong and bad, but sometimes you just can't help it. Sometimes it just sounds good to me and I don't care. As long as I don't start buying lots of the same kind of music, it's not the worst thing if I get one song by Black Eyed Peas or whomever.

It's the same with these crossover SUVs. I know they're bad for a number of reasons; They're too tall and heavy to be as agile or efficient as a "normal" car (although in this extreme genre-busting age we're in, I'm not entirely sure what "normal" is anymore...), but at the same time they're too low, often too front-wheel-drive and generally not adept enough at being off-roaders either. They're designed purely to make money and not to be more fun than a hatchback or to be actual mud-pluggers, or to be any more practical than the MPV segment so strongly threatened by their uprising. They're bought by idiots who thing big chunky cars are inherently safer than others - they're not - and they're bought by idiots who want to look more "rugged" or "cooler" or richer than people who buy more appropriate cars. Basically, they're stupid status symbols. I know this, I hope you know this, and my opinion on trendy lifestyle vehicles* will take some serious brute force to be changed. But, like an actually-bearable pop song, there seems to be an exception or two...

*After writing the EcoSport article, I worked out that it's going on sale in places where not all roads are tarmac, making extra ride height somewhat essential, and that it is indeed available with AWD. But still...

The one that inspired this article is the Mazda CX-5. The key thing about the CX-5 is, like all Mazdas are to some extent, it's good to drive. Apparently. This is the point where I wish I was a motoring journalist so I could back stuff like this up with experience, but TopGear Magazine (more sensible and trustworthy than the TV show) call it nice to live with, quiet, actually-quite-fun and say it controls body roll "impressively", which all sounds great. Not too bulky, and being bigger than a hatchback but slightly smaller than, say, a Mazda 6 estate, it's decently practical too, more so than a Ford Kuga or VW Tiguan. So it's actually useful and it's actually a nice car to drive. Good. But then, Mazda are good at that kind of thing. They are one of very few car companies who actually believe in their own slogan - "Zoom-Zoom" - and make efforts to live up to it. The Mazda 2, for example, is a criminally under-appreciated car, with the platform from the current Fiesta and a focus on light weight (t'is at least 100kg lighter than the previous 2, in fact) making it zippy and fun, aiming to put as big a smile on your face as it proudly wears on its front bumper, and wears without the creepy vibe provided by the bigger Mazda 3. Of all the Fiesta/Clio/Corsa-sized cars out there, this is the one most desperately crying out for a hot version, and yet it still hasn't come, perhaps cock-blocked by parent company Ford until the new Fiesta ST180 finally arrives in 2012/3. Then, of course, there's the MX-5, which needs no introduction. The best at what it does, and arguably the only new car truly doing "what it does" by being balanced, light and rear-wheel-drive at a low, low price. Like the 2, the current one also wears a big smiley face on the front to symbolise what it wants you to feel when you drive it. I like that.

However, their crowning achievement is still the RX line. Mazda have been the only company to make a success of the rotary engine (this is the bit where I say "Wankel" and you snigger like a child), with the RX-3 being the one to end the Nissan Skyline GT-R's dominance in Japanese racing and prevent the GT-R from scoring 50 successive wins, the RX-7 (FD) being the one to win the hearts of the Gran Turismo generation with its graceful, curvaceous body and pop-up headlights (although earlier RX-7s aped the Porsche 944, they also looked good) and light sporting focus, and the epic screaming monster that is the 4-rotor Mazda 787B remaining to this day not just the only Japanese car to win the Le Mans 24 Hours, but the only one to do so without a piston engine, when the incredibly brightly-coloured 700+bhp banshee fought hard to take the chequered flag in 1991. I heard the winning car run at Goodwood last year, and it sounds like a Formula 1 car with a gooey throat. It is also LOUD. And awesome. The RX-8? Well, I liked it, and so did others, but the 4-door coupé that arguably popularised "suicide doors" for a time (where the rear ones open backwards) wasn't as nimble or as powerful as the RX-7 it replaced, due to added weight and the lack of turbo. It also used a lot of oil and depreciated like a stone. Sadly, it was axed last year, although Mazda are now building 1000 more of the JDM-only 'Spirit-R' run-out special due to popular demand, which ought to encourage them as they develop two new rotary engines, one for a sports car and one as a range-extender, where its high bhp/litre and lightness/compactness are a bonus and its lack of torque is negated by it just spinning at a constant rpm away from the wheels. Rotary units are also very efficient at a constant speed. I wish them all the best, because they more than most mainstream car makers truly 'get it'. They stick to their beliefs and make them work (more so than SAAB ever did), and that's admirable.

Anyway, I've gone off-topic. Aside from the first two Subaru Foresters (sadly the Forester has now grown into a Mitsubishi Outlander-style 7-seater "SUMPV", as it were), and the Škoda Yeti, which TopGear can explain, the other small SUV of sorts that I like is the Dacia Duster. This isn't just because of the James May Effect (not the one where saying "Hello" a certain way instantly impregnates women, the other one that's about Dacias being Great News), but because it actually serves a purpose. It isn't just some chunky box, it's a practical all-terrain family car for a low budget. When Dacia launch in the UK it'll only be £11-14,000 and will come with petrol or diesel, manual or auto, 2WD or 4WD, brown or silver paint, the lot. Because it comes across as an automotive donkey in some ways, I kind of assume it'll be adept off-road, but there's no guarantee as it's based on a Nissan Juke. That said, it does have an AWD system with locking diffs, something I'm told is useful for climbing hills. No low-range gearbox, but it'll certainly help you when it snows or you have to park in a wet field. There's something very honest about it that you have to admire. It doesn't look stunning, but it looks good enough, and aesthetically suits its purpose. Of course, it also helps that it's been entered in both Trophée Andros and the Pikes Peak Hillclimb. When this comes out, parent company Renault will have no reason to continue producing the Koleos, which I don't think I've ever seen in the wild. Like, ever...

So there. I like small crossovers. But only those ones. Oh, and the Juke-R, but I'm not sure if that counts.

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