Photos by Mazda.
This was supposed to be a “Speed Read” featuring Mazda’s new CX-5 crossover, and then it was going to be a two-part Speed Read so that I could include a new SKYACTIV-equipped Mazda3i Touring 5-Door. Instead, after reflecting on a long weekend with Mazda at the Baltimore Grand Prix, I’m going to use this space to talk a little more about the company whose support for automotive enthusiasts cannot possibly be overstated.
2%. That’s Mazda’s current U.S. market share, give or take a few tenths. The auto manufacturer that just years ago was a “jewel” in the Ford crown and one of the most profitable brands in the blue oval empire, has recently faced declining market share and financial uncertainty.
This “job” affords me the luxury of driving all sorts of cars from a wide range of manufacturers, from inexpensive Kia subcompacts all the way up to full-sized Porsche sedans.
Despite this diversity, I’m always happy when I hear that I’ll be getting Mazda’s press cars. From the humble Mazda2 all the way up to the CX-9, they’re always a blast to drive. The current MX-5 Miata, much maligned for its alleged softness compared to previous generations, is still one of the best driver’s cars in the world, bar-none, delivering 80% of the experience of driving a Porsche Boxster for less than 50% of the purchase price. That’s no accident. Mazda just knows how to build a fun car.
It should go without saying that Mazda does more than just build road cars This is something dismissed almost out of hand by fans of its competitors. That may be due in part to how frequently Mazda trumpets the depth of its participation in motorsports as part of its advertising campaigns, but to dismiss it as nothing more than marketing buzz or computational trickery is ridiculous.
And you’d be foolish to assume that Mazda is simply referring to the thousands of Spec Miata competitors buzzing around club racing circuits every year. Indeed, at the Baltimore Grand Prix, Mazda racers or series alumni made up the plurality of drivers at the event—Indycar and ALMS included. You’re reading that correctly… of all the feeder series and programs out there for new drivers, more came to Baltimore, whether directly or indirectly, as a result of a Mazda-sponsored professional driving series than any other educational program. From the USF2000 and Star Mazda series right on up to the Firestone Indy Lights and the boys and girls in the big show, Mazda’s hardware was on the pavement and their graduates were in the cars. No other manufacturer, especially in America, promotes and facilitates racing on the scale that Mazda does. Period.
This is the sort of thing that counts with us here at SSL. We’re racers and race fans and weekend road warriors, so we appreciate it when manufacturers enable our addiction. So it’s strange that I haven’t dedicated a lot of space to Mazda’s corporate situation here at SSL. It’s stranger still when you consider that the first piece I ever wrote for Speed:Sport:Life was about our 2005 Mazda RX-8, the first press car I ever reviewed was a 2010 Mazda3i Touring, the first car I ever took to the track was my 2006 Mazda6s 5-Door, and the first project car I bought myself was my 1990 MX-5. I’ve written columns about Chrysler and Volkswagen, about Ford and even General Motors, but never about Mazda.
Unfortunately, it’s the fun that has burned Mazda to a degree. Fun alone can’t build volume. Hell, as Porsche has proven, fun and exclusivity still aren’t always enough. The aforementioned Miata may be the most successful small roadster in modern history, but Mazda only sells a few hundred of them every month. The RX-8 was even less prolific over its eight-year run. To make matters worse, neither of these cars puts a premium on fuel economy. Sure, a delicately-driven Miata can hit 30mpg on a highway cruise, but when you consider that Ford’s 300hp, V6-powered Mustang can do better, that’s a hard pill to swallow. Even the turbocharged, direct-injected Mazdaspeed3 can’t match that with any regularity.
It’s a malady that has impacted their lineup from top to bottom. When Mazda refreshed the 3 lineup for the 2010 model year, the only trim with an EPA highway rating above 30mpg was the i 4-Door, with its 148hp, 2.0L engine. As you can imagine, that simply won’t cut it in today’s market. It’s easy to understand then what the new SKYACTIV philosophy represents for Mazda, and why it has been so well received by the automotive press as a whole.
While we’re happy to get good gas mileage, it’s really incidental to the driving experience. So what’s really remarkable to us is that the new SKYACTIV models are still thoroughly Mazda, and that Mazda is still embracing “fun to drive” as the core of their marketing strategy.
Consider this: When I requested a CX-5 presser in June, I had my sights set on a local club autocross. Most manufacturers would flinch at the first sign of a performance driving event, especially for a crossover, but Mazda’s reps embraced it without hesitation. If only Honda had been so enthusiastic about my Crosstour review. And it’s to the Mazda’s credit as much as to my own that the “underpowered” CX-5 finished a healthy ten cars out of last place. If you could ask that E92 M3 owner how he felt about beating a 155hp, 3,200lb crossover by just a hair over two-tenths, I imagine his reply would be accompanied by a bit of a scowl.
Since driving the CX-5 back in the summer, I’ve had the opportunity to try out Ford’s most direct competitor, the 1.6L EcoBoosted Escape, and the Mazda is the Ford’s better in almost every way. Mazda’s in-car entertainment and navigation tools may be lagging Ford’s, but when it comes to the chassis and power train, CX-5 slaughters the heftier, softer Escape. The extra torque from the Escape’s turbocharged motor goes unappreciated due to the extra weight it carries around, and when the roads start to twist, the Mazda’s lithe frame and edgier suspension tune give it every advantage in the world. The Escape might edge out the CX-5 from 0-60, but not by much, and certainly not enough that it’s worth the handling penalty.
Mazda’s new 3 and CX-5 are both fantastic cars. They’re quiet, they’re comfortable and they’re fun to drive. They don’t rely on gimmicks like super aggressive throttle tip-in or enormous factory wheels to convey sportiness; they’re just sporty. The Mazda3i 4-Door I drove earlier in the year had snow tires on it, in fact, and still handled beautifully even in mild early spring weather.
I won’t reiterate the nitty-gritty details of SKYACTIV at this point. You’ve seen the praise and heard the hype. All I can say is that you should believe every word of it. Both of these cars deliver excellent driving experiences and significantly improved efficiency over their outgoing equivalents, all the while throwing out some of the pointless tuning trends that enthusiasts have trash-talked since the industry fully migrated to drive-by-wire. In short, they still drive like Mazdas, even if they don’t drink gas the way cars built by the last remaining defender of the Wankel engine often do—all of the upsides, none of the downsides.
It’s with these two cars, and the new 6 to come, that Mazda is looking to claw their way back into the mainstream car buyer’s consciousness again—to break out of that 2% niche and rebuild the brand. And we’ll be pulling for them, because like Mazda, we enthusiasts are a minority. And like many race fans, we enjoy a good underdog story.
Mazda provided the CX-5 and Mazda3 SKYACTIV models for the purposes of this review. Big thanks to Katie Orgler and Shawn Roberts of the Mazda Sports Car Club of Washington for hosting an excellent event. Thanks to Mazda for hosting us at the Grand Prix.