Some folks study tea leaves. I read wrappers. Wrappers are what some folks call the automakers’ tactic of sprucing up moribund models with fancy raiment in hopes of reinvigorating market appeal. Reading wrappers is a way to reckon the future. What the two wrappers described below are telling me is that there’s a sales slump heading our wayin spite of present rosy conditions. Mazda’s hip MP3 and Chevy’s happ’nin’ Xtreme are unabashed glitter jobs meant to generate “buzz” and to tempt reluctant buyers into showrooms. After all, modern marketers are none too subtle in promoting hype over happenstance when they have an intimation that rough sailing lies ahead.
Mazda MP3 Protege
I’m about twice as old as the typical customer that Mazda is courting with this car. By the same token, I’ve also been double-clutching, clipping apexes, and throttle-steering longer than most of these whelps have even been alive. So it is simply not lost on me that this MP3 “factory hot rod” is indeed a faster-accelerating, flatter-cornering, better-looking version of the standard-issue Protegé.
Still, in halcyon times, the MP3 would never happen. Protegé is a fine carin some respects even a great car; and I’ve already said so on other occasions in this space. But Protegé is in a battle royal with archrivals like Honda Civic, Ford Focus, VW Golf. Meanwhile, economic storm clouds on the horizon suggest an impending “market correction” that will soon have all these contenders at each others’ throats. Mazda is first to throw down the gauntlet, first to unsheathe a secret weapon. The MP3 is Mazda’s calculated attempt to co-opt the sound and the fury of the import street-rod scene that currently monopolizes the attention spans of auto enthusiasts in their teens and early-20s.
The typical import rodder buys a compact car, massages engine performance with simple bolt-ons, stiffens the suspension, tarts up the exterior with wings and spoilers, and invests mightily in a ground-pounding stereo. With the MP3, Mazda does all that for you. The full body kit with wing, side skirts, and spoilers is Mazda’s, but the automaker hired aftermarket supplier Racing Beat to beef up front and rear spring rates, add larger stabilizer bars, and bolt on a stainless steel “cat-back” exhaust system (i.e., from the catalytic converter back to the rear tailpipe). Mazda’s own performance elves have tweaked the engine computer to raise standard horsepower to 140 hp from 130 hp, and standard torque to 142 ft.-lbs. from 135 ft.-lbs. Trick-looking Racing Hart alloy wheels wear sexy 45-profile Dunlop tires. The result is 30 percent more cornering capability and nearly 8 percent more horsepower.
Then there’s the auto world’s first-ever factory-installed, in-dash stereo receiver equipped to play MP3-encoded CD-Rs compiled on a PCin addition to conventional CDs and, of course, AM/FM radio. The Kenwood Excelon Z919 receiver is the heart of a 280-watt, four-channel system. There are four speakers and a 10-inch, 100-watt subwoofer that unapologetically commandeers about a third of the 13 cu.-ft. trunk. The sub-audible sonic pulse from this system alone should qualify as an alternative propulsion source. There’s even a two-stage security system built in: On the one hand, no one over 35 years old can possibly figure out how to operate the Excelon receiver in all of its multifarious modes, so you can forget about geezers trying to rip this thing out of the dash. On the other hand, the stereo-integrated alarm system on my tester kept me in constant vigilance at the window that overlooks my driveway. The alarm continually chirped, whistled, and wailed24/7 and completely at randomfor the entire week that the MP3 was a guest at my home.
In exchange for $18,656, Mazda offers hot-rod wannabes what is arguably the first-ever “turnkey solution” for a custom-looking, moderately modified combo street racer and rolling boom box. If indeed storm clouds are threatening to dampen automotive sales in the near future, perhaps the cockpit of Mazda’s MP3 is an appropriate place for a little singing in the rain.
Chevrolet Blazer Xtreme
Chevy’s Xtreme version of its time-tested Blazer SUV pushes the limits of what is both practical and desirable. With the arrival of Chevrolet’s new, larger Trailblazer, which will eventually replace four-door versions of the venerable Blazer, perhaps General Motors’ marketers are determined to eke one last promotional gasp out of the two-door two-wheel-drive model. Xtreme apparently represents their best shot.
Xtreme is a factory low-rider in the same way that Mazda’s MP3 is a factory street-rod. Except it’s impossible for a factory vehicle to conform to the low-rider dress code while still meeting safety regulations and reliability standards. So Xtreme suffers the ignominy from the outset of being a poseur.
Yes, the window sticker says there’s a “Z87 ‘Low Riding’ Sport Suspension,” but since it clears curbs and speed bumps, it’s an impostor. That’s not a bad thing, of course, for real-world driving, especially considering the Xtreme’s flashy, low-hanging side skirts and front spoiler. The 60-profile Goodyears on custom-looking wheels provide a nice finishing touch. But for a vehicle that stickers at $25,370 as-tested, you’d expect to be able to see out the rear side windows. Yet this two-door Blazer has two angled C-pillars that make views of the rear corners almost as impossible as trying to get passengers into and out of the rear bench seat through doorways that are entirely too narrow.
Kids may put up with these kinds of inconveniences, as long as they’re rich kids with $25-grand to blow on a make-believe factory low-rider. As for anybody else being willing to rank the Blazer Xtreme ahead of so many smarter, more sophisticated, occasionally cheaper SUV contenders out there, well, that’s xtremely unlikely.
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