What I'm Driving At 

Missing combination

Missing combination

The fact that my wife and I courted in her ’80 Mazda 626 has nothing to do with it, I’m sure. After all, it was a nice enough car for the time—but not for the place. That car had no air conditioner, and we were in Nashville during the summer. Surely that tells you something.

No, I think I can safely say that sentiment has nothing to do with my admiration for Mazda motor cars. Instead, as an enthusiast, I have watched professionally and experienced personally the way Mazda has fought for its piece of the automotive turf, earning a grudging respect as the struggling baby sister to Japanese dynamos Toyota, Honda, and Nissan. Buffs will no doubt remember when Mazda was a mere curious eccentric, associated with offbeat technology in the form of the Wankel rotary engine. Although it reached an apotheosis of sorts in the arrival of Mazda’s now defunct RX-7 mini-supercar, rotary technology never became the magic bullet that Mazda thought it should be. It turned out to be just odd; and now, for all intents and purposes, it is also departed.

While its Wankel hopes were wilting, however, Mazda seemed to discover sometime in the mid-’80s that it didn’t need exotic technology to differentiate itself from the competition; it just needed to be itself. Somewhere in the subconscious of the company’s corporate psyche there resided a distinctive animus that expressed itself in cars atypical of the Japanese norm. Mazda’s ride, the layout and feel of its interiors, the crisp acceleration of its (average-powered) piston engines all gave Mazda cars a different attitude. While other Japanese models were mostly bland, Mazda cars were spirited. While other Japanese models emphasized affordability, Mazda offered zesty performance that didn’t cost extra. Although equipped and priced comparably with the competition, Mazda cars “felt” nimbler and quicker—even though, for the most part, they weren’t.

Of course, when the Miata appeared to rave reviews in the summer of ’89, the two-seater roadster quickly became the corporate emblem for the Mazda mentality. But the Miata represents only about 25 percent of the sales of the company’s volume-leading mid-size sedan, the 626. There was more at stake, therefore, when Mazda refurbished its 626 for the ’93 model year and promoted the results as a sports sedan. Four years later, it’s clear that the sporty characterization has endured the hype and remains appropriate. The car feels (dare one say!) European. It looks trim and smart. It seats five more comfortably than most, especially for passengers in back. So why are sales dropping like a stone?

To be exact, sales of the 626 were off almost 12 percent last year, while the Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Lumina, and Honda Accord all posted 9- to 12-percent gains. Tellingly, sales of Ford’s star-crossed rival, the Contour, are also lackluster, posting no growth from ’95 to ’96. What gives? All these care are made in the U.S. and range in price from the high teens to the low 20s. Can it be any coincidence, then, that the two sportiest of the bunch—the two that best exhibit the European characteristics of tight suspensions and firm seating—are the Contour and the 626? Cars that drive and feel like Mazda’s sports sedan are typically referred to as “driver’s cars”; but we seem to have entered a phase in which a passenger’s mind-set is making the buying decisions—even for the person sitting behind the steering wheel.

What I’m driving at is that contemporary American buyers seem to have downgraded the status of the car from partner to servant. Whereas the Mazda 626 rewards a driver with its cornering agility, it features a firm ride in order to do so. For the driver who enjoys cornering, then, the four-wheel independent suspension under this sport sedan makes a pleasant experience out of getting the job done. But for the less “interactive” driver who’s just looking for a ride somewhere, a firm suspension is, literally, a harsh reminder that the lowly commute is a daily drudge.

Ironically, the aficionado driver can accommodate the fact that the Mazda’s base 114 horsepower is low man on this category’s totem pole. (An optional 164 HP V6 is available, however, to those who will not be denied.) But what matters in a “driver’s car” is a motor’s responsiveness to throttle commands at speed, which isn’t the same as straight-line acceleration from a standing stop. In the four-cylinder 626—even when it’s equipped with a four-speed automatic transmission—it’s possible to stay right in the power band while braking, cornering, and accelerating with all the brio of, well, a sports sedan. That’s the point. But given that most drivers don’t know how—or don’t want—to do this, they tend to compensate for their more banal, point-and-squirt driving techniques by opting for extra power underhood. And that, perhaps, explains in part why buyers are overlooking this Mazda.

The interior of the 626 reflects the intention of its overall design. Upholstery is taut and firm—but decidedly not overstuffed. It’s a working cockpit, albeit a comfortable one; it is not a living room. A new $2,100 appearance package option just for the four-cylinder LX model features leather seating accents and a moonroof inside. These enhance the driving experience rather than distract from it the way that extra cup-holders or power outlets or push buttons are prone to do in competing models. Outside, the package’s two-tone paint and chrome-plated wheel covers (a.k.a. hubcaps) make a more questionable contribution to the sedan’s otherwise poised, athletic demeanor.

You’d think, in this much-vaunted global marketplace, that the Mazda 626 had all the right credentials: It’s a Japanese nameplate, made in America, with a European driving feel. Indeed, for drivers who get behind the wheel to drive—not just to “get there”—the 626 makes all the right impressions. For a much larger number of car commuters, however, Mazda’s sports sedan is simply a mixed bag of elements that just don’t jibe with their less demanding expectations. It’s as if all the pieces were there, but not in the right combination.

Off the floor

A look at the local auto scene

Location, re-location, new location

Crest Honda is finally pulling up stakes, according to president Michael Kitzmiller, and moving to MetroCenter from its current location on Murfreesboro Road. By the spring of ’98, the Honda franchise, which Crest purchased from Capitol in November ’95, will move to a 10-acre site beside Crest Cadillac just southeast of Fountain Square. Be on the lookout soon for the announcement of another possible defection from the Murfreesboro Road auto corridor.

Meanwhile, Bloodworth Motorsports, the BMW motorcycle dealer and import auto service facility located on 27th Avenue North, will be moving to new quarters on White Bridge Road, according to owner David Bloodworth. West-side residents will recognize the new site as the current home of the venerable Brookside Mower & Equipment Co. Plans for the move coincide with the stunning announcement last week that BMW’s motorcycle division is entering the high-profile, high-dollar “cruiser” market currently dominated by Harley-Davidson and the various Japanese look-alikes.

High on the hog

Not to be outdone, Phil Chamblee at C&S Harley-Davidson is gritting his teeth in hopes of meeting a July deadline for completion of a major expansion at his 46th Avenue dealership. Plans are to increase the size of this little corner of Hog Heaven by more than 40 percent, enlarging the current 22-bike showroom to accommodate more than 60 motorcycles; service facilities will also increase threefold. Why the rush? Chamblee has been tapped to host a VIP reception the week of July 27, when Harley-Davidson cruises into town for its combined national dealer meeting and 95th Birthday Bash. The C&S dealership has garnered a number of architectural awards for its distinctive Art Deco Diner appearance, designed by Buddy Ferguson, partner in the Nashville-based Cochran Ferguson Smith Architects.

Something new, something old, something recalled

Saab will field a new player in the competitive touring car category with its recently revealed 9-5 performance sedan. The “nine-five” will feature turbo-V6 power, five-passenger seating, and (for Saab) aggressive exterior styling. Thoroughbred’s Robin Guidicy says the car will be introduced this fall as a ’98-model, with showroom deliveries to begin next spring.

Mercedes is commemorating the longevity of its luxury roadster category by releasing special 40th-anniversary editions of its SL320 and SL500 models. In homage to the famed 300SL, which first appeared in 1957, these two exclusive ’97 models will feature special appearance and interior packages in editions limited to 250 nationwide for the SL320 and limited to 500 for the SL500. Customer deliveries will begin in May.

After one of the most elaborately choreographed new-model introductions in years, Chevrolet has recalled its fifth-generation “C5” Corvette for replacement of an improperly heat-treated control arm in the sports car’s rear suspension. Fortunately, only 1,400 models are affected and, of those, most are still at dealerships, since the new ’Vette was only on sale for two weeks before Chevy engineers discovered the problem.

Dealer news and other views are invited by fax at 385-2930 or via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com.

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