When you go into a restaurant or bar in, say, France or Italy, you’ll undoubtedly discover that you can order the house wine and it will be both comparatively cheap and comparatively wonderful. But when you go to a gas station, you’ll discover that the number of euros that you’re paying for a liter of gas is enough to make you want to go back into aforementioned bistro.
One of the consequences of high gas prices throughout western Europe is that there is an array of small cars that have plenty of style. Panache. Capability.
Sure, we may see the large German executive sedans, but what is the number of executives in any given organization as compared with the people who actually do the work? And there are also the sport sedans that allow drivers to pass people on the Autobahn and to carve their way through precipitous mountain passes with élan, but, again, how many people spend a considerable amount of time driving in conditions where they only wish they could go fast enough to get somewhere near the speed limit, and what is the percentage of people who drive through the Alps versus flatlanders?
All of which is to say that the real action is in the small car category. Regular people (that’s as in you and me) buy those cars in Europe, which is why there are impressive compact Peugeots and VWs and Renaults and Fiats.
Given that these smaller cars are as mainstream as midsize cars are in the U.S., one consequence is that the automakers, knowing that this is where they’re going to make money because this is where the action is, charge what may seem to be high vis-à-vis what we would pay for a small car in the U.S. Of course, before there were efforts like “One Ford,” where cars that were developed for Europe were found on the roads of America, most U.S. small cars were, to use a term that is insufficiently strong but an indicator of where I am going with this, crap. That’s because in the U.S. for a long time, small cars were pretty much an after-thought. (Consider the greatest number of entries on the GM recall list and you’ll discover that it doesn’t consist of pickups and SUVs or large Buicks and Cadillacs, but things like the Cobalt and Ion. Clearly, not top-of-mind cars for the corporation.)
This is a long way around to get to what is my point about the 2014 Mazda3 Grand Touring Five Door. It reminds me of a European car. Small, nimble. And I would argue that it is by far the most stylish compact out there. And it is priced like a European car, too. The base MSRP for the vehicle I had is $26,495, and once the options were added in, with the biggest number coming from the Technology Package that adds a considerable amount of advanced content (e.g., regenerative braking; lane departure warning; adaptive cruise control) such that the $2,600 almost seems like a bargain (seriously), I was looking at a sticker reading $30,415.
You can most certainly buy a bigger car for that money. But I think you would be hard pressed to buy a better car for that money.
As mentioned, the design is the sort of thing that one might associate with a concept car, something where there are lines and shapes in the sheet metal that you figure are simply one-offs for a display, but there’s the car, ready to go with the panels stamped, welded and painted.
Inside, the trim level brings leather trimmed sport seats which are supportive while still being comfortable, pushbutton start, rear seats that fold down so there is a fairly capacious cargo capacity (47.1-cu. ft.), paddle shifters, and more. The materials are class-above in their quality.
I took the car on a run down I-75 to Cincinnati and back and found that the car is solidly planted, not buffeted by the string of semis, and the 184-hp engine more than capable of providing the power to really move the car when needed (e.g., like pulling out of one of those seemingly endless construction zones). In addition to which, I averaged 35 mpg, which is better than the sticker combined number (32 mpg), and while I never saw the 38 mpg highway, I also pretty much found the car to be performing above the 28 mpg city number.
There are car companies that are talking about “transformation,” and several of them seem to just be talking. But clearly, with a car like the Mazda3 (and the Mazda6), Mazda is undergoing an impressive transformation, one that is providing consumers with cars that look as cool as they drive. While I’m guessing that the car would do well on the Autobahn and wending its way through mountain passes, for those of us on Wooster Pike and I-275, it does exceedingly well, too.
Engine: 2.5-liter four
Horsepower: 184 @ 5,700 rpm
Torque: 185 lb-ft @ 3,250 rpm
Materials: Aluminum block and head
Transmission: Six-speed, electronically controlled
Steering: Electric power assisted
Wheelbase: 106.3 in.
Length: 175.6 in.
Width: 70.7 in.
Height: 57.3 in.
Coefficient of drag: 0.28
Seating capacity: 5
EPA: mpg city/highway/combined: 28/38/32 mpg
Thomas Keller is the man who established The French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, California. Even though it has been in operation since 1994, Chef Keller’s creation is as difficult to get in today as it was back in the day.
Keller’s culinary skills are well acknowledged. Here he is at work:
What’s interesting to note, is that Keller, in the picture, is working at a dinner hosted by BMW last week during the Pebble Beach Concours d ’Elegance in Carmel, California.
What’s even more interesting to note is that Keller was performing his artistry in relation to his becoming one of the first people to get delivery of the BMW i8 plug-in hybrid sports car:
Others receiving the car in this first batch in the U.S. includes Roger Penske, chairman of Penske Corp., Penske Automotive Group, and Team Penske, and Tony Fadel, founder and CEO of Nest, which Google purchased earlier this year for $3.2-billion.
Even though the i8—which is a carbon-fiber-intensive vehicle that accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds, has a governed top speed of 4.2 seconds, and which also is rated at 76 MPGe—has an MSRP of merely* $135,700, clearly the list of those receiving the cars is as difficult to get on as an 8 pm reservation on a Friday night at The French Laundry.
*Relatively speaking, that is.
I was recently talking with the company’s treasurer about the challenges facing OEMs in regards to meeting the 54.5 mpg CAFE requirement by 2025 and the various lightweighting and alternative powertrain technologies that are being developed and deployed.
And being the good money steward he is, he brought to my attention an item from a CPA and advisory firm, Battelle Rippe Kingston on R&D credits that manufacturers may be able to get from local, state or the federal government.
According to the firm, “R&D” isn’t simply about researching and developing things (e.g., batteries or new materials), but actually manufacturing operations.
Battelle Rippe and Kingston write:
“Examples of automotive initiatives that may be eligible for R&D tax incentives include:
All of which is to say that the road to 2025, while it won’t be smooth and will involve, undoubtedly, many detours along the way, can conceivably somewhat less expensive than might have otherwise been thought, at least vis-à-vis taxes.
The automotive fascination with platinum is rather interesting. No, not the use of the metal in catalytic converters, but as the trim level of a vehicle that’s at the upper strata.
Which is somewhat interesting given that the name of the element comes from the Spanish word platina, which means “little silver.” Silver, incidentally, is number 47 on the Periodic Table. Platinum is further along at 78, with iridium (no, not the satellite communications company) on one side and gold on the other.
Earlier this week, Cadillac announced that in the fourth quarter it will be rolling out with the 2015 Escalade Platinum, which includes things like Nappa semi-aniline leather for the first and second row seats, a cooled center console to keep beverages chilled, and a unique grille mesh design.
Earlier this week on this site, you may have noticed the review of the Platinum trim of the Toyota Tundra pickup.
And back in June, Ford announced that there is a Platinum trim level for the 2015 Expedition (again, one of the key aspects is a high-end leather; leather is not an element, by the way). Ford has been offering a Platinum F-150.
While there are a couple problems with it—like it is radioactive and it is not easy to spell—if some automotive marketer was really clever, they’d come out with an “Ununoctium” trim level.
Presumably the whole Platinum thing is about exclusivity. According to the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, since 2006, “only a few atoms of ununoctium have ever been produced.”
That is a whole lot more exclusive and rare than a special set of 22-inch wheels.
Although steel producers seem to be taking it on the chin of late from aluminum, word out of Stuttgart ought to be somewhat encouraging to them. That is, Mercedes has announced that starting next month, steel pistons will be installed in the Mercedes-Benz E 350 BlueTEC engine.
Previously, aluminum pistons were used in the diesel engine.
And now it is going to steel.
The aluminum piston is on the left and the steel on the right. Turns out for diesels, smaller can be better.
While you might think that steel would be the norm for diesel engines, where there is tremendous pressure involved in the compression ignition, that is the case for commercial vehicles, but not cars, where aluminum pistons have come to the fore.
But Mercedes engineers started examining steel and determined that there is a potential benefit of using steel pistons within aluminum engine blocks, where the bores are coated by NANOSLIDE material, a nano-crystalline iron coating (also developed by Mercedes).
Because the forged steel pistons are higher in strength than a comparable amount of aluminum, they were able to make the pistons smaller: for the V6 in the E 350, the steel piston is 58.6 mm high versus 71.6 mm for an aluminum piston, yet the steel piston lends itself to application even if—or perhaps when—there is an increase of peak pressures inside the engine.
It was necessary to redesign the piston to go from aluminum (left) to steel (right).
There is less thermal expansion of steel compared with aluminum (the steel expands only about a quarter the amount that the aluminum does), so the gap between the cylinder wall and the piston is reduced as far as the first piston ring. A benefit of this is that there is a reduction in pollutants and emissions.
Joachim Schommer, head of basic engine development at Mercedes-Benz sees further application of steel pistons in the diesels that the vehicle manufacturer produces, such as its four-cylinder diesel (used, for example, in the E 250). Schommer said: “We are assuming that pistons made of steel will in future also be widespread use in passenger car diesel engines.”