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Author of the upcoming book, Educational Technology: The Science of Mediocrity
Monday, December 21, 2009
Welcome to the new design! I have begun using the Artisteer template design generator, which is a great tool for designing Blogger (and other popular CMS platforms). I will be slowly revamping all of the blogs in the Geek Blog Network.

I look forward to your comments!
Sunday, December 21, 2008

Quebec passed a law this year mandating the use of winter (snow) tires on all wheels. We have been advocates of the use of winter tires, and have had sets mounted on rims for years.

The dilemma was having a new car (Celine's CSX) when the law was passed, which meant jockeying for whatever tires we could get at a decent price given the sudden demand.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

I was initially disappointed that the Volt was going to be a gas/electric hybrid and not an electric-only car. Given the poor performance on a charge, especially when compared to the Tesla roadster had me thinking that big companies like GM just can't get the engineers enough creative space to get the job done (GM makes money, not the old saying goes). Read more after the jump.
Monday, September 8, 2008
We recently took both cars, my 2007 Mazda6 and my wife's 2008 Acura CSX over 1000 miles (1600 km) from our home base in Brossard, Quebec to the Outer Banks in North Carolina. We had rented a wonderful beacher in Hatteras Village for 2 weeks straddling the last week of August and the first week of September. Due to the number of people coming on the trip and with staggered family commitments requiring different arrival and departure dates, we could not get around the fact that we needed both cars.

This gave an excellent opportunity to see how well both cars performed over a long distance each with 3 passengers and luggage.
Monday, August 11, 2008

About a year and a half ago, my friend Roger was looking for a "hot" car, and I mentioned the Mazdaspeed 6. Well, he went out and bought one, and promised me a test drive. Since Roger was not a native Montrealer, in return I promised to show him some nice twisty bits around town that could really show off a car's capabilities. We never really got around to it, due to general work and life business getting in the way. Since he bought his Speed, I bought my own Mazda6 GS (2.3 l base model), and I have been curious about how the two cars compare.

Well, we finally got around to following up on our promises today, and traded cars to see what we liked/didn't like about each other's rides. Here is my perspective:

Generally one would expect that the "high performance" versions of cars have different riding characteristics, and not just different powertrain effects.. This was definitely the case with my Taurus SHO, especially when compared to the run-of-the-mill rental specials that one encounters. A lot of work was done on ride/handling and steering, for example without sacrificing ride quality. In many respects the same can be said for the Speed, but to be honest I expected quite a bit more.

First lets talk about the major differences between the two cars.

Visually you can hardly tell the difference between the 2 cars, aside from an extra bulge on the hood (to accommodate the intercooler) and in the rear, large exhaust tips integrated into the bumper, and the Mazdaspeed6 badge on the back.

The Speed6 is made in Japan and all other Mazda6 models in North America are built in Flat Rock, Michigan. I expected higher build quality, but was surprised that things were on par with the American built cars, which is good but nowhere near Honda standards. I don't know if this is more a compliment to the quality of the American built cars, or an insult to the Japanese built ones. At any rate, these cars are much better built than your typical Ford or Chevy and on the Japanese side, I rate them higher than Mitsubishi, Subaru and Nissan but not as good as Toyota or Honda.

The interior of the cars are quite similar, but the Speed6 comes with some excellent power sports seats with contrasting stitching and aluminium drilled pedal (exclusive) with a dead pedal (sorely missing on the base models), electroluminescent gauges, climate control and an uprated stereo (not exclusive to this model). I was surprised at the absence of a boost gauge. One final note: the structural reinforcement in the rear bulkhead reduces trunk capacity, and there is no split and folding rear seats, which makes the Speed6 a touch less practical.

Next of course is the powertrain. The same 2.3 L-4 DISI (direct injection, spark ignition) engine is mated to a turbocharger and intercooler with a claimed 274 HP and a 6 speed short-throw manual transmission. This is compared to the normally aspirated engine's 160 HP conventional multipoint fuel injection and 5 speed manual. The Speed6 delivers this power to a very unobtrusive 4-wheel drive setup with limited slip differentials, whereby other Mazda6 models deliver power through the front wheels. Other differences include a beefier clutch, that many people complain about its heaviness, uprated "sport" suspension, slightly larger brakes (same size as the 2007 models) and 18" wheels with Bridgestone Potenza 215/45s, instead of the base model's 205/60 x 16 Michelin MXVs. I actually expected to see wider tires.

This was my first exposure to a six-speed manual, and as I fired up the engine, my friend warned me of the very limited engagement of the clutch. After fishing around for 1st (I kept thinking I was putting it into reverse), sure enough I stalled the engine. Twice. Once I figured out the engagement, things got back to normal. Initially I found the shifting a bit notchier but more precise and shorter throw, but getting used to having an extra gear took some getting used to, but nice. My GS is geared low, and could use a higher final gear for highway cruising.

One thing I found is that the clutch was not heavy at all, which got me wondering if people who have been complaining are pussies. I mean compared to a Porsche Carrera4 or Turbo this clutch feels like a Honda Civics. Not as light or as progressive, but a clutch and transmission that is designed for fast shifting.

The next surprise was the heaviness of the steering and slightly less precision and road feel when compared to my car. I suspect that road feel and precision is a matter of the tires, but the car feels much less "tossable".

Just toodling around the neighborhood you can hardly tell that you are driving a performance car, it is that docile. It drives almost exactly like a base 6 when not pushed hard. This is quite a switch from other Japanese high-performance cars that seem like the power comes on too quickly, and this is what I expected from a turbocharged engine. Dead when off the charge, and way too uncontrollable when on boost. This was quite a surprise to see how "normal" this car was in typical driving conditions. And no ride harshness, extra road noise, tire thrumming or anything you normally have to put up with when you have a "sport tuned" suspension that gives a buckboard ride. Wifey and family could hardly say no to this car (these Mazda guys probably know they've lost too many sales to bad impressions from significant others).

After turning on to an on-ramp, I wonked it. Another surprise: the engine runs out of boost at around 5,500 RPM, which means no shifting at the 6,500 RPM redline to stay on the power. Fortunately, the close-ratio transmission makes this easy, and surprisingly it is surprisingly linear and less frenetic than say, compared to the peaky Honda VTEC on the SI. There is also a complete absence of torque steer, and generally no turbo whine, which makes for very sophisticated power delivery. You have no idea you are going as fast as you are.

What is odd is that it doesn't feel perceptively faster than the normally aspirated engine, which has me wondering if my car isn't somehow "special". I've always felt that my 158-160 HP engine feels quite a bit stronger and faster than my wife's 155HP CSX and my son's 138 HP Focus Zetec, and I'm thinking of putting my car on a dyno, just out of curiosity.

Taking the first curve and pushing it was the next surprise: This car understeers way more than I thought it would. I don't know if Mazda tuned this car to make sure people didn't get into trouble, but I expected to be able to steer the car a bit more with the throttle. On the plus side, this car never loses grip and if you find yourself having to back off in a corner, it won't get twitchy on you like a rear-wheel drive car.

Next we went out to one of my favorite twisty bits, the exit off the 15 South at Wellington, taking the Bonaventure Autoroute. The corner int the exit is two lanes and blind, but you can take it very fast if you know the line, (always at the *ahem* speed limit), and then floor it out the stretch to a high speed sweeper. I won't admit to how fast we were going and taking a blind corner fast is always going to scare the crap out of your passengers, but I really understood that this car is designed to keep its composure at very high speeds. Wow. This is what its about. There were construction pylons coming around the corner to the Bonaventure expressway on-ramp, and I let off the gas. Sure enough there was a cop on the median, forcing me to brake hard (fantastic brakes, just like my GS). I was lucky I didn't get a ticket, which I attribute to the sleeper nature of this car. Hey its just a boring old Mazda6, very discreet. If I was driving a BMW or Audi, I'd be a much poorer man today, I'm sure. Its really too bad that for the most part, you can't drive this car the way it was meant to, unless you have access to a racetrack. I would love to drive this car on Circuit Gilles Villeneuve (which you could do in the early 80s) or another road course like Shannonville or Tremblant.

The big thing of course is that you can't appreciate what a car like this is about in 95% of driving situations. This is actually a testament to the driveability of this car. You have no idea in day to day driving that you have a high-performance machine. On the other hand, I thoroughly appreciate the lighter and more precise steering, the softer clutch, more fluid shifting and more neutral handling of my el-cheapo Mazda6 GS base model and stock tires in 95% of driving situations. So for me it does not make sense to buy a car for the 5%. However if I was racing, I would think this would be pretty good.

I would likely make some changes to the setup of this car, whereby I don't really see a need to change anything on my own stock GS. For example, I did detect a bit of cowl shake, and I am quite surprised that given the rear structural reinforcement that the Mazda chassis engineers didn't do the same in the front. First thing I would add would be a shock tower brace. Next, I would definitely think about a beefier rear sway bar to get a more neutral handling feel. Finally I would consider modding the engine to get more linear power especially at the top end. This might be just a matter of installing a cold-air intake, but it might be an issue with the turborcharger wastegate calibration (or boost limiter). Maybe tires for better steering feel to round things up.

To conclude, I have managed to reinforce my own feeling that the base Mazda6 GS with a 5 speed is a pretty damn good ride. I also have a feeling that I might have an exceptional example, but I haven't had much exposure driving other 6s to be sure. For me it all comes down to balance, and I think the base GS I-4 sedan is the best all-round driver when compared to the V6, Sport and Wagon models. I sort of wonder what a Mazdaspeed6 might have been like had the American engineers tuned the car, or if Ford ever decided to make an SVO Fusion, with its arguably improved chassis.

For the Mazdaspeed6, despite my criticisms, is one fine automobile. I would take one anyday over newer designs like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, Honda Civic SI, or Rabbit GTi. For me the only real downside is it is a bit less driveable and tossable in everyday situations, but for on-ramp warriors who don't want or need to attract the attention of the police, you can hardly go wrong. The added advantage of 4 wheel drive without excess weight and fuel economy hit is a bonus in Canada where things get snowy and slippery more often than not.
Saturday, August 9, 2008

From the spy photos it looks more like the European Civic 5-door, but without the hidden door handles shown here:

Honda Takes Aim at Prius With New $19K Hybrid | Autopia from
Monday, July 28, 2008

Mazda Canada finally posted pricing and equipment for the 2009 Mazda6.
I am not surprised that the Canadian MSRP has been reduced by $2000 compared to the 2008 model to start at $22,495. I say "not surprised" as there was nearly $6000 difference between the US base GS and Canadian models for the 2008 model year. Of course Mazda dealers have quite a bit of leeway in pricing and are quick to point this out when you visit a dealer (at least in the Montreal area).
Equipment has also gone up on Canadian models. The base GS now comes with 17" alloys standard. The former "value" package has now been replaced with a "comfort" package that now includes a power moonroof, rain sensing wipers and automatic headlight on/off for only $600 more than the previous value package.  This represents an excellent value at approximately $25,000 out the door (without transport and dealer prep). Canadian color choices have not been announced, but I was quite surprised that our American cousins have a very restricted choice. Can we expect the same?
In the US prices start much lower but as expected have less equipment in base trim. The comparable i Touring model, without the sunroof is $21,705, but also has a few extra features like pushbutton start. The sunroof package includes the Bose audio system and brings the price to $25,845 including destination. This pricing is very aggressive and Mazda are clearly aiming their guns at the Accord and Camry. 
While I am still questioning the larger/heavier vehicle, I am sure the extensive retooling of the Flat Rock plant for the "world" Atenza/6 would have resulted in a much more expensive car, at least as expensive as Accord/Camry. I am purely speculating, but I think the improvements Ford made to the old Mazda6 chassis for the Fusion were leveraged for the new north American Mazda6, with the sheet metal adapted from the Atenza. I can attest from driving a Fusion and owning a 2000 Focus ZX3 that Ford has some very talented chassis engineers, so from an economic standpoint and keeping the price down, this seems logical.
Mazda has also lagged a bit in the powertrain and interior finishing department, therefore the costs involved in powertrain improvements were probably high in order to be competitive.  
I am looking forward to trying the new L4 with the 6 speed manual, but where this car will make or break will be in the automatic. For me the current reference in automatics is in my wife's Acura CSX, and I will be looking forward to seeing how Mazda has improved.
Tthe mid-size car segment is now a no-brainer as far as I'm concerned. By far the best value, and probably the best driving experience will be the 2009 Mazda6. It is just too bad that there are fewer and fewer "smaller" mid-size cars. While the small cars are now creeping up in mid-size territory, aside from the Mazda3 there is not much worth having without spending over $30,000.
Finally, with the price of fuel, the more economical Accord and the availability of Camry Hybrids might sway a few buyers. It will be a question now to see how the competition reacts. Given the propensity for Mazda's dealers willingness to negotiate (at least compared to Honda/Toyota) means getting people in the showrooms and not comparing pricing on-line.

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