Friday, May 31, 2019


The Next-Gen Mazda 3 has hit Australia and it's a styling tour-de-force!

It is a striking new shape from one of Japan's oldest and regularly innovative automakers, think of the Mazda Luce, and the Rotary Engine.

Just the appearance of the new 3 acknowledges the strength and depth of the company's design talents and its ability to make a statement.

Although Next-Gen Mazda 3 comes complete with a long list of highlights and improvements over the outgoing model, it also comes with a corresponding price ‘bump’. 

However despite obvious quality upgrades, on closer inspection many of the improvements are counter-balanced by some downsides and significant compromises.

Reading notes by the G20 Program Director Kota Beppu it is clear that Mazda had clearly-defined aspirations, most of which were achieved, but sadly it’s in driveability, and detail where the downsides become most obvious.

The biggest compromise on this striking new model is that its launch precedes the availability of Mazda’s impressive SkyActiv-X engine family.

The two engines offered on the G20 are a 2.0L, and 2.5L four cylinder, and appear to be little changed.

The G20 Touring version here uses the 2.0L version (right).

The power and torque is adequate, but the calibration of the six-speed auto is poor, and this becomes especially obvious when using the cruise control on long journeys. The Cruise Control cannot easily hold a constant speed without regularly changing up and down gears. And, it is really annoying.

There’s also a poor relationship between the engine and transmission when ‘Sport’ mode is engaged. The transmission holds gears for far too long, and occasionally does not shift up when you slightly lift off the throttle. I found that the most satisfactory cruising solution in undulating country, was to leave it in ‘Comfort’ mode and drive it using the ‘paddles’.

This aspect is especially disappointing when compared with the impressive achievements in build quality, handling, comfort and equipment levels.

Also, as I mentioned in a previous post, the redesign meant 30L less space in the trunk, and a very tight rear compartment.

Apparently, the interior redesign also had to allow space for a battery pack in a future hybrid model.

On a positive note, I will quote Program Manager Beppu, who has eloquently outlined the team’s targets:

“The design team strived for the removal of character lines, and ensured all body panels featured beautiful curves to accentuate changes in light and reflections whether static or in motion.

“Operating under the law that ‘less is more’, we stripped away excessive ornamentation, which resulted in a shape which looks like it was drawn with a single brush stroke. The bonnet (hood) line has been lowered and special attention was paid to grille, lights and the lower valance.”

Inside the car is where Mazda paid a lot of attention to seating, technology and elegantly simple design surfaces.

In my mind the drivers’ view delivers a fluent, uncluttered appearance with no distractions. I found this effect completely changed my opinions of the car when on the road.

Despite the powertrain and performance shortcomings, it is a supremely comfortable car, and Beppu-san's description accurately sums up the team's approach:

“We conducted an extensive study of the human body. “We take all this for granted, but when we walk or run we never experience motion sickness because we are subconsciously controlling our legs, feet, pelvis and spine to minimise head movement using only a small number of muscles.

“We developed front seats that naturally straightens the driver’s pelvis, which helps drivers naturally use their core for seating stability.

“Our approach to the new body architecture ensured the chassis and car body receive input from the road surface and alleviate bumps and dips.

“The cabin itself was designed to assist in controlling the audio system’s output - the time it takes for a sound to be transmitted, and its direction, ensuring cabin quietness is perfect for the occupants.

“We then redesigned the speaker layout to directly transmit the sound to the driver, which has resulted in a clear and expressive sound system. Assisted by the right amount of quietness, the cabin feels like a quality audio studio on wheels.

“Interior styling strips away clutter and minimises visual distraction, with instruments, displays and controls aligned horizontally and facing the driver, optimised for easy, ergonomic use.”

Mazda has upgraded the Mazda Connect system, and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are offered for the first time, however the interconnect between the Mazda system and the audio apps needs some attention. 

Especially the radio, which on several occasions during my driving changed stations with no input from me. One minute I was listening to classical music, and next I was listening to a talk show – very mystifying.

It’s clear that Mazda has achieved a lot with the G20, but there are quite a few areas that need to evolve, and improve to ensure complete satisfaction with the overall package.

The ride and handling of the G20 is exemplary. The attention paid to reducing NVH has borne fruit, because this is a much quieter car than its predecessor, and the handling and steering is pin-sharp.

I am still knocked out by the design package, however when I raised the issue of the close similarities between the concept car and the production version with a very close friend who is also a very senior design director, he pointed out the possible reasons for the similarities.

“Often the production car is designed and signed off first. Then the design team creates the concept, but stretches the envelope to show ‘what might have’ been. The consequence is that the viewer associates the similarity of the two styles as a positive when assessing the ‘new’ shape.”

In this instance I think I agree. The overall shape is a standout and for me takes the ‘Kodo’ design language to a higher level.

I love the way this car looks, but until the SkyActiv-X engine comes along, I’m not sure I could happily live with it on a day-to-day basis.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019


It was 1965.

Even though I was always aware of Mazda’s participation in the Australian market in the early 60s, it wasn’t until the mid 60s that this relatively small Japanese car company blasted its way into my consciousness with a striking, compact sedan styled by one of the world’s most promising, up-and-coming car designers.

Mazda, like many Japanese companies who turned to making military hardware during World War 2, benefitted from America’s input to Japan’s commercial post-war recovery, and it turned to producing trucks and light commercial vehicles.

It wasn’t until the launch of the R360 Kei car in May 1960 that Mazda, operating under the name Toyo Kogyo, became a passenger car manufacturer.

Just a year before this groundbreaking release for Mazda, a 21 year old Italian designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro, joined Italy’s Bertone design company, led by the inspirational Nuccio Bertone.

Giorgetto Giugiaro (left) with the Alfa Romeo Tipo 103 at Bertone's works in Gruigliasco, Italy. 

Like many Japanese vehicle manufacturers in the post-war years Mazda's passenger car designs were a bit clunky, because they were mostly styled in-house. Apart from some pre-war American influences, the later Japanese cars were stolid, unimaginative designs which were nonetheless popular because they were all that was available.

In 1963 Mazda turned to Bertone, and the relationship produced the Familia (right), which became a strong domestic seller. However, further contact between the two companies changed dramatically when Giugiaro entered the conversation.

He had been working on a four-door sedan concept and came up with the design codenamed SP8, which featured front wheel drive, and Mazda’s own development of the Wankel Rotary engine.
Bertone's SP8 concept for Mazda

The design was not quite ‘together’ because of the need for a larger front overhang (to accommodate the rotary engine and FWD), and the nose in profile seemed to ‘droop’.

However, when Mazda said it wanted a more conventional sedan, Giugiaro produced an almost shark-nosed design with exceptional proportions, slim pillars, and a car which could have even been mistaken for an Alfa Romeo.

Also Giugiaro made a subtle change to the bodyside compared to the SP8. Despite the shorter overall length, he moved the style line to above the wheelarches, creating the impression of 'length'.

Bertone concept SP8 (top) and the production Mazda 1500
There’s always been a rumour that the design proposal for Mazda was a design rejected by Alfa Romeo, but this is definitely not the case.

Bertone named the new concept design ‘Luce’ – Italian for light, and Giugiaro’s design was immediately embraced by Mazda, and scheduled for production with a 1500cc engine, and a four-speed manual.

It was launched in 1965, and Mazda set the car world on its ear, with this delicate, sophisticated body by one of the car world’s greatest-ever designers.

The Luce, known in Australia just as the ‘Mazda 1500’ was an immediate success. A year later came the twin-carburetor SS version, and two years later the Mazda 1800.

TOP: Mazda 1500SS
Bottom: Mazda 1800

Ikuo Maeda
Today, as we welcome the new Mazda 3 it is clear to me that the design team led by Ikuo Maeda, is informed by the spirit of the Luce.

I think the latest Mazda 3 is a definitive design statement by Maeda’s team that ‘styling is everything’ and the production car appears to have retained a lot of the original concept study’s themes, nuances and ideas.

As a total product I don’t think the Mazda 3 is a complete success. There are many compromises, but the company is very clear about why it allowed design to be the 3’s preeminent consideration.

It is a ‘passenger car’ - if you want room for a family, you'll already be considering a CX-5 or CX-9. In practice the Mazda 3 has limited space in the rear cabin and some blind spots, mostly due to the thick C-pillars, and the rising rear side window line. There is also less space in the trunk.

The wheelbase has been increased, but overall length has been reduced. Where's all that increased interior room end up? In the front passenger compartment.

Mazda is in a way suggesting it’s a car for two people – a four-door sports car, maybe? However, as we wait for the appearance of the Sky Active-X engine later this year, the current car is no sports car. Its performance is adequate.

More later.

Monday, May 27, 2019


One of the displays at every year’s Geneva Salon that I am keen to see is the special vehicle produced for that year’s Salon by Touring Superleggera of Milan.

Last year the famous carrozerria revealed the Sciadipersia coupe based on the current Maserati Gran Turismo. Only 10 versions of this coupe will be made, after an initial order by one of Touring’s most loyal customers.

The coupe honours an original Frua design in 1952  created for the Shah of Persia. That original coupe was completely restored by Touring Superleggera.
The way it works is that the customer brings a standard production car to Touring’s headquarters and the design team creates an exclusive style. Then Touring’s automotive artisans proceed to strip the production car, leaving just the platform, powertrain, suspension and wheels, on which to mount its delicate and sophisticated creation.

In 2019 Touring Superleggera’s display at the Geneva Salon featured a Cabriolet version of the Sciadipersia. Powered by Maserati’s 4.7L naturally-aspirated 455hp V8, which drives through either a 6-speed sequential gearbox, or a conventional 6-speed automatic, the Sciadipersia takes six months to complete.

As in past years Touring Superleggera will also display the car at this Concorso d’Eleganza at the Villa d’Este Hotel on the shores of Lago di Como.

I think this coupe be one of the carrozerri’s most beautiful creations.

Sunday, May 26, 2019


Neal Boudette
New York Times automotive writer, Neal Boudette, who is an old friend of mine from Detroit, when he used to write for The Wall Street Journal, has just revealed that Renault is in talks with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles about a possible merger, joint venture, partnership, or something that draws their future R & D together, to create economies of scale, new technologies and cost savings.

Sergio Marchionne
Can’t say I’m surprised. Fiat Chrysler (FCA), under the late Sergio Marchionne kept insisting it wanted (desperately needed) a JV, merger, etc. with another carmaker, as it was in debt to the tune of USD$6 billion and didn’t have the cash to create a new line of FIAT cars, let alone anything in the way of EVs or autonomous vehicles.

Mike Manley
Quite frankly, even under the new CEO, Mike Manley, FCA is a basket case. It has vehicles which make money (Jeep and Ram), but in terms of keeping FIAT relevant in Italy, the cupboard is bare. 

At the moment it has a single passenger car platform (despite the very successful FIAT 500), and it has about eight models spun off that one platform which is a very old design.

The FIAT 124, or Abarth 124, did not realize the sales targets set for the sports car spun off the new Mazda MX-5, so it has gone to God, and now Italians are increasingly buying cars from a number of European manufacturers, because FIAT’s cars are old, way behind in the latest technologies, and there’s no way to cost-effectively replace them.

Mike Manley says FCA has paid down its debt, and the margins on Jeep/Ram are sufficient to ensure it doesn’t need to find a partner. Yes, ho-ho. Basing the future of one of the former American Big Three on an SUV and truck line is taking the carmaker right to the edge of financial survival.

Jean-Dominique Senard (Renault) & Hiroto Saikawa (Nissan)

On the other hand, Renault needs to find a partner who will be nicer to them than its alliance partner Nissan. Hiroto Saikawa keeps talking about Nissan’s ascendancy, and how it needs a fairer JV with Renault, but quite frankly Nissan doesn’t have the depth of management talent to split up its connection with Renault, and go it alone. When I think of Nissan's current management lineup - headless chickens immediately come to mind.

Carlos Ghosn knew that, and his efforts to push through a merger with Nissan was the reason he spent a long time in jail on fake charges trumped up by Nissan, and now prowls his Tokyo house with an ankle collar to stop him leaving the country.

Nissan (or more precisely, Saikawa) may have stopped the merger talks, but Renault’s new Chairman and CEO are secretly holding to the Ghosn philosophy that a full-blown merger is what is needed to save both companies from disappearing down the plughole.

It might be a powerful union, but it cannot defend itself against the rapid technological changes we are seeing – and the JVs and mergers prevalent in a cash-strapped car industry.

Nissan knows that passenger cars are ‘on the nose’, but Saikawa keeps talking about Nissan’s success with its cars. That only demonstrates very clearly that he’s living in the past.

Nissan Qashqai
Also, even though Nissan offers a plethora of SUVs – they are very, very old, and (aside from the Qashqai, built on the jointly-developed Renault/Nissan CFM platform), the cost of replacing all of them will be a major cash drain. 

Nissan has a big cash pile, but when it’s saddled with inept management, that may not be enough to save it.

Hiroto Saikawa
Renault can only hope Saikawa has a ‘vision’, and can steer the Alliance into calmer waters, but I doubt it. His every action to date reveals he’s just an old ‘warrior’ dedicated to Nissan’s primacy in any JV.

I personally think Nissan is stuffed, so Renault probably has nothing to lose in talking to FCA – but with FCA’s inherent weaknesses, I hope the new Renault management is careful about its negotiations. I think FCA needs Renault, much more than the opposite scenario.

Then, of course, there's another scenario blowing in the wind!

Friday, May 24, 2019


This story has been all over the global news pages this past month, and according to my ‘mole’ at Peugeot discussions for Groupe PSA to acquire the ailing Jaguar Land Rover from Tata Group are well-advanced.

Because of falling sales in China, and the almost complete cessation of demand for Jaguar passenger cars, in favour of its three new SUVs, Tata Group posted a loss of USD$4 billion in the final fiscal quarter of last year, driven by JLR's losses.

Jaguar car sales are dead in the water and the only thing keeping the British company afloat is continued high demand for Land Rover vehicles.

In the USA, Jaguar’s biggest export market, sales of passenger cars plummeted over the past year, whilst the E-Pace, F-Pace and i-Pace SUVs have gained the ascendency.

Forget everything you know about Jaguar’s grand history, its motor sport victories, how Sir Williams Lyons set the motoring world alight, first with the XK-120 in 1950; then the E-type in 1960 and the fantastic Jaguar XJ-6 sedan in 1968.

Having spent close to 20 years helping to revive Jaguar’s fortunes on more than three occasions, we always joked that the way PR could save the company was to trot out loads of stories of the fabled company's myths and legends.

Unfortunately, the days of ‘saving Jaguar’ with myths and legends is now over.

It is a completely different automotive manufacturer now, selling to an entirely different buyer segment and although its foresight in developing its highly-regarded SUVs shows it has its finger on the pulse of the market, its fallback on passenger cars is dragging it into bigger and bigger losses.

Both the British and French automotive commentators are saying that PSA acquiring JLR would be a good thing for both brands. Groupe PSA Chairman Carlos Tavares is on record saying that the Group would like to acquire a true luxury brand, and although the prospect of a takeover is being denied, it certainly isn’t being strenuously denied.

Carlos Tavares has also made it known that re-entering the USA market is a priority for PSA, and in this new scenario the cost would be a lot less than doing it alone.

JLR has an established North American dealer network, an efficient distribution chain, excellent supplier links, and it is well-ahead in the development of electric vehicles.

The other element in any final outcome is what a post-Brexit Britain will look like and its impact on JLR. One British newspaper, known for its excessive use of hyperbole, says the sale of JLR is imminent, and that could be a saving grace for JLR regardless of how Theresa May’s Brexit troubles play out.

NOTE: Week commencing June 3, JLR and BMW AG have announced they will form a 'loose partnership' to jointly develop electric vehicles.


No, this is not a comparison road test like you would find in a regular car magazine. This is simply a confluence of my opinions after piloting the BMW M850i coupe this past week.

This BMW coupe is a BIG, LONG, car, and in that respect it reminds me of a much older car – the Jaguar XJ-S.

It was long, big, impractical for four passengers, with a ton of grunt, exemplary handling and the sort of finesse you associate with British and European cars.

It was a Grand Touring Car, in the same mould as this BMW. I can just imagine loading the huge trunk for two weeks of touring in Europe, and apart from the appalling fuel consumption, it is just the ticket for such an exercise.

The technical similarities are obvious – it weighed in at 1825kg, and the silky smooth 5.3L V12 produced 209kW, but the torque curve was beautifully matched to the well-calibrated four-speed auto. Remember we’re talking 1980s-1990s.

Now, Ford’s Mustang is a completely different animal. Yes, of course you can take a grand tour in this svelte coupe – but it’s not only big and boisterous, it’s brash and capable of tyre smoke when you launch yourself down the road.

It's 'American Muscle' to its bootstraps.

It weighs 1799kg, and the 5.0L V8 produces 339kW.

That’s not a bad thing, it’s just that when you put these two modern coupes together, it’s a case of – you get what you pay for. In Australian dollars, you can pay $65,000 for the Mustang; or $288,000 for the BMW. It all depends on (a) your ability to pay the entry price and, (b) what’s important to you – American muscle or German finesse.

I LOVE the Mustang. It takes me back to its glory days in the mid-60s when Ford led the Pony Car movement and, to a degree, put arch rival General Motors, on the back foot. The Mustang was instantly loveable, affordable and great to drive. Never mind that in reality the original ‘Stang was just a Ford Falcon in a different costume.

During my 20 years associated with Jaguar I spent a lot of time behind the wheel of various XJ-Ss, in Australia, Britain and the USA, and despite its rather clunky styling, it was a delight on a long trip and very easy to drive.
I never emerged feeling wrung out.

BMW wants you to refer to the M850i as a Grand Touring coupe and one look under the trunklid tells you there’s plenty of room there for touring luggage.

Mind you, the downside is that despite having nicely-sculptured rear seats, not even a Capuchin monkey would be comfortable for any length of time.
This l-o-n-g car is a two-fer.

In addition, this is not a car you would buy for track days, despite the M specifications, the huge Michelin Speedpilot tyres, and the MASSIVE brakes.

The 850i handles exceptionally well, mostly due to its AWD, well-implemented rear wheel steering feature, and tenacious grip, but it is definitely not what you would describe as nimble. It's the heaviest of the three cars I'm talking about, weighing in at 1846kg.

The twin-turbo V8 pushes out 390kW, so there's plenty of muscle from Munich.

But, step out of the BMW into an Aston Martin and you will instantly recognize true sporting agility.

However, there’s a lot to like about the BMW, especially the comfy cabin. It may be seen as a gimmick, but I really like the interior mood lighting, especially the blue, M-inspired LED strips running down the door trims. And, this car is LOADED, with a good standard spec and LOADS of tech!

There’s one thing BMW can claim as an individual and specialized feature - and that’s the jewel-like, diamond-pattern shift lever. It’s connected to the same ZF 8-speed gearbox found in a lot of powerful cars, like Bentley’s, Aston Martins and Jaguars.

The styling is elegant, but it doesn’t stand out. For me, it’s what I'd expect when you lump together all BMW’s various design cues and match them up with the desired dimensions.

However, when it was parked on my driveway it received plenty of attention, especially from quite a few stylish ladies, who were clearly displaying loads of autolust, thanks to its aggressive stance, and all the M-inspired carbon fibre bits and bobs.

Mind you, the optional carbon fibre exterior trim package will set you back AUD$7500, but it’s real carbon fibre, not just regular shiny plastic with an imprinted pattern. It includes the roof, the exterior mirror covers, the rear valance and the tiny rear spoiler.

None of these Grand Touring coupes sell in huge numbers (well, maybe except for the Mustang), and I’m certain they’ll be challenging dinosaurs for a spot in the paleontology stakes in a few years time.

There’s no such thing as a bad car these days, and if a Grand Touring coupe with German finesse is your thing, then go for it – BMW will be happy to accept more than a quarter of a million dollars from your bank account.