Picture a time when Cher’s “Believe” was the number one single in the United States. While everyone else was readying for the new century, General Motors was trying to figure out a way to kill its luxury-sport brand, Pontiac. In a secret war on quality, they simply couldn’t just stop building them. Too much tedious explanation to the unions. They needed a plan to kill the name off cleanly and quietly. Enter the Aztek.
Unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show as a 2001 model, it was GM’s first foray into the still-infantile crossover market. It was targeting toward “the younger generation,” and required a mile-long options list including strange, outdoorsy things like an integrated tent, cooler center console, and tailgating accessories. In other words, anything a Subaru owner/road cycling enthusiast dreams of at night. As it turns out, the Aztek hit the nail right on the part that is hit with a hammer on a nail. It was even endorsed by J.D. Power and Associates. Of course…there was a massive problem. The thing looked horrible.
Subaru owners frantically throwing their keys at Pontiac salesmen
The original 1999 concept was really an early embodiment of what all crossovers strive to be. Unfortunately, some very bad design decisions led to the actual production car looking as if it had facial reconstruction surgery performed by an intoxicated man off the street. While most would have you believe it was simply a chain of mistakes that led to the looks, I think differently.
This was the peak of GM’s anti-customer mentality. The quality, reliability and durability of their products sank to their lowest trough in the four years the Aztek was produced. Oddly enough, it seemed to be exempt from all the negatives. It was reliable, relatively well-made, and quite durable. There is still a large enough number tearing about the midwestern United States that I have to cope with at least two or three sightings daily. And that was exactly their goal. Not only was the Aztek the weapon that murdered Pontiac, its existence is an act of revenge against the public by GM.
Two functions then, both accomplished. One can only imagine how many sighs, feelings of disgust, baby cries, etc that mutilated face has elicited over the years.
Someone even had the audacity to decide on the Aztek as the official pace car for the 2001 Daytona 500. Don’t look it up….you’ll vomit.
The 1990s. Not the greatest time for the United States auto industry. In those days, with a few exceptions, American cars were all overpriced, devoid of quality and generally unreliable. The big three (along with many other non-automotive related corporations in the U.S.) had an aging generation of management. This group decided that the ideal way to run their business involved expending the least amount of effort into their products as possible, without reducing the price paid by customers. Essentially, they hoped to gain more profit from less product. I don’t have to tell you that this thinking just…doesn’t work.
I would theorize that this mentality came from overconfidence and a lack of joy in production. GM, Ford, and Dodge had been the top sellers of the automobile in the United States since its invention. They originally symbolized the best in quality, luxury and performance. Consumer and producer shared the same values, resulting in a flourishing market. It was a joyous time. And then, somewhere around the 1973 oil crisis, the joy began seeping out of our star shooters. Maybe it was emissions regulations, a loss of those ideal values, or some other factor. Regardless of the source, our homegrown auto industry lost its passion. It reflected in the cars that were built. Designs were reused, progression was halted, the irreverence of quality workmanship lost. “American dependability” became an ironic statement.
And then came along a company that had been building little, noisy two-stroke engines to fit to bicycles only four decades earlier, proudly displaying a banner the changing public couldn’t refuse. They offered a product that was simple, honest, reliable, durable and reasonably priced. A concoction that smelled an awful lot like high value. An odor that no doubt brought back old memories. The Accord, suburban America’s new family pet. And the Civic, conveniently debuted in 1972. The college student’s greatest companion. Both were conservatively styled and equipped, and thus quite easily ignored, which was exactly what the country wanted. After all those years stranded on the shoulders of our aging interstate system in lumbering, underpowered beasts, the indestructible and dependable qualities of the Hondas came as a breath of fresh air.
So. What made the newcomers so different? What was the driving force behind the value of the products? It was something not unknown to the Americans, and its presence had been sorely missed. Picture an ancient sage by the name of Soichiro Honda saying something to the order of “Lets build the best automobile we can and sell it for as little as possible.” Though the man is more a symbol than an actual influence on the four-wheeled endeavors of the institution bearing his name, he represents what led to the same group’s success. Honda was untainted by an unrealistic attitude, and unaided by a century of heritage and good reputation. They succeeded only because they built good cars.
By 2008, Honda had more than made a name for itself. Over the past decade, though, the prices had been steadily increasing, along with the level of luxury and complexity available in their cars. Both the Accord and Civic were bestsellers in their respective classes, and had held their titles for a relatively long time. It was then that I personally theorized they might take the same path American carmakers had taken only a short while before. I don’t want to brag, but this was long before Ron Kiino’s bold title “Is Hyundai the new Honda?” graced the pages of MotorTrend’s October 2011 issue. And it was really a far-fetched notion at the time. Simply a suspicion.
Confidently and stubbornly, the Accord held its grip on mid-size sedan sales in the United States, complimented by the Toyota Camry, a similar-looking but even more ignorable competitor. The former still held appeal for someone with the capacity to enjoy themselves. The latter, however, has always been the most desirable choice of individuals that absolutely despise driving. They both held their slightly different niches, with no real fear of losing their place. Then, Honda started skimping a bit on quality. Motoring journalists noticed a lack of improving fuel economy, aging transmissions, and a general loss in competitive edge in the 2011 Accord. Not the best time to start slacking on Honda’s part.
This was the year that Hyundai unveiled the brilliantly-updated 6th generation Sonata. I consider this to be the most significant car to come in the mid-sized segment since the birth of the Accord/Camry duo. In previous generations, it had always been competitively priced. The quality, though, had been lacking. The Koreans were not afraid to design a car that was much less conservative than the two Japanese giants. However, the designs were never really all that great looking. Interesting and different? Yes. Attractive?….No. So these attributes kept Honda and Toyota secure under their cozy comforter of sales, not intimidated by Hyundai’s offering. And that’s quite understandable. The Sonata never really seemed a direct competitor to the giants.
The new one, however, completely changed the game. For one thing, it’s gorgeous. Not conservatively pretty, but ridiculous, in the best sort of way. Poised and angular, the exterior looks as if it should cost exponentially more than it does. They managed to carry on the Sonata’s tradition of unique styling by rejecting the old car completely and replacing it with a stunner. The interior reflects a similar attitude. It’s not only good looking, but significantly more fuel efficient than any other mid-sized car on the market. The drivetrain options are excellent. The best part, though, is the price. At a starting MSRP of 19,195 USD, it is several thousand less than any competitor.
All of this really just makes the Accord and Camry look silly. It’s interesting that Hyundai should take up Honda’s original niche, given how different their backgrounds are. Our original hero of practicality was created by a man tinkering with small motorcycles. The former, however, was founded as a massive construction firm, only later trying its hand in the realm of automobiles. Cars seemed an alternative for Hyundai, but certainly not an afterthought. Regardless of where they came from, these two companies have had very similar philosophies, if only separated by time. Also, both have had to rely on sheer ingenuity for profit, without the foothold of heritage in the American market.
It could be said, though, that Hyundai is doing a bit better. High value cars that are practical and interesting as an experience. Honda could never get that last bit quite right. Or perhaps it’s just a sign of the times. Maybe Americans have overcome the compulsion to ignore our cars. My question is this; Has this flip-flop in production attitude become a cycle? And if so, who will be in the hot spot next? My bet is on the big three, believe it or not. A new generation of management has brought about a huge improvement in our products. It could even be one of the rising Chinese companies in the future. Who knows?
I can tell you that right now, though, Hyundai has got the goods.
I recently had the chance to drive the facelifted 2013 Mazda MX-5. This is the first time the looks of the perky roadster have changed since the front-mounted smile became an all-out grin of insanity in 2008. They have once again dulled it to what I would call a smirk. The new front end blends with the rest of car more than it has in the past. It seems to have grown a bit more serious. In fact, with black 17-inch alloys on a glossy black (creatively called “Brilliant Black,”) this example is the most aggressive-looking of any Miata I have seen. That’s not to say it’s aggressive in the slightest, even in such a scheme. This car is in the “Club” trim replacing the previous “Touring” designation as the top-of-the-line option. This selection adds ridiculous three-leaf clover side badges, red stitching on the seats, red stripes on the dash and sides, along with a price tag very near 30,000 USD.
So I present you with my first problem with this particular car….it’s a contradiction. The MX-5 was never intended to look serious. That grin was there to convey the primary attribute aspired to by its creators; joy. It’s designed to be joyful in driving and the exterior of previous generations did a good job of communicating what the car is all about. Unfortunately, it seems they have decided that it’s time for the roadster to grow up. Frankly, that’s not going to work.
Now, to the drive.
For this year, the car has been lightened, the braking response quickened, as well as the throttle response in manual-equipped cars. Unfortunately, I was only able to drive the 6-speed automatic with optional pattle-shifters. Given that this is my first drive in an NC (third generation) MX-5, I can only compare it to my own NB.
Immediately, my passenger and chaperon, Perry Cunningham of Joe Machens Mitsubishi/Fiat starts the process of opening the optional retractable hard top. Open air is this car’s natural environment, and it appears that somebody got busy making sure its occupants never notice. Wind buffeting has been drastically reduced. Perry and I were able to maintain conversation beyond 70mph without necessitating shouting thanks to a much taller wind brake behind our seats. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really hear much of anything from the 158-hp 2.0L 4 up front, even with liberal amounts of right foot burying. It would seem the optional dual exhaust outlets are rather pointless then.
Getting in the car, I had expected the experience to be ruined by the 6-speed auto. Buying a Miata with an automatic is sort of like going on a scenic vacation without a camera. It doesn’t necessarily ruin the immediate experience but you’ll always have some regret regarding the subject in the future. The pattles add some of the fun back in, but I prefer the Golf GTI’s arrangement of right side-shift up, left side-shift down, while the MX-5 has both functions on either side of the wheel. It took some deliberate self-coaching to get used to, but it won’t effect your daily driving experience. Another plus; when in manual shift mode, it is truly manual, meaning the transmission will allow you to exceed the redline. It may sound trivial, but being nannied when you’re first told that you’re in control can be a major annoyance. (Looking at you, Kia Forte.) It’s disappointing that Mazda chose only to up throttle response in manual-equipped cars. This one most certainly needed it.
The original Miata was built on a philosophy of communication between driver and machine, summarized in the Japanese phrase “Jinba Ittai,” meaning “rider and horse are one.” Being an MX-5 owner, this philosophy is very important to me, thus my expectations for the steering were very high. It was very disappointing, then, to discover that it has been very nearly ruined. The leather-wrapped steering wheel was comfortable, yes, but not very generous in revealing the road. In corners it felt jumpy, imprecise, and unsure of itself. The same lack of self-confidence was noticeable in a straight line as well, along with a nervous fidget. Keep in mind, I am comparing this to roadsters of the past, not to other automobiles currently on the market. It would take a global nuclear war to make the MX-5 less fun to drive than a Toyota Camry.
Though it has lost communication and soul, the Miata has gained a more comfortable suspension and oodles of storage space. The trunk is massive for a roadster of this size, and the example I drove was equipped with an optional storage compartment extending behind the seats, especially handy for CDs, candy, and the like. The center console contains two reasonably-sized cupholders obscured by a sliding door that will inevitably lead to annoyance in single-drink occasions. Mr. Cunningham also pointed out to me that the track on which the door slides appears vulnerable to crumbs. Only time will tell, I suppose.
In general, being inside the car is a much more comfortable experience, albeit a boring one. It seems to me that the MX-5 has “grown up,” forgoing fun for comfort and practicality. And is that not exactly the opposite of the direction it should be moving? It was never meant to be an aggressive-looking performance car, and it will never do well as one. It will never be luxurious enough to be a true touring car, either.
Its soul has made it the top-selling roadster of all time, and I’m afraid it’s losing it, bit by bit. To be honest, if you’re attracted by the values on which the original Miata was built, I would recommend a Subaru BRZ/Toyota GT 86/Scion FR-S. The recommendation does not come lightly or easily.
Until Mazda gets wise about what it’s doing to the beloved little car, I’m afraid it’s headed down a path that will mean losing a grip on the niche it’s held for so long, and that’s quite saddening.
A very hearty thanks to Mr. Perry Cunningham and Joe Machens Mitsubishi/Fiat.
I don’t have to tell you that we as a society are moving toward a life of total deprivation from our surroundings. When thought about logically, one could blame it on the simple progression of technology. Conveniences of the modern world have led us to believe that “make life easier” is synonymous with “make life better.” In any other field of technology, this thinking may be inconsequential. I’m not qualified to tell you that. I can tell you, however, that convenience as the highest value of any automotive manufacturer will murder everything that makes driving wonderful.
There will always be gearheads, that much is certain. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of completely uninterested individuals buying cars, building roads and making gasoline accessible to furnish the possibility of a happy car geek. That has been a constant throughout history. Take the 3-series BMW, for instance. It’s been the standard for driving excellence in 4-door sedans for decades. However, how many 3-series customers do you think were really interested in the driving experience whatsoever? It’s all for image. For the wall street crowd, it’s for fitting in.
Again, do you think Gucci Mane was really interested in the driving experience of the 458 Italia he purchased? He was the first individual to own one here in the United States. I have listened to the mixtape he recorded with Waka Flocka about it. I did not once hear any mention of the Ferrari’s passion, its intimate interface with the driver or how brilliantly it eats corners. In fact, most of what I heard was “BOW BOW BOW BOW.”
It’s an unfortunate, but necessary fact of life. The majority of wonderful cars will always be bought for the wrong reasons. So what’s to stop manufacturers from filling the options list with immense amounts of gadgets and electronic wizardry to keep you on the road, whatever you do? What’s to stop them from making completely autonomous cars? That is what customers will want, isn’t it? Isn’t it?
Yes. The public will want it. Not in my generation, perhaps, but eventually they will.
The conveniences will tempt us. Sometimes, I would like more isolation from the road than my MX-5 provides. Maybe a bit softer suspension. But you know what? I won’t get it. There’s no button I can push to make the world go away. I have to deal with it. I knew this when I bought it. It’s why I bought it.
As we become more isolated from the world, emotional attachment becomes less possible. And what would driving be without love?
Now, let’s be honest. How many people have cried “death of the driver’s car” in the past two decades? And we just had the Toyota 86/Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ sell faster than anything else this summer in the U.S. Not to mention Ford’s bold refusal to include an automatic option on the late Focus ST. So what am I blabbing on about?
The world is changing.
Our lifestyle is in danger.
Google will have us all driving (well, sitting in) autonomous Prius’s eventually.
The key to the continuation of driving passion is this: Manufacturers must make cars that cannot be ignored by their owners. If the imperfections in automobiles remain, the love for them will as well.
In half a century, who will stand for simplicity, communication and driving passion? Who will stand for integrity in design and the abolition of compromise based on “public opinion?” I will be. I hope you will be standing with me.
We’re back with AN HOUR OF MEANINGLESS, UNDIRECTED, UNINTELLIGENT conversation. You’re welcome.