I Am Captain Slow

It pains me slightly to admit this, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I really want my car to be comfortable.  This is kind of a painful, heretical admission for me, but hear me out.

Two years ago, I bought a 2011 Mazdaspeed3.  At the time, it didn’t matter to me that the inside of the ‘speed3 was a nightmare of mismatched, rattling, cheap plastics, or that the designers of its suspension should be tried at The Hague for crimes against humanity.  I only cared that it had 263 horsepower and 280 torque, a stupid amount of power (especially for a front-wheel-drive hatch).  I loved that car for all its mad, ridiculous faults, because it accelerated like a wild beast and it cornered like few other cars I’ve driven.  But the ‘speed3 positively ruined my spine, and that’s why I’ve just recently sold it.  Next time I buy a car, I’m making ride quality a priority, and I don’t care if it’s a little bit slower than the fire-snorting Mazdaspeed3.

Matt and Rob will make fun of me for writing that last sentence.  Matt in particular, being the most Jeremy Clarkson-esque figure of our trio, will probably tell me that I’m no longer allowed in his garage after he reads this post, and he won’t let me touch his new engine.  But this blog is a place for differing perspectives, and I’ve just decided that in the spirit of that, I will be our resident Captain Slow: representing the interests of the performance-oriented motorist who also sometimes experiences back pain.

Top Gear’s James May—the real/eponymous Captain Slow—once (well, maybe twice) suggested that the Nürburgring should simply be bombed, since it is now used almost exclusively as a proving ground at which automakers are inspired to make their cars completely unusable on real-world pavement.  He has bemoaned the fact that the auto industry gets so bogged down in the pursuit of Good Handling and Nürburgring Lap Times that they forget to focus on the preservation of a vehicle’s occupants.

I agree with Mr. May on this point.  Having watched Top Gear for years, I never thought I would find myself agreeing with “Mister Slowly” (as the Italians call him), but after two years of owning a car that despised and brutally punished its occupants, I am utterly convinced that he is correct.  Luckily for me, cars which tread the fine line between comfort and performance do exist.  Before I talk about them, however, I’d like to spend a minute looking at what, precisely, is wrong with the Mazdaspeed that broke the writer’s back.

For those of you who don’t keep up with the historical chassis engineering of hot hatchbacks (and really, why wouldn’t you keep up with that?), I want to tell you two things about the 2011 Mazdaspeed3:

1)      It’s not, strictly speaking, a Mazda, and

2)      It’s older than you might think it is.

Underneath the hideous, characterful, goofy Mazda3 grin, the ‘speed3 chassis is basically a tweaked version of the last-gen Ford Focus chassis—and engine, for that matter; what Mazda calls its MZR 2.3L DISI Turbo is basically just a bored-out Ford 2.0L Duratec.  As you can see from this detailed walkaround of the MS3 suspension, it is stamped in many places with “FoMoCo,” short for “Ford Motor Company.”  That’s because Ford owned Mazda a few years back, and Ford therefore decided to give Mazda its platforms to underpin Mazda models.  The problem is that this car is still on sale, with a suspension engineered almost ten years ago, tweaked—not redesigned—by Mazda.  If you don’t know from experience, take my word for it: Mazda engineers only know how to make things sportier (read: harsher on real roads).

Judging by the acclaim which Mazda’s CX-5 and 6 have garnered in recent press, their solo engineering endeavors since the breakup with Ford are producing wonderful results, and I expect the forthcoming 3 (and strongly hinted-at ‘speed3) to be impressive indeed.  But when it comes time to put my money down on a vehicle, I’m going to end up in a VW GTI this time.  Why?  Because it has something in its history that few other models can claim—progressive, iterative development.

So right now, you’re probably asking yourself how in the name of all things holy I could possibly be excited about something that sounds as unexciting as “progressive, iterative development,” but hear me out, because this is the best thing about a lot of great cars.  Some of the best cars your money can buy right now are the products of decades of iterative development.

Porsche 911.  Mustang.  Corvette.  Class leaders by many metrics.  The 911 has been around for 50 years; next year will see the 50th birthday of the Mustang as well.  The Corvette is already over 60 years old.  Many things make these cars special, but one of the intangible things is the sense of tradition you feel when you get in one of these cars.  You get in a modern 911, and you think, “Wow, fifty years of engineering and refinement and re-engineering and crazy, off-the-wall ideas went into the creation of this one car.”  It is the ultimate, distilled expression of the work of dozens, maybe hundreds of brilliant minds working over many years.  This is what I’m talking about when I preach the benefits of progressive and iterative development: not just the feeling that a car is special because of its heritage (though that is a wonderful feeling), but indeed the results of the process: some great minds started with an exciting idea, and through the endeavors of countless more great minds over a long period of time, a lot of work has been put into the improvement of that idea, so that the idea is now light-years ahead of its original design, and as close to the perfect realization of the initial concept as possible.

Porsche has honed its insane rear-engine setup for fifty years.  Ford has made a sports coupe with a live rear-axle that handles better than a lot of cars with fully independent suspensions can manage.  The Corvette is a supremely American sports car and grand tourer, for less than the price of almost all of its rivals.  Just so, the GTI is the realization of the idea that a practical car need not be slow, uninteresting or unengaging—and that a fast car need not be hilariously impractical or impossibly rough-riding.

The Mazdaspeed3 is a second-generation vehicle—though I suspect that the only reason the third generation didn’t come along two years sooner is because Mazda has been in a deep financial mess.  The VW GTI is now in its seventh generation over the course of nearly four decades of development.  That’s as many generations as there have been of Corvettes.  The GTI has been refined, reinvented, and honed, over and over again, since the 1980s.  The mere fact that the GTI was the original hot hatch is by no means the thing that makes it the definitive hot hatch; the thing that does that is its refinement.  Others may do certain things better, but VW has been doing it longer.  Chris Harris once said (quite profoundly), “[The GTI] has a very particular set of responsibilities.”  Those responsibilities have developed over the years, as VW’s engineers decided what they wanted the car to be; now it has well-defined parameters for each successive generation, and a fanatically dedicated share of the market.

When I bought my erstwhile Mazda two years ago, I was ready to be a Mazda zealot.  I bought t-shirts with “Mazda” printed on them.  I bought a coffee mug that said “zoom-zoom.”  I was even thinking of joining an owners’ club.  But somewhere along the line, the car lost track of what I wanted—or maybe I lost track of what it wanted.  Driving the MS3 taught me a lot of things—it taught me how to manage understeer when you absolutely cook a corner.  It taught me how to shatter speed limits on interstates.  It taught me that even Japanese cars can have bits rattle and go wrong, forcing your already-ridiculous 3,500-mile service schedule into a never-ending spiral of trips to the garage.  Most importantly of all, though, that car taught me what kind of car I want to own (or, more bluntly, what kind of car I don’t want to own).  The second-generation ‘speed3, with its Ford chassis (seemingly dipped in liquid nitrogen to improve turn-in), its Ford motor, and its not-entirely-endearing styling inside and out, was something of a factory FrankenCar, and none of this was helped by the fact that it was a markedly uncomfortable place to be.  Some would call these quirks “marks of character.”  Having lived through them, I have some other language in mind.

I have high hopes for Mazda’s new ‘speed3 to really refine that car’s raison d’etre, but until those insane, mad, crazy engineers at Mazda figure out that their car will be driven by people with spines—and I really believe it will take another couple of generations of MS3 for that to sink in—I will have to put my Mazda t-shirts and mug in a box in the attic.  I’m prepared to replace the old zoom-zoom with a bit of Fahrvergnügen.

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One thought on “I Am Captain Slow

  1. Pingback: Quick Spin: 2013 Subaru BRZ | PRNDLoser

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