2018 Mazda CX-3 churns on true vector through snow

March 1, 2018 by · Comments Off on 2018 Mazda CX-3 churns on true vector through snow
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Seeking shelter with Mazda CX-3 was only to t — it loved the snow.ry to keep it clean

By John Gilbert  

   Last summer, I had the occasion to test a 2017 Mazda CX-3 for a week, and while I was impressed overall, even though there were a couple of things that concerned me. What didn’t concern me was the flashy design and appearance of the CX-3, which has an interesting assortment of creases and contours, all of which harmonize into a thing of beauty that other SUVs, and even Mazda’s larger ones, can’t match.

    I continue to stress that my belief is consumers should select the “smallest utility vehicle that is large enough,” because enormous, truck-based SUVs that nearly went the way of the dinosaur when the gasoline prices spiked, spend most of their days hauling around a lot of extra size and weight and guzzling fuel during the 90-percent of their driving devoid of the van-full of people and/or camping gear.

   From that standpoint, I suggest continuing to road-test SUVs smaller that what you may desire, until you find one that meets your demands and still is more compact and agile to drive and can easily get twice the fuel economy of the big ones. The competition in that CUV (compact utility vehicle) is ferocious, and continues to get broader and more competitive by the month.


Compact size gives up storage and rear seatroom, but CX-3 style and zoom-zoom prevails.

  Look at Honda, with its Pilot, then its smaller CR-V, and now an even more compact HR-V. Toyota has the Highlander, then the 4Runner, and then the compact RAV4, and now has spread out into various smaller runabouts that may or may not even offer all-wheel drive — which is the primary reason folks wanted SUVs/CUVs in the first place. And Nissan has the Pathfinder, the Murano, down to the Rogue, and now the Rogue Sport, and a new one, the Kicks (as in, “Get your Kicks”) that is smaller still.

    Mazda created the compact CX-5, which seemed perfectly aimed at the CR-V and RAV4 and Rogue, and they came out with the larger CX-9, and the smaller CX-3. All three perform with the best, and have the added and undeniable edge in sporty “fun-to-drive” that lives up to Mazda’s “Zoom-zoom” philosophy.

   Last summer, while I had to admit the CX-3 was cramped in the rear seat and stowage room, it was amazingly fun to drive and agile, and I truly prefered the smaller 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine to the larger and more powerful 2.5. The statistics showed the EPA esdtimates were only about 1 mpg different, but in my driving — smooth, steady, but with gusts of gustro — I was able to coax that CX-3 with the 2.0 up to 38.4 miles per gallon. And taht’s with AWD.

   At a price of about $25,000, the CX-3 seemed to have all the assets that a couple with little kids, or an aging couple whose kids are gone, might want. My only reservation was the rear seat. And then my older son, Jack, who is about 5-11, and helps me a lot in creating this column and chipping in with my wife, Joan, to expand my experiences with test-drivers, arrived for a visit. He volunteered to hop into the rear seat, even though we warned him that it wouldn’t be comfortable.


Clean, contemporary interior design is refreshing change from usual complexities.

He folded himself just slilghtly to fit into the rear door, and once inside, exclaimed that it was fine — not expansive, but spacious enough and designed to comfortably house a couple of adults. So as I gave the CX-3 back, I had to put a question mark next to the one concern I had.

   Six months later, in the harshest time of winter in Duluth, Minnesota, I got a new 2018 Mazda CX-3. It, too, was gleaming pearlescent white, and it looked striking, even against the snow, which kept falling in differing dosages throughout the week. It looks pretty much the same as the 2017, and the magazines all kissed off the new one as being virtually the same. It’s not.

    A couple of the features are important to Northern drivers, such as a heated steering wheel, automatic dimming and brightening headlights, and a little trick called “G-vectoring.” This is something a few automakers are getting into, but Mazda is, as usual, ahead of the technology race. When you have g-vectoring, it means your car will turn in and corner and slalom tightly in much quicker-reacting form. In Mazda’s scheme, it is a safety characteristic that redefines Zoom-zoom beyond reason.


Mazda designers blended style into every contour and crease of the CX-3.

As a driver, when you decide to make a quick turn or lane change, you know what’s coming, and you may or may not be impressed at how th vehicle responds. Your wife/passenger is more surprised, and goes through enough of what they call “head-toss” to be uncomfortable, tending toward car-sickness.

   Mazda noted that what makes the car respond more quickly and more smoothly is to reduce the power to the outside front wheel just slightly, as it simultaneously softens the same wheel. That seems to conflict with the idea of stiffening the outer wheel, but the softening inspires your instincts to turn fully, and as you start to turn, the power and suspension reduction on the front outside wheel makes you realize your timing for the turn works. Besides, it only affects your steering instincts for a millisecond.

   The real-world evidence that it works is that in a normal car, you swerve or turn or change lanes abruptly, and you find the urgent need to correct your steering input, which sometimes leads to over-correcting and the need to correct the correction. That, I’ve always maintained, is what throws you out of control. With Mazda’s brilliant technique, you may not feel any difference, and shrug it off as insignificant. But Mazda’s research shows that the driver rarely or never needs to correct, or over-correct, because the car goes where it’s steering more smoothly.

   Your front-seat passenger will not notice the difference, either, but will get home without the queasiness or stiff neck.


While small, the is CX-3 has adequate storage room for hiking gear, light luggage.

Mazda put G-vectoring into the 2017 Mazda3, and Mazda6 sedans, and into the new CX-5, but the newest model of the CX-3 was already out, and missed the technology. That didn’t mean it was a bad car, but if you’re going to get a vehicle, you want it armed with the best technical tricks — particiularly in Minnesota, where we have hundreds of car-seeking deer who want to dash out and bang into any size or shape vehicle that might pass between them and their dusk watering path. Swerving smoothly doesn’t sound as catchy as Zoom-soom, but it is part of the idea.

   What impressed us both was that even when the snow piled to inches that became a foot or so, the small, compact CX-3 stormed through it, you should pardon the expression. The Touring and Grand Touring varieties of the CX-3 have 18-inch wheels, and all-season tires, which could, of course, be upgraded to a more winter-beating variety. My favoirites remain Nokian WR-3 or WR-2 all-seasons.

   But I also have to take issue with Mazda designers and engineers, who move to the larger wheels and tires for improved sporty handling, but without regard for another theory of mine. If you take a 16 or 17 inch wheel, mounted with a tire, then you increase the size of the wheel to 18 or even 20 inches, you must reduce the width of the tire sidewall to make it the same fit. In so doing, every time you hit a washout or nasty rough patch of pavement, the less cushioning provided by wider tire sidewalls is transmitted directly to you in the passenger compartment with jolting harshness.

   We didn’t find our CX-3 too harsh, although it has a neat little toggle switch on the console that you can click into “sport” setting. It firms the suspension, quickens the steering and allows the exceptional 6-speed automatic to hold its shiftpoints longer. We found the CX-3 actually felt better in sport mode.

    I was briefly disappointed when my readings disclosed a best gas-mileage figure of 30.2 mpg, until I realized that we spent much of our time with the CX-3 when temperatures were either single-digits or below zero, and every car or truck I’ve ever tested can’t match its best mileage of summer during severe cold. You want to warm up the car briefly, and severe cold simply requires the computer to let in more fuel to the air-fuel mixture.

Imagine the audacity of Mazda, to put round knobs in the CX-3 for simple controls!

   Another word of praise is due for the 6-speed automatic transmission, built in-house by Mazda. You can still get a 6-speed Mazda manual shift for the CX-3, which is outstanding, but almost all competitors have given in the the CVT trend, and the annoying hummmmm of the continuously variable transmission reduces driving satisfaction, in my opinion. If you don’t believe me, test-drive any competitor with a CVT, then drive the CX-3 with its smooth-shifting and quick 6-speed automatic, and with the available paddles on the steering wheel, you will be zoom-zoomed to appreciate the difference.

   Now we’re torn. We’d like to purchase a small, fuel-efficient SUV, and we have several in mind. We know the CX-3 can’t be set up to tow, and it has limited storage space behind the rear seat, and we have that cramped getting into and out of the rear seat. But with all things considered, the CX-3 has moved back up to the top of the class.


Challenger GT goes, where others spin their tires

February 1, 2018 by · Comments Off on Challenger GT goes, where others spin their tires
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Ponycars and icy winter highways don’t mix, until now, with the AWD Dodge Challenger GT.

By John Gilbert

   What’s wrong with this picture, as they say? It’s a photo of a beautiful new Dodge Challenger parked along a North Shore cove in Two Harbors, Minnesota, overlooking an icy Lake Superior, and sitting on a snowy, icy parking area.

   Everyone know that the resurrection of the “Big Three” ponycars — the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, and Dodge Challenger — is heartwarming and attractive, but those wonderful hot cars from the late 1960s through 1970 had one thing in common: front engine and rear drive. You either chose judiciously when to venture out between November and April, or, better, you parked them during the winter months.

    With their wide tires and ready-to-race demeanor, those cars traditionally are not what yoiu think you should be driving in slippery conditions.

   However, we now must make an exception. While the Mustang and Camaro have been modernized in styling updates in recent years, the Challenger has stayed truest to its 1970-era roots. Until now. Dodge made the most publicity out of adding the SRT Hellcat powertrain, and the over-the-top 808 horsepower Demon model.

   Flying well below that outrageous 2018 power display, Challenger has added a GT model, which comes with a strong  3.6-liter V6 engine and winter-beating all-wheel drive. Think about that: all-wheel drive! The GT term, which traditionally stands for Grand Touring (or Gran Turismo).sounds like it should be hotter than its siblings, even the Hellcat and other huge-engined monsters, but in reality is possibly the best real-world model of all the ponycars.

Challenger GT styling can be called “future-retro,” but for 2018, it houses a lot of technical advances.

   The Challenger GT I recently test-drove was painted a stunning “IndiGo” blue, and otherwise, except for black alloy wheels and a tastefully small “GT” on its flanks, doesn’t jump out as a high performer. But take it up an icy avenue in Duluth, or drive off the street into the ice-covered parking area near Two Harbors, and when you want to go, just shift the 8-speed TorqueFlite transmission into “D” and step on the gas. Read more

Nissan’s Rogue worthy challenger for Toyota’s RAV4

January 14, 2018 by · Comments Off on Nissan’s Rogue worthy challenger for Toyota’s RAV4
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Cover them with an overnight snowfall, and the Nissan Rogue (left) and Toyota RAV4 are more similar — take your pick.

By John Gilbert

     Early December in Northern Minnesota, forecast called for a high reaching a surprising 40 degrees. Three days later, it plunged from 39 to a single-digit low of 6 overnight. It was 13 the next day, then the forecast said heavy snowstorm blanketing the Duluth area, but the heavy stuff split, some of it staying north and the rest veering south, along Wisconsin’s South Shore, leaving Duluth and Lake Superior’s North Shore with a mere dusting. Couple days later, we got hit with another couple inches of snow.

   The weather forecast can be boring, but not often in and around Duluth. It didn’t bother me, because of my luck of the test-drive draw that particular week. Almost as though they were related by potential, a Toyota RAV4 and a Nissan Rogue couldn’t have proven themselves more impressively. In the process, they provided a better understanding about why U.S. car-buyers are walking right past compact and midsize sedans to get to the SUVs across the showroom. Compact SUVs, often called CUVs for Crossover Utility Vehicles, have taken over.

   Two of the mainstays of the compact SUV trend are Toyota’s RAV4, and Nissan’s Rogue. There are dozens of others, such as the Honda CR-V, and a couple of my personal favorites in the Hyundai Tucson and the Mazda CX-5.

   But the RAV4 has become the largest-selling vehicle in Toyota livery, which is astounding because of the popularity of the Camry, and the Rogue has much more quietly become Nissan’s largest seller.

   The more they advance, the more similar they seem to be, and by sheer coincidence, the week where we had the weird temperature shift from mild to numbing cold to snow, I happened to be able to switch back and forth between a 2017 RAV4 and a 2018 Rogue. Mother Nature didn’t stand a chance.

   You are not likely to change a Toyota buyer over to a Nissan, nor will you convince a Nissan buyer to switch allegiance. Same goes for Honda, Mazda and now even Hyundai buyers, as well as several others. But there aren’t a lot of major letdowns in the highly competitive group.


The Rogue has gotten a few upgrades for the 2018 model year, as Nissan’s top seller.

Nissan has updated its Rogue for 2018, adding some very nice creature features to the interior. Plush, red leather seats and full connectivity stuff complete the scenario, and I particularly liked the auto-start switch on the key fob, which worked easier than any others I’ve tested. Push the button from your kitchen, it starts up, and when you climb aboard you just hit the starter switch again and take off. No stop and restart. I also liked the CD player, while most companies are leaving those out. You can even get a very small third-row seat arrangement, which probably will remain folded down flat for stowage throughout their life spans.


Style and function send the Rogue into battle against winter elements.

  Handling is firm and precise, and you always have the feeling that the Rogue is solid and firmly in command of all roadway problems. You can get Rogues for a base price of about $24,000 while the test vehicle, an SL AWD model, starts at over $26,000 and moves upward. The choice of engines is simple. You can get a hybrid model, but the standard 2.5-liter 4-cylinder has 170 horsepower and 175 foot-pounds of torque, feeding its pep through a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Read more

Jeep’s TrackHawk really DASHES through the snow

January 13, 2018 by · Comments Off on Jeep’s TrackHawk really DASHES through the snow
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Grand Cherokee is a popular Jeep SUV, but Jeep owners won’t believe Trackhawk model.

By John Gilbert

    Maybe it’s because the folks who build Jeeps are cousins to the FCA Group’s Dodge Boys, who keep giving new life to aging — vintage? — sedans, but the engineering crossover happened quicker and more efficiently than crossovers themselves. That’s why we now have something called the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk — which might be described as the perfect vehicle for somebody who wants to go off-roading extremely fast.

    After my first, somewhat breathtaking, exposure to the 707-horsepower Trackhawk, which came on a road-racing track, my biggest question is how would such an enormously overpowered and highly-engineered vehicle work in the real world.

    Now, my real-world is based on the North Shore of Lake Superior, up the road a piece from the westernmost point of the big lake, called Duluth. In the Duluth area, we have what you call “winter.” During winter, there is a lot of cold weather, and a lot of snow and ice. Having less power and more traction is usually an asset during the winter months. Finally, I got the chance to adequately test a Grand Cherokee Trackhawk just before Christmastime, and Mother Nature was kind enough to oblige with a nasty little snowstorm, which covered the North Shore with about 6 inches of snow, and then a temperature plunge that want down near zero, just to make it crusty.


Trackhawk exterior cues are subtle, interior features are refined to custom level.

  The timing was good enough that I could ask my wife, Joan, and sons Jack and Jeff, for a special Christmas gift — a Trackhawk of my own. They rejected my suggestion out of hand. They offered some flimsy excuse like it wouldn’t fit under the Christmas tree, but I knew their reluctance was only because they couldn’t gather up the $90,880 on the sticker for the test vehicle.

    Given a choice, every automaker in the world would like to provide what they call complete coverage of whatever segment they are in. Jeep, undoubtedly the most-recognized name in U.S. automobiles, is not immune from that desire, even though Jeep’s segment is comparatively small and well focused.

   I mean, the original Jeep was built to go anywhere, particularly over rugged terrain while transporting soldiers or military officials through fields, mountains, streams and every other imaginable surface. So Jeep has excelled at building its Wrangler to do just that, and a surprisingly large gang of hobby off-roaders is forever grateful. Jeep then stretched upward, to build larger vehicles before the term “SUV” came along, and the Grand Cherokee has been a stalwart Sport Utility Vehicle since its inception.

    From there, every direction came into play, and Jeep built the Cherokee, which was smaller, or less-grand, than the Grand Cherokee; then various diversionary vehicles, including the Wagoneer, Patriot, Compass, Renegade, and whatever. Finally, Jeep has streamlined itself to fofer the Grand Cherokee, Cherokee, Compass, Renegade, and Wrangler. That must have been where the Jeep engineers realized that their counterparts who build Dodge Chargers and Dodge Challengers, and even a competitive SUV called the Durango, were having a lot more fun than merely bouncing over off-road terrain. Read more

Quadrifoglio gives Giulia 505-horsepower kick

January 13, 2018 by · Comments Off on Quadrifoglio gives Giulia 505-horsepower kick
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Looking identical to its turbo-4 brother, the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio has a Formula 1-inspired twin-turbo V6.

By John Gilbert

   As a responsible automotive journalist, it’s been my long-standing motto to avoid losing it and gushing too favorably about any car. And, in looking back a month or two, I must take full responsibility for losing it when I reviewed the Alfa Romeo Giulia TI, with its great balance and handling and its potent 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine.

   Bear with me, because it’s that time again.

   After just enough time between driving the bright red Giulia TI and the hard-core onset of winter, I got the chance to spend a week with a flistening Trofeo White Tri-coat Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio.

   If the 2.0 Giulia is the perfect sedan, then the Quadrifoglio is its muscular big brother. Reports are that parent Fiat instructed subsidiary Ferrari to assign its best Formula 1 engineers to build the hot little four, and they did well. Those engineers must have enjoyed coming to work every day to work on the Quadrifoglio, however, because they overachieved.

   They were told to build engines that could make the new Giulia something truly special, and they came up with a 2.9-liter V6 — not very big, by V6 standards — and they forced power into it with twin turbochargers that resulted in 505 horsepower and 443 foot-pounds of torque. Driven through an 8-speed automatic transmission, with those giant paddles affixed to either side of the steering column, you need to be especially alert behind the wheel, because the Quadrifoglio could get away from you.

   The four had a remarkable 276 horses and 295 foot-pounds of torque, and while that is far more than adequate, numbers like 505 and 443 allow the Quadrifoglio to rise to a whole ‘nother universe in scorching car performance. Read more

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