With the manufacturer kicking in an extra $2000 in incentives during November 2006, it was a great time to buy. I found a dealer who agreed to trade for one of only two GT wagons in the entire region, and give it to me for 1% above invoice, resulting in a before-tax cost of just $25,000 for a loaded car that rolled off the assembly line in September.
One of Mazda’s slogans is “Always the soul of a sports car,” and judging by this wagon they live up to it. First of all, I have to say I love the look of this car, inside and out. Right now it is the best-looking wagon you can buy in the U.S. One of my big concerns was that it would be a rough ride on its 18″ wheels, which are shod with very low-profile P215/45 tires. But the suspension in this thing is a dream: It locks on to the road and corners like it’s on rails, yet soaks up imperfections with all of the aplomb of the best German sports sedans I’ve driven.
The powertrain is very slick as well. The 6-speed automatic shifts extremely smoothly, and turns out EPA economy of 20mpg City / 27mpg Highway — acceptable for a 3500 pound car. (And though I doubt the EPA tests encompass this, I should also note that in a day in which most highway cruising is done above 85mph, that extra tall gear can make a real difference for fuel economy. This car does 2600rpm at 80mph and 3000rpm at 90mph, which still isn’t as tall as I think appropriate for a sixth gear.) I had hoped that by this point CVT transmissions would be widespread, but I guess this 6-speed is a decent approximation.
The engine is a 3.0 liter V6 rated at 212hp, and even though it is a product of Ford, Mazda has tied it together with a decently responsive control system: Floor the accelerator and there is just barely enough of a pause to let you know you’re driving American, but then it spins up to the redline at a respectable rate. Torque is sufficient to just about break the tires loose on a dry road. The engine emits a satisfying growl at high RPMs, yet stays very calm during cruising.
Interior fit and finish is good, even by the standards of near-luxury cars costing $10k more. I am extremely sensitive to squeaks and rattles, and so far am happy to have not detected even the faintest one I am thrilled to have a tilt AND telescoping steering wheel, which for the first time in a car I actually own has allowed me to arrange the cockpit to give my 6’2″ frame a perfect driving posture.
The Grand Touring package leaves it nicely loaded, including such almost-essential amenities as HID low-beams, heated seats, automatic climate control with air filter, auto-dimming mirror with Homelink, alarm, etc. I could do without the moonroof, but that seems to get thrown into the mix anytime you step above a base trim. Features I wish were available, but which are not: Memory seats and mirrors, Vehicle Stability Control. And two features they have no excuse for omitting: Tire pressure sensors, and an exposed audio input to the sound system (e.g., for MP3 players).
I love this car, but it’s not perfect: It has a wide turning radius — the widest I can remember in a car. There is some highway tire noise as one gets up to a reasonable cruising speed. (I imagine that most low-profile all-seasons generate a good amount of road noise, but that higher-end cars carry an extra few hundred pounds of noise insulation.) Like many other cars, when the gas tank is a few gallons from the top it emits sloshing sounds, which disappear as the gas level drops. Finally, I was dismayed to find that the rear door is just two inches too small to admit a half sheet of plywood (which is 48″ on a side).
Mazda’s reliability seems to be nestled down there in the middle of the pack. I wasn’t heartened to find a United Auto Workers sticker on a rear window advertising that this car was assembled with union labor. (Though I suppose that means I can park it downtown without having my tires slashed.) So I’ve made an allowance of around $1,300 to buy an extended warranty. I’m still working on the warranty issue; stay tuned for a report as soon as I’ve decided between EasyCare (offered through the dealer), Ford, and WarrantyDirect.com.
Why buy a sedan when you can get a wagon?
My salesman said that the only reason Mazda continues to make wagons is for the Canadian market. Indeed, I had a hard time just finding a single wagon to look at, and the dealer was only able to locate two in the Grand Touring trim in the entire region. Which just goes to show how stupid American car buyers can be.
The wagon configuration of this car is fabulously useful. The cabin volume is 98 cubic feet. Pop the split rear seats down and you have 60 cubic feet of cargo capacity. The clever cargo cover easily retracts, removes, and even remounts on the folded seats to set up another cargo divider right behind the front. Even if you never shop at Costco or Home Depot, I don’t see what you lose by owning the wagon: It weighs just 100 pounds more than the sedan, and has the same performance characteristics.
Why buy an SUV when you can get a wagon?
So if Mazda can hardly move any wagons, what is it they can move? As with every other nameplate, the answer is their new compact SUV: the CX-7. Which I mention only as an amusing contrast with their wagon: The Front-Wheel Drive version of the CX-7 weighs 200 pounds more than this wagon, gets commensurately lower mileage (19/24 vs 20/27), and actually has (marginally) less cargo capacity than the wagon! Meanwhile, the higher center of gravity seriously compromises handling.
So what do you get with an SUV? Towing capacity, and ground clearance. So if you have to tow something, the wagon won’t cut it. And if you need to drive through drifts of snow more than 7 inches deep, the SUV will give you another inch or two. But in each of these cases you also need All-Wheel Drive, which adds another 200 pounds to the vehicle weight, and further reduces fuel economy.
The last rationalization of the yuppie buying the compact SUV is that they need it for bad weather. But I would wager that putting a set of M+S (Mud-Snow) tires on a FWD car will do more to get a suburbanite through any level of snow that is safe to drive on than an AWD car with all-season tires. After all, AWD does not give you any more traction for cornering or braking, and it’s your ability to turn and stop that keeps you safe.