Posted by: dolan | March 19, 2004

A Tale of Two Test Drives

Recently, our trusty Civic has been showing its age. Age as measured in miles more than years: the odometer reads approximately 149k miles, yet the car is not yet ten years old. That may sound about right (~15k miles per year), but keep in mind that the vast majority of those miles have been piled on in the last four years due to our SF – SJ commute (50 miles each way, 3 times a week).

The first car I drove, and at the top of my list of prospectives, was the Mazda3 hatchback. The 3 is a very nice package. Things are well put together and well thought out, the car is quiet, and it handles as well or better than many dedicated sports cars. The acceleration is decent (especially north of 5000 rpm — it redlines at 8k), and it has a nifty manu-matic that satisfies both Renee’s needs and mine. Now, for the bad stuff. Crashes over any road imperfection are heard and felt due to the low profile 17 inch tires. Also, freeway mileage is a subpar 29mpg for the automatic; a definite drop over our Honda’s ~35. Of course, the car makes 40 more hp than our Honda, but it’s also 10 years newer. It’s also 300 pounds heavier, which is where I think a lot of those lost gallons go.

Here’s how Mazda could remedy the 3 (at least for me). Either A) cut a deal with Borg/Warner (the transmission manufacturer) and put in their new DSG (currently only in VW/Audi cars) semi-auto transmission. It’s basically a computer controlled manual. Not only would it improve the performance of the automatic 3, but it would substantially improve the mpg numbers as well, as anything with a clutch (or, in this case, two) will be more efficient than anything with a torque converter. B) make an “i” spec version of the 5 door, with the 2.0 liter engine and 16″ wheels (instead of the 17s). Or, a third, and best, option, C) do both A and B 🙂

The dealership, Putnam Mazda, seemed to be a good one. The salesman was really polite and easygoing, and didn’t push too hard when I made my intentions clear of not buying ont the spot, even when he offered “to make us a really good deal”. We took a nice, long, relaxed test drive, and he didn’t mind it when I got on the gas. All in all, a really good sales experience, even though nothing was really sold.

Yesterday, I went to Ellis GM (too many brands to list) over on Van Ness, after calling them on the phone and getting pretty rude treatment. See, GM said on their website that they had a “24 hour test drive”, which sounded cool. Now, the only reasons GM is even in the picture are that my company gets discounts on their vehicles, that GM themselves offer huge discounts ($2500+ off), and that the Pontiac Vibe is pretty much an identical car to the Toyota Matrix, and the Matrix is a direct competitor to the Mazda3. Still with me 🙂 ?

When I arrived, I found out that the 24 hour test drive program had ended the previous weekend (apparently nobody had bothered to tell their site admins, or the guy on the phone). I was quite annoyed. I finally got the salesman to take me for a test drive. He was a young guy, and not terribly professional, even when he realized that I was a serious buyer who could pay cash. We found a silver automatic Vibe and took it down from storage. The traffic was pretty heavy at 6pm, but I got a decent feel for the car.

The Vibe wasn’t bad. Not as fun as the Mazda3, but then again, I don’t think it’s mission was pure fun. The good: pretty good handling with low amounts of body roll, better ride than the 3, very quiet. The interior was extremely well thought out: the rear seats folded completely flat, the passenger’s seat could turn into a table, there was a 110/220v power outlet on the dash (how cool is that?). Unfortunately, there was a decent amount of bad. The car was gutless, but then again, it gets 5mpg more both city and highway (by sacrificing 40hp to the Mazda) . Gutless, but not unlivable gutless, so I guess that’s a wash. However, there were rattles. A “door ajar” warning light on the dash stayed on even though all doors were solidly shut (and we checked, just to be sure). There was some weird button missing its end, so I had no idea what it did. Finally, I really missed the cool manu-matic shifter of the 3, and what’s more, this shifter only had D, 2, and 1, so I had no way of shifting into third deliberately. That sucked.

Toyota/Pontiac should really offer something like Mazda’s manu-matic transmission (DSG again would be a welcome addition). Pontiac needs to exorcise its GM quality control demons. The car felt like two halves, with the A student Toyota half keeping the Pontiac half from failing. Finally, Ellis needs to work on their customer service. They seemed extremely bored and blase about selling anyone anything, and my salesperson didn’t really know the answer to anyof my questions.

So, the verdict? Well, in the short term (at least until I do my taxes), I think i’m gonna keep driving the Honda. To get the GM incentives, I’d need to buy by the end of the month, but I don’t like being under pressure to buy. The Mazda is awfully tempting, if I can get my head around 29mpg. Though economically, a 5mpg difference is only $200/year (at 20k mi/year, $2 gallon). Why not get another Civic, you ask? Well, tempting too (the HX gets 44mpg and has a CVT), but Honda doesn’t offer any automatic hatchbacks these days. Their loss. And that means you, too, Mazda and Pontiac — I’m your target market, and don’t you forget that.


  1. Putnam Mazda is not an organization you want to deal with. Furthermore Mazda corporation does not live up to its commitments. You are better off with the Toyota.

  2. I agree – the Toyota is a better car

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