Friday, September 17, 2010

The Cost Effect

Since my last car post was about something so expensive, I thought I'd switch gears. Of course I love to see all the crazy stuff I'm not likely to be able to drive any time soon, but I can be a realist, also. If I were legitimately going to purchase a car, for the price, I'd have to say I'd be looking at Mazda. I also like the Chryslers a lot in this range, and of course I'd want to test drive a few things, but I really do like Mazda's styling.

Since I've gotten my Zipcar account, I've been trying to choose a different model each time I go out. I did get a Mazda the first time. More recently I drove a Kia Soul. It was a nice enough looking car and nice enough to drive, but I couldn't get past the miserably huge blind spots. I once got into a minor accident merging lanes on the highway (which I still don't think was my fault), so I'm particularly paranoid about that.

I did say that if you're going to spend the money on a Rolls, you deserve something that looks like it costs that much. At the same time, I can't put my finger on how they do it exactly, but the cheapest cars just
look cheap. Mostly I'm thinking of the bland sedans offered by Toyota and Ford, the magnificent new Mustang notwithstanding. It's as if they strip the cars of every last detail that could make them remotely interesting. They're about as boring as they could possibly be at best, at worst their design is ugly and awkward.

And I'm actually confused as to why they do it. That is to say, what marketing goal do they hope to accomplish? I've seen some concepts from them and some design drawings that were really not bad at all. What demographic is turned on by this? But maybe I'm asking the wrong question. Maybe the consumer they hope to attract doesn't want to be turned on, because something that turns you on can't possibly be a "sensible" purchase.

Since we just had Fashion Week, I'll use a clothing analogy. We all know someone who can say with the ultimate sincerity that they do not care about clothes. He or she is most often found in jeans and a t-shirt, a plain white one preferably, or something they got for free. Seemingly, very little thought went into their choices and it's purely a matter of luck whether he or she is matched or mismatched. I find this whole notion to be terribly oxymoronic and even self-deluded. The operative word here is "choices." A hundred different choices were required for the resulting jeans and t-shirt outfit, the same amount of choices as for any other outfit. Faded boot-cut button-fly, not pegged stretch acid-wash with too many zippers: choice. Red flannel shirt, not bomber jacket: choice.

Even the person who tells his or her significant other to purchase something at the store that will fit them--beyond that he or she "doesn't care"--is making a wardrobe choice, the choice being that the other person knows what will look good on them and will get it. "Something that will fit" is yet another choice, as opposed to too tight or too baggy, and plenty of people do both.

I'd like to say to these people:
you're still making all the same choices the rest of us are, you still have to do the work making those decisions, why not just make better choices or more interesting ones? It isn't passively "not caring," it's actively presenting the appearance of not caring.

So why do people choose the automobile equivalent of jeans and a t-shirt? The purchase of a car is a much bigger commitment than an outfit, so it can't give the appearance of a thoughtless decision. Do they want to attract as little attention to themselves as they can? Or do they want their car to look as much like everyone else as it can? It's a person who presumably wants their car to say to the world, "I'm just a normal person with a normal car, nothing flashy, nothing distinct, nothing special about it or me." Or maybe they simply have bad taste. Who are these people?

This is not to say that the Mazdas are so other-worldly or loud, especially compared to something like the Spyker Aileron. And I will have to say that their interiors leave plenty to be desired. They really need to get an interior designer who can keep pace with their exterior designers. The insides of them can be quite clunky and mostly unattractive. But for a relatively inexpensive car, I think they have a lot of character. They didn't actually unveil anything new this year, except for a new version of the Mazda2, their minicar, with few, if any, improvements. The MX-5 Miata filled an untapped niche and remains a very sweet little car, but it's more or less looked the same since it came on the market. I never did get around to discussing them last year as I'd planned, and I have more to say on the subject now.

Let's start at the beginning, shall we? Here are some early drawings for the Mazda3:

The first thing to notice here is that, aside from some not unexpected stylization in the drawings and a little bit of an overzealous curvaceousness on the front end, this really doesn't look all that significantly different than what came off of their assembly line. For the ways in which it does, I still don't think they lost much of what made this early design concept interesting. All I can say is that they must have someone up top making decisions who has some guts, because their designs are not being watered down for the lowest common denominator like so many other manufacturers do.

Here's an early computer rendering:

Now those three parallel lines at the back end--window, shoulder, and tail--create a really great moment. But the fantastic thing about this is that the final production model is actually nicer and more interesting than this concept. Obviously in these early stages, they just want to work out the basic profile. It's truly a testament to the talent of their design team that as they start adding more of the necessary details to what will be the final product, they don't screw it up along the way.

Here's the Mazda3, and if I'm not mistaken, I believe this was the one I rented:

Here's their CX-7 wagon/minivan crossover:

It's not the best thing they offer, but for what it is, I think its very well done. I especially like how, although it is clearly higher and bulkier, it very much manages to stand like a bulked-up car, rather than a squashed-down van. I also think using a bit of a sharper prow and a smoothed-over back end was a smart move. It makes it feel sleeker and less cumbersome.

Mazda has always done a sports car well. My teacher in fifth grade had an RX-7. He was the kind of guy you'd imagine didn't realize that Disco had died, or if he did, he wished it hadn't. But I thought that was one seriously cool car. Even looking back now, I still think it was incredibly well designed.

Here's the gorgeous Shinari Concept from a couple years ago:

The one we can own is the RX-8. In my opinion it's one of the best designed cars I saw at the show in this relatively reasonable price range.

Normally I much, much prefer a car without all the spoilers and scoops and ground effects. The Lamborghini Countach, for a great example, is absolutely exquisite without them and with them is a complete mess. Why anyone would buy a car like that and then ruin it with all that extra crap is beyond me. The RX-8, on the other hand, is helped by a few added details. The ground work gives it a more solid stance and gives its contours a little bit of needed sharpness.

It also helps to amplify one of the best things about the design: the contrast between the wide, flat, angular front end and the smooth, tapered, upturned back end. They knew what they were doing, too. The front wheel wells and headlights, as well as the taillights and the back of the roof line all work so well with the overall profile. Granted, it's not a Ferrari, but I think this is a great car.

©2010, Ryan Witte

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