Saturday, August 19, 2017

2017 Mazda CX-5 GT All Wheel Drive review

2017 Mazda CX-5 GT

My road test of the Mazda CX-5 GT (All wheel drive) started with a flight from Prince George, British Columbia, to Vancouver, one of my favourite short hauls. The turboprop aircraft fly low enough that on a clear day, the passengers get a fantastic view of parts of the Chilcotin Plateau and Coast Mountains. I usually spend my time staring out the window like an excited child, thinking of previous adventures and adventures to come. In the backcountry I prefer human power to motors, so don’t do much off-road bashing, but the approaches to certain trailheads can be a bit tricky, as can winters in the mountains. All wheel drive and a bit more ground clearance are therefore desirable features. Many buyers also go for SUVs because of the higher seating position, as well as easier entry and egress.

One day after leaving Prince George, in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia on Saturday morning, I walk up to my Metallic Grey Mazda CX-5 test car. Every manufacturer has a pet name for its styling philosophy. For Mazda it is Kodo, or soul of motion, and yes I did have to look that up. The results are hard to argue with, the CX-5 is a clean design and looks more athletic than the competition. After a walk-around, I get in and set my seating position. The Mazda’s interior looks upmarket and is nicely trimmed. Ergonomics are good, the steering wheel is perfect for my 9 and 3 hand position. Still nothing unique here, in the hotly contested compact SUV category all the top players, such as the Hyundai Tucson and Honda CR-V, have good ergonomics. 

A few kilometres down the road, I find myself smiling. Mazda, the Driving Matters company, has absolutely aced the driving dynamics, from chassis tuning to steering feel. Mazda seems to have moved into the territory once occupied by BMW, and still present in that company’s smaller vehicles. The CX-5 is a treat to drive for a skilled or enthusiastic motorist. It just feels right.

With my cousin, Croatia-based professional photographer Rino Gropuzzo, strapped into the passenger seat, we head up Nova Scotia’s south shore. The first leg is highway, with a 110 k/hr speed limit and quite a bit of holiday traffic. Again, well tuned dynamics make a difference. I use the shifter-operated manual mode of the six-speed gearbox, in Sport setting, to facilitate overtaking.  While decently quick, with 187 horsepower and 184 lb/ft of torque, the Mazda CX-5 is no rocket ship, so planning is required. The upcoming diesel version might be a better pick for heavy loads or trailer towing.

The rest of our drive, not counting stops for seafood chowder and scallops, includes half an hour on weatherbeaten, twisty blacktop, then a stretch on gravel. You can get Mazda’s quality of driving dynamics in compact luxury SUVs, such as a Volvo XC 60 Polestar or a Porsche Macan, but at a considerably higher price.

On the gravel road section, my cousin took his camera equipment and positioned himself on the outside of a corner. I did a run with traction control engaged, then switched off the traction control for a bit of rally stage type of action. Sliding sideways on corner entry, the CX-5 GT proved completely user-friendly and predictable.

At this point, the Mazda CX-5 is unquestionably the driver’s car in this segment. I run an advanced driving school and am a racing driver, which does make me a critical test driver, especially where vehicle dynamics are concerned. The CX-5 GT is one of the few mainstream vehicles I’ve driven this year that I would actually consider owning.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

2014 GMC Acadia Denali Review

For When a Minivan Won’t Do 

The GMC Acadia Denali is top of the heap in the Acadia line-up, which shares its basic chassis with the Chevy Traverse and Buick Enclave. It is by far the most rugged-looking of the trio. The platform itself is about ten tears old, but has been updated consistently along the way. Power comes from a six-cylinder engine, producing around 270 lb/ft of torque. However, this is no lightweight vehicle, tipping the scales at over 2000 kilos, or close to 5000 pounds.


Inside, the Denali is a mix of luxury and plastic. Biggest gripe is the row of similar buttons, set low, to operate secondary controls. Designers, please note. Humans work well with tactile stuff, switches, knobs, and levers. If you must use buttons, can’t you give each one a distinct feel? Drivers should never need to look down to find a control.


The common line on the Denali, and other biggish crossovers, is that they are for people who need a minivan but don’t want one. Goofy, because a good minivan is a fine thing. There had to be more to the story, and I found it in my traditional road testing territory, the winding Duffey Lake Road across the Coast Mountains, and then onto the rugged Chilcotin Plateau.


Performance and handling were adequate if not inspired, but that’s not the point. Unlike most of my journalist colleagues, I spend at least half my life beyond range of cellular phones or internet. Getting stuck becomes a Bad Thing, because help is not a phone call away. On some of my roads, you could wait a day or two for another vehicle to come by. We always carry self-rescue equipment and emergency supplies.


On a late winter afternoon, I cranked the Denali down a snowy track between some trees, then further along the Duffey. The only reason it came close to getting stuck was the 20-inch wheels and tires, a disadvantage in almost every circumstance except a golf club parking lot. On skinnier 17-inch tires, the Denali would have done even better. It is by no means a hard-core off roader, but handles snow and gravel very well.


Well, that’s the vehicle’s mission. Seven or eight seats, rugged appearance, and reasonable multi-surface capability. For the family that likes to go skiing, camping, etc, and likes that certain old GMC feel, it is a reasonable choice.


I have a hard time with the $60, 000 price tag, but there are many buyers who value luxury and toys much more than I do. For that money you could find quite a few interesting SUVs. The good news is that the base AWD Acadia can be had for a little over $40,000, and it is well-equipped. It even has the skinnier tires, so will keep going where the fancy version could be stylish but stuck.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Porsche beat Chevy to Volt idea by 110 years - Winnipeg Free Press Autos

Friday, June 18, 2010

Inside the Circus

This season’s first Formula One race, the Grand Prix of Bahrain, took place on March 14. Bahrain, an island kingdom near Saudi Arabia, is a popular stop on the circuit or “the circus” as it is called by insiders. More recently, Formula One returned to North America with the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. The race was run on Ile Notre Dame, the island built there for Expo 67. The track is named Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, after the Canadian ace who died in a crash in 1976. I can attest to the fantastic atmosphere in Montreal from having run in supporting races there in the past. McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton won this year from teammate Jensen Button.

Television does not always do justice to the spectacle of Grand Prix racing. Seen in person, it is a different story. Each car is dazzling in its purpose-built perfection. Even parked in pit lane, the contained violence is akin to that of a fighter plane. The engines don’t roar, they scream. Watch from a fast turn and cornering speed, as well as the punishment drivers are taking, becomes clearly visible. It is all madly intense, light years beyond a freeway commute or an enthusiastic drive on a country road.

The heat on race day in Bahrain was around 33 C, with track temperatures between 45 and 50 C. Fernando Alonso, driving for Ferrari, won the race, with his teammate Felipe Massa in second. None of the drivers had to be lifted out of their cars after the event, which got me to thinking about the physical and mental fitness requires to race at that level.

There are no party boys on the circuit anymore, it is simply too tough. Every driver has a personal trainer and an intense fitness regime. These are the fastest racing machines in the world, with cornering and braking forces approaching five Gs. That means, effectively, that competitors are at times supporting five times their body weight, while trying to be precise, even delicate, with the vehicle’s controls. Drivers may lose 3kg of sweat during an event, while heartbeat will hover around 150 for the duration, with peaks approaching 200 bpm. Critical decisions have to be made, corner after corner, for the better part of two hours. Consider the concentration required to perform under that sort of pressure. To put that into perspective, let’s look at the average participants in a racing school.

Most racing courses have a wide range of students, from older enthusiasts to those actually considering a career on the track. The schools I have worked at the most use Formula cars, small open-wheeled vehicles that you slip into like putting on a body-length sock. Some find it claustrophobic, and everyone has to get used to the tight confines. Many students are surprised at how demanding it is to drive a purpose-built racing car. After all, on television it doesn’t look that hard. The truth is, the need for concentration is unrelenting, which is why we generally limit sessions to ten laps or less at a time. We are demanding as instructors, for good reason. It is not enough to be merely in the vicinity of the right line or braking point for a corner. At speed, nearing the limits of tire grip, mistakes can be costly, so precision is a must. After the chequered flag, just about everyone needs a rest. It is a genuine eye-opener, even for dyed in wool racing fans who arrived driving Porsches and the like.

A separate message from all this is that staying fit, if not to Formula One competitor’s level, can help you drive better. For those who spend a long time in their vehicles, a small improvement in core strength can reduce backaches and the like, while better oxygen uptake improves concentration. You don’t necessarily need to follow my example, and carry a jump rope in the car. I just prefer a quick parking lot warm-up to a caffeine overdose. A sign that this works is that after a couple of hours behind the wheel, the first few jumps are somewhat uncoordinated. It takes a few moments, and a couple of good whacks on the head from the rope, then timing returns and I’m refreshed for the next driving stint. You could probably get a positive effect from a bit of stretching and deep breathing, or just strolling around.

I’ll cover other race-based preparation tips in an upcoming article. Unfortunately, nothing to do with interviews, autographs, or squealing tires, but they should nonetheless be useful. In the meantime, enjoy the spectacle, and give a thought to the athletic endeavour going on inside a racing car’s cockpit.


Sunday, September 02, 2007

What Honest Abe Doesn't Tell You About Minimum Tread Depths