American Axle UAW Workers Approve Contract and End Strike

American Axle UAW Workers Approve Contract and End Strike

Bitter strike comes to an end

By Chris Haak


Late last night, the UAW announced that the striking rank-and-file workers at American Axle voted to approve their concessionary contract by a 78% to 22% margin.

The American Axle strike was an ugly situation for all parties involved. GM lost $800 million as a direct result of the strike during March alone, due to the closure or partial closure of as many as 30 different assembly plants. GM also had to chip in another $218 million to help bridge the gap between the UAW and American Axle. The 3,650 UAW workers who were on strike at five American Axle facilities had to survive on very low strike pay for three months, and now are going back to work in the same jobs they had before, but in some cases at two-thirds of their previous hourly wage. The UAW, although managing to improve the final deal by several dollars per hour over American Axle’s initial offer, appears to have overall “lost” this battle with management, showing that the union’s power has been eroded further.

Related to the strike’s settlement was the dramatic drop in pickup and SUV demand – which we outlined in our previous two articles about trends that Ford’s management also noticed. GM announced a few weeks ago that it would significantly curtail production of trucks this year. The drop in large truck demand meant a drop in the demand for axles underpinning these trucks, which meant that American Axle needed its workers to come back to work even less in May than it did when the strike began in February.

For its part, the UAW’s leadership was well aware that they were putting a contract offer that wasn’t as good as they had hoped in front of the membership for a vote. “Our members have had to make some tough decisions for themselves and their families and have done so with careful deliberation,” said UAW President Ron Gettelfinger.

The company will pay workers up to $105,000 over the next three years to make the transition to a lower hourly wage lower. Workers will also be offered between $55,000 and $140,000 incentives to either retire early or leave the company without retiring in an effort to reduce headcount and transition more of the company’s manufacturing capacity to facilities outside the US, including Mexico and Asia. American Axle actually turned a modest profit last year, but saw that their competitors who were more financially distressed had been able to wring lower wages out of their union membership, so were in an uncompetitive position. At least the new deal should help the company remain competitive with other US suppliers going forward.

If it sounds like US-based suppliers and automobile manufacturers can’t seem to catch a break, that’s probably right. Even before the economy turned south in recent months, decades of poor management in the industry led to huge losses even during a rosy economy. Hopefully in a poor economy, the management decisions made in this industry will be better ones. More likely, however, we’ll see further struggles and labor battles before things turn around again.

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Now Ford Accepts Market Reality – Who is Next?

Now Ford Accepts Market Reality – Who is Next?

Will other manufacturers quickly follow?

By Brendan Moore


As we’ve noted in the previous article, Ford held an important press conference yesterday and told reporters that the company now cannot say when it might return to profitability in its core North American operations. Ford just recently predicted a return to profitability in North America in 2009.

The CEO of Ford, Alan Mulally, said the market has dramatically shifted towards smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, and in a first for any U.S. automaker head, said that Ford believes this shift is “structural” (read: permanent) as opposed to temporary. Mulally stated that Ford believes “the tipping point” for this market shift was gasoline reaching an average of $3.50 a gallon nationwide. “It seemed to us that we reached a tipping point where customers began shifting away from these vehicles at an accelerated rate,” Mulally said Thursday morning. “Based on everything we can see on the outlook for fuel prices, we do not anticipate a rapid turnaround in business conditions.”

The short translation is that the high price of gasoline has just crushed sales of pickup trucks and SUVs, which Ford has a lot of and makes a lot of profit from, generally. Cars, which are selling, but are not anywhere near as profitable, are what consumers are buying, and what Ford believes consumers will want to buy more of in the future.

Gasoline is now around $4 a gallon in most parts of the country and soon will go higher in the near term with oil touching $135 a barrel yesterday. Ford has now changed their planning and forecast data. Ford is now basing their aggregate sales forecast based on U.S. gasoline prices to ranging from $3.75 to $4.25 a gallon throughout 2008 and in 2009.

I think they need to dial in some wiggle room in that forecast – on the high side.

Mulally commented that it just in the past week that the senior leadership at Ford realized that their previous forecast had just been eclipsed by rapidly moving market events.

Once the Ford senior executives realized how much the ground had shifted underneath them, they ordered immediate cuts in production in North America. The company has ordered a 15% reduction in second quarter production and a 15%-20% reduction in third quarter production. As might be expected, the cuts will be centered on the SUV and pickup production lines.

The cuts in production will be accompanied by worker cuts, both hourly and salaried.

Ford gets kudos for acting so quickly based on the changing market conditions, but it begs the question of what General Motors and Chrysler will do in the same market environment. Will they reach the same conclusions that Ford has; the conclusion that the market has now irrecoverably changed? Or, is there still sentiment that the SUV and full-size truck market will come back, not as strong as it was, but still robust? GM, of course, has a lot of SUV and pickup truck models, but Chrysler is easily the manufacturer with the greatest percentage of SUVs and large trucks in its model portfolio.

I wish to believe both GM and Chrysler have reached the same conclusion as Ford concerning the future of the new vehicle market here in the U.S. as I am personally certain it is the correct assessment, but since I am not privy to their internal deliberations, who can say?

And what about the other manufacturers? Does Toyota slash Tundra production even more? Will Honda be able to cut back production of the already slow-selling Ridgeline without compromising the profit margins of the vehicle? Does Nissan decide to pull the trigger on selling the Nissan Aprio, their private-label version of the Dacia/Renault Logan, and already on sale in Mexico, in North America? We’ve already seen Honda’s decision to bet very heavily on hybrids for the near future as a result of the fast-moving market environment; do other manufacturers follow suit?

Again, it’s (rampant) speculation on my part. But, if I could offer all the auto manufacturers (not just the three American manufacturers) some advice, I would tell them that not only has the ground shifted, it’s worse than you know. Because all you see is what is happening among the current car-buying public, and the next wave of car-buyers (they are currently 18 years old) is even more interested in buying the most fuel-efficient vehicle available, whatever that looks like in the future. I think these buyers will be looking for small conventional cars that get great fuel mileage, hybrids and electric vehicles, and not much else. I would tell them that time is running short if you want these prospective buyers.

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Ford Announces Production Cuts, Sees Expensive Gas Long-Term

By Chris Haak


Yesterday, Ford made the business news wires for the types of reasons that companies dread – they had to announce bad news. The news was that they expected to basically break even during 2009, while they had originally expected to begin turning a profit that year. The cause, of course, is twofold: the difficult auto market, combined with Ford’s currently truck- and large vehicle-heavy lineup.

Although this is clearly not good news for Ford, it also could be a lot worse. The news would be much worse if Ford had said that they expected to lose money in 2009, instead of basically breaking even. Or worse still, Ford could have said that they were announcing multiple expensive incentive programs to keep the factories humming, in spite of losing money on every vehicle they produce. Instead, the company, under the leadership of CEO Alan Mulally, appears to be under no delusions about its likelihood of sales success without a better selection of small, efficient cars, so is trimming production to appropriate levels.

Overall, Ford is cutting production by 15% for the second quarter 2008 compared to last year, a 15-20% reduction in the third quarter, and approximately an 8% reduction in the fourth quarter. The production cuts will also mean job cuts, although the company did not have immediate specifics of how many jobs would be cut, and from where.

According to Mr. Mulally, the “tipping point” (there is by Malcolm Gladwell, by the way, with the same name) in the market – where consumers really started to abandon the SUV and pickup markets, came when gas prices reached $3.50 per gallon. According to Automotive News, the market share of SUVs fell from 5.2% in April to 4.4% through the first half of May, and down from 8.4% in 2007. Pickups saw their market share fall from 11% in April to 9% in May (and down from 14.1% in 2007). So basically, as a share of all new vehicles, SUVs have lost almost half of their sales since 2007 (from 8.4% to 4.4%) while pickups have lost almost a quarter of their market share.

There’s more decent news for Ford as well. Although truck and SUV production will be curtailed significantly during the remainder of 2008, many of the company’s car and crossover models, including the Focus, Fusion, Edge, Escape, Milan, Mariner, MKZ, and MKX, will see their production increase compared to 2007’s levels.

Many folks wondered where the tipping point would be that would finally make consumers throw up their hands and give up on gas guzzling V8s as personal use trucks. Ford believes the answer to that question is $3.50, but I believe that each person has a different breaking point, while some – who can afford the extra expense or can’t live without cubic inches – may not have any tipping point that changes their behavior, or at least a price so stratospherically high (as in $10+ per gallon) that they will continue to buy pickups and SUVs instead of cars and crossovers.

Although it’s definitely a shame to see Ford having to cut back production plans, I applaud the company for taking the appropriate steps to ensure its future survival and taking a pragmatic approach with regard to fuel prices and the economy. According to Automotive News, Ford’s projected range of gas prices during 2008 and 2009 range from $3.75 to $4.25 per gallon, and staying there for a while. Unfortunately, they’re probably right, unless gas goes past $4.25 per gallon.

The Fiesta can’t come to North America soon enough for Ford.

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The Beginning of the End – Is the Automotive Age, As We Have Known It, Over?

By Alex Ricciuti


I hope not to be one who readily assumes a grievous tone as they portend of a dire future only to drop whatever the current subject may be on a dime for a new paradigm every time the headlines change. Remember how in the 70s we were running out of oil? Now, as the planet warms, we can’t run out of it fast enough. But with oil at 122 dollars a barrel and rising and our having the potential to send the global economy into a tailspin, it’s obvious that game-changing events are quickly closing upon us.

The current crisis does not necessarily spell the end of the automotive age as we know it, not yet, but it just may be the beginning of the end. And one has to say, finally! As much as I enjoy the rush of a gasoline powered acceleration, you have to ask yourself why, with all the technological advances we’ve had since 1885 (and from first flight to the moon within 66 of those years), is humanity still stuck with this primitive propulsion system we’ve had for over 120 years? Namely, the internal combustion engine.

Even before the , we had ample science telling us the agricultural math just didn’t add up for growing bio-fuels such as ethanol or bio-diesel. We couldn’t possible make anything beyond a single-digit percentage dent in our use of fossil fuels. The EU has a proposal to have bio-fuels make up 10 percent of supplies by 2020 but the has asked the EU to suspend the plan fearing it may cause unintended consequences in food supplies and won’t do much to address the rising emissions which are the cause of global warming. Bio-fuels emit less CO2 than carbon-based fuels, but their use alone, with all their limitations and our ever growing total emissions, wouldn’t have much of an impact on global warming.

So what are the alternatives? Hydrogen? Battery-Electric? A giant windmill on the roof of your car? Well, actually, all of those technologies are electric propulsion. Hydrogen-powered cars convert the energy into electricity to drive the car and batteries simply store electricity from an outside source. Even the windmill would have to deliver power to a battery unless you were into funky transmission systems. So, the only question is how we produce the electricity that will power those cars. Solar and wind are as environmentally friendly as we can get and the only drawback seems to be our own unwillingness to invest in these technologies.

The main limitation in this regard is the ability of batteries to store enough energy to power a car for 500 kilometers or so and have re-charging be as quick and convenient as gassing up a car is today. But improvements in battery technology are coming along, however slowly. , the California start-up making an electric roadster claims the car can run up to 400km on a single charge. You will have to give up the rush of a rumbling engine for the low-key, baritone droning sound of and electric acceleration with tons of torque. And you’ll be giving up the horsepower and the romance that comes with it. But so what? I mean, riding a horse is fun but I’m not going to be using one to get to work.

The good news is that you don’t have to give up the concept of an automobile. We can still live in a world that affords you the comfort, convenience, mobility and enjoyment of your own set of wheels. It will just be powered with technology from the 21st century instead of the 19th.

Alex Ricciuti is a freelance writer and automotive journalist based in Zurich, Switzerland. He writes frequently for Automotive News Europe. He also blogs on all things automotive at .

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2008 Jaguar XJ Super V8 Review

2008 Jaguar XJ Super V8 Review

By Kevin Miller


Last week, Jaguar’s local press fleet contractor dropped off a Radiance Red Jaguar XJ Super V8 for me to review. I had been anticipating the XJ’s arrival for several weeks, building up my expectations for the 400 HP, $95,200 car, which is the most powerful and most expensive vehicle I’ve ever driven. That price includes an MSRP of $94,750, with the single option being Sirius satellite radio for $450.

When it was delivered, I was immediately struck by the Jaguar’s sense of presence. The large sedan, with its 20″ wheels, chromed mesh grille, and long, low stance was impressive to look over. I got in, inhaled the heady scents of rich leather and real lambswool carpets, and luxuriated just for a moment in the richness of it all. Then I adjusted my seat and mirrors, paired my cell phone with the XJ’s Bluetooth system and headed off to a meeting.

The moment I pulled out of my driveway, I felt intimidated. The Super V8 is Jaguar’s most expensive XJ, truly a flagship for the brand. It is incredibly long, with a sculpted, shapely hood stretching out front and lot of vehicle behind the driver’s seat. Gently touching the accelerator resulted in the car leaping ahead powerfully, which I later realized was partly due to the six-speed transmission automatic transmission being in Sport mode. It was also partly due to the Super V8’s need to let me know it is a powerful machine, which needs time to bond with its driver.

As the week wore on, I grew used to the XJ . Remembering that a confident driver is a good driver, whereas an intimidated driver is not, I quickly mustered the confidence to drive the car like I had tamed its power, as though I was accustomed to the power and style Jaguar engineered into the XJ. I learned to approach the car confidently, climb in to the driver’s seat, and roar away without a rearward glance.


The XJ is instantly recognizable as Jaguar’s flagship sedan, a contemporary take on the familiar Jaguar style, with a subtly assertive and sporting exterior look . The four round headlights that make the face of the car, along with the car’s overall shape, is the latest iteration of what could charitably be called the evolution of Jaguar’s classic look. Large Jaguar sedans have shared this basic shape for generations. Launched in 2003 as a 2004 model, the current XJ features all-aluminum construction, which keeps the Super V8’s weight to 4006 lbs. The car was given a freshening for 2008, including new front and rear bumpers, eye-catching 20-inch wheels, chrome mesh (appearance) grille, side power vents, lower body sills and a subtle rear aero spoiler. The view out over the shapely hood is impressive. A subtle power bulge in the hood is evident from the driver’s seat.

The long-wheelbase XJ that underpins the Super V8 is styled such that when looking from afar, the car doesn’t seem that big. Only when standing near the XJ, or seeing it parked next to another “large” car, does the Jaguar’s size become evident. It is about 14 inches longer than the Volvo wagon I normally drive. Jaguar claims the XJ LWB is the longest car in its premium sedan class – 0.3 inches longer than the new Mercedes Benz S-Class and 1.4 inches longer than the longest BMW 7 Series. A test fit in my garage allowed less than a foot to get around the front of the car to get in to the house. Clearly the XJ Super V8 is destined for greater places than a suburban garage.


The nice, big exterior leaves plenty of room inside for Jaguar to pack the XJ Super V8 full of amenities, and the XJ has a lot of nice features you would expect on a luxury sedan of its caliber. The XJ Super V8 has standard one-touch power windows and sunroof, sunglasses holder (though the holder was too shallow to fit my Ray-Bans), parking sensors front and rear, radar-based Adaptive Cruise Control and Forward Alert, and Speed Limiter. The parking sensors were a bit irritating as they would beep for an obstacle in front of the car if the car was in reverse, and would beep for an obstacle behind the car if the car was in drive. That meant they also beeped when somebody walked in front of the car in a crosswalk, or if they jaywalked behind the car in traffic.

The seats are upholstered in soft, perforated ivory colored leather with mocha piping, and matching ivory leather was used on the console surround, console armrest and doors. Mocha leather that matched the seat piping is used on the dash top, door tops, and non-wood portions of the steering wheel. Burl walnut veneer with hand-inlaid Peruvian boxwood is found on the dash, doors, and shifter surround. The Super V8 (and Vanden Plas and XJR models) features a twin-stitched fascia top, so that stitching in the leather is visible along the edge of the dash board. Unfortunately that stitching in the car I drove was uneven, and lent a hastily-assembled feel to the otherwise beautifully-crafted interior.

The front seats, redesigned and evidently more comfortable for 2008, have 16-way power adjustment; those adjustments include the regular fore-aft, up-down, and recline/incline, headrest raise-lower, seat cushion extend/retract, and a lumbar support whose vertical position and level can be adjusted. Pedal position and steering wheel rake/reach are also electrically adjusted, and all of those adjustments for the driver’s seat can be saved in the three-position memory control. The front seats also are equipped with heating and ventilation, each of which has three intensity levels. A very nice touch was the heated steering wheel that turned on when the driver’s seat warmer was activated.

Storage in the front seat is provided in large door bins and a very large glovebox, which contains a 12 V power outlet. The center armrest has flip-out cupholders which are on the small side. Under the center armrest is a very shallow, small tray that could perhaps hold some business cards or a few coins. The tray cannot be any deeper because of the air ducts in the console for the rear seat climate control.

A touchscreen in the dash controls and displays settings for navigation, sound system, Bluetooth –connected phone, and climate control. There are redundant buttons for driver and passenger temperature (with a display which unfortunately disappears through polarized sunglasses), fan speed, window demisting, sound system band/mode selection, and CD eject/shuffle surrounding the touchscreen. That being said, using the Jaguar touchscreen itself was like stepping back in time. I’ve owned a Garmin Nuvi GPS for the past year, with a sharp, instant-reaction type touchscreen. The XJ’s touchscreen display is nowhere near as sharp, and doesn’t respond to touches/inputs nearly as quickly as my Garmin does. Sometimes nearly a second went by between the time I touched the screen and the result of my touch actually occurred. The display resolution and reaction time on this touchscreen system is substandard in a $95k car, it would be considered sub-standard even in a car costing substantially less. While Audi’s MMI and BMW’s iDrive have controversial control methods, their displays are significantly sharper-looking, and controls are faster-acting. That being said, the XJ’s touchscreen was easy to learn how to use, and although it is not flashy or particularly sharp it was a simple way to interact with several of the Jaguar’s systems.

Although the Bluetooth phone connection downloads the phone’s list for display on the screen on the dash, a ’s name cannot be typed in. The address book can only be browsed by selecting a group of 3 or 4 first-letter-of-names. Searching for a whose name starts with K meant selecting the “JKL” button, then scrolling through several pages of names which start with J (each page displays just 8 names), which was truly inconvenient. On the positive side, incoming calls from people in the phone’s list cause the person’s name to show up on the screen when the phone is ringing, with buttons to accept or reject the call. Sound quality was good, and the pervasive quiet inside of the car made it easy to hear the caller and to be heard by the party on the other end of the call.

Navigation address entry is simple enough to use once figured out, and like most built-in navigation systems the spoken direction announcements mute the sound system when they are spoken. Unlike my Garmin, the unit doesn’t speak street names, so you must look at the navigation screen to see the name of the street onto which you will be turning. The navigation system is DVD-based, and the DVD for that system is trunk-mounted (along with the DVD player for the rear-seat entertainment and the optional 6-disc CD changer). The navigation DVD in our test car didn’t include the street of a friend of ours who lives in a Portland suburb, although the street has been there for about five years. While I knew how to get there since we’ve been to her house before, it was disappointing that the address wasn’t in the Jaguar navigation database. The odometer/message screen on the speedometer displays some redundant instructions, but only of the “Turn Right 0.5 miles” variety; the street name is never mentioned in the redundant display, which means that the driver must look down (away from the road) to read the street name on the main navigation screen.

The sound system controls and display on the touchscreen were disappointing. The XJ I drove had Sirius satellite radio in addition to FM, AM, and a single-disc CD player in the dash. Pressing the BAND button toggled between an FM display screen, AM display screen, and two Sirius display screens. Each display screen has nine “soft keys” for station presets.

The FM preset buttons don’t display the station name or frequency. Instead they display eight characters of the station’s RDS info that was playing when the BAND was pressed, so each button can have a confusing display of letters/partial words on it; you really just need to remember what each of the nine stations are that you have pre-set. The RDS info while a station is playing is displayed in just eight tiny characters at the upper left of the screen. Even with all of the real estate available for display of that information, only cryptic scrolling of eight characters at a time is used.

The tuner’s Sirius screens don’t contain any playlist information on the preset screen; an OPTIONS softkey must be pressed to display the artist/title information. That seems like a waste of the available space on the display screen. The Sirius tuner in my car only worked intermittently, about every third time I started the car no sound at all would come out when in satellite mode, no matter how the volume was adjusted.

The audio in the XJ system does not play MP3 or other electronic music files, and there is no aux input for connection of a digital music player (Jaguar’s media information mentions availability of an Audio Connectivity accessory, though the test car was not equipped with that accessory, and no pricing information was given). The system has only a single-disc in-dash CD. My $95k test car didn’t come equipped with the optional CD changer, which would have been located way back in the trunk. Or the 1990s. Your pick. The Super V8 comes standard with Jaguar’s 320 W Premium Sound system, which was sufficient but not outstanding because it lacked both clarity and power.

All of this makes it obvious that Jaguar isn’t expecting many technophiles or audiophiles to buy the XJ; luxury buyers interested in cutting-edge electronics (or even merely current electronics) in their cars will have to shop elsewhere. However, as I stated earlier, the touchscreen’s functions and controls are easy to learn, and are a nice way to interface with the car. It is worth noting that many of the touchscreen’s functions can also be controled by JaguarVoice, which is a speech-recognition technology. I didn’t take the time to learn very many of the commands, but I did use it to redial the phone and to tell the navigation system to route me home. It is also worth noting that the screen can be turned off with a press of two buttons, which is nice for reducing driver distraction.

With all of those front seat features having been discussed, let’s chat about the back seat, which has enormous amounts of legroom. The rear bench seat’s outboard seating positions have electrically adjustable backrest rake, headrest level, and lumbar support. The passenger-side rear seat also has a control to move the front passenger seat forward to increase available legroom, which is astoundingly large even with the front seat motored all the way back (the seat adjustment controls are electrically locked out with the rear windows for child-proofing). The middle of the backseat has an armrest that folds out, and that armrest opens from the back to expose a bit of storage two mediocre cup holders at the passengers’ elbows, and also opens from the front to reveal the control for the rear seat media package. Like the driver’s seat, each of the two rear outboard seating locations has three programmable memory settings.

Manually raised/lowered sunshades built in to the rear doors and an electrically operated rear-window sunshade keep the occupants out of direct sunlight, keeping the cabin somewhat cooler and allowing easier viewing of the video screens which are built in to the back of each front seat headrest. The rear seats have three-stage seat heaters, and the rear seat passengers also enjoy the Super V8’s true 4-zone climate control, with each back seat passenger being able to set his own temperature, though the two do need to agree on air distribution and fan settings if AUTO mode is not selected. The rear-seat climate control can be programmed or overridden by the driver using the vehicle’s touchscreen. Unfortunately, the ducts for the rear seat ventilation eliminate the storage compartment that would otherwise be under the driver’s right elbow.

Tray tables on the backs of each front seat fold down and extend toward the back seat passengers. The trays, which are alternately referred to as Business Trays or Picnic Trays in Jaguar literature, are probably better for business than picnics, as they don’t sit quite flat, so your jar of Grey Poupon or cup of Earl Gray Tea is likely to slide forward and possibly spill on the deep pile lambswool carpets.

The rear seat multimedia controller is counter-intuitive, to say the least. When parked, a DVD must be installed into the player which is located in the trunk. It can then be selected from the control panel in the backseat armrest. There are screens in the back of each headrest, though it was a challenge to get the movie to play on both screens simultaneously. There are also two auxiliary inputs in the armrest (one for each side), but no 110 V power outlet for powering an auxiliary device such as a video game unit; even if there was a plug for a video game, there isn’t really any place to put the console inside the car. The rear seat controls can be used to override the front seat audio controls, such that suddenly everybody in the car is listening to the DVD being played. Of course, the system is set up such that the in-dash CD can be listened to with headphones on one side in the rear, the DVD can be listened to with headphones on the other side, and front seat occupants can listen to the tuner. Because the rear-seat media controller can control the sound throughout the car, but the front-seat touchscreen cannot control the playback on the video screens nor select the audio for rear seat headsets, the car is much better suited (and the system set up) for use by adult passengers being chauffeured by a driver than for families of young children wanting to watch cartoons in the back. To set up a movie for my daughter on a trip in the XJ, I had to start the car, move to the back seat to set up and start the movie, then move back to the driver’s seat to set off on our journey.

The XJ’s trunk is easily loaded through its enormous boot lid. It isn’t particularly tall, but it is quite deep. As you can see in the photo, the trunk is well illuminated at night, as is the vehicle’s interior. The entire trunk is carpeted, including the underside of the lid, and the carpet is nicer than what is found in many mainstream cars. Under the trunk floor was the battery and a space-saver spare tire; lesser XJs with 19 inch or smaller wheels get a full-sized spare, but the 20 inch wheel and tire is too big for the trunk’s well.


The accelerator pedal in the XJ Super V8 is calibrated for quick response off the line, and everywhere else. As I said earlier, it takes a few days of bonding with the car to learn to drive it smoothly. In the beginning, my wife grew tired of her head snapping back when I set off from a stop, and then her head jerking forward when I let up on the accelerator to compensate for the rapid acceleration. It took several days to learn to drive the XJ smoothly. When I finally did learn, I found that the automatic transmission didn’t shift smoothly in 0-10 MPH stop-and-go traffic, if often held a low gear when the accelerator pedal was released, then clumsily clunked in to gear. The Super V8’s large diameter brakes which are shared with the XJR always stopped the Super V8 quickly and without drama. Fortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to use them for any panic stops.

Seattle had two days of rain with temperatures in the upper 40s while I was enjoying life with the XJ Super V8. During those two dreary days I also got to find out what it’s like to drive a 400 HP, rear-wheel drive car in the rain. The Dynamic Stability Control had to intervene during even gentle acceleration from a stop, and pulling away from a stoplight to turn a corner always resulted in DSC-corrected oversteer. At any speed, it was easy to break the rear tires free by stomping on the gas pedal. The DSC system was nicely calibrated to let the driver have some oversteer or wheelspin before it would intervene in any condition (whether wet or dry), but at the same time the car never felt out-of-control even with the most injudicious use of the throttle.

When the weather improved, a weekend trip from Seattle to Portland, Oregon, gave the XJ a chance to stretch its legs. While its prodigious legroom allowed our family to stretch our legs at the same time, we found the seats to be too firm; after two hours our backsides were numb, and neither the heating, ventilation, or 16-way power adjustments could remedy the situation. Temperatures approached 100 degrees while we were in Portland, and the ventilated seats kept our backsides cool.

Fortunately for us, the car’s 400 HP means that every trip can be a quick one. At any speed, in any condition, brisk acceleration was just as close as the pedal under my right foot. Jaguar claims a 0-60 time for the Super V8 of 5.3 seconds, and I’d say it was easily that quick. The acceleration was truly incredible for such a large car.

On the road, the XJ was peacefully quiet inside. The ride was comfortable in almost every condition, although sometimes on rough road surfaces at freeway speeds the eCATS electronic air suspension could get a bit confused, causing odd suspension feel to enter the car. Electronic suspensions can suffer from this symptom if not perfectly calibrated, and in this regard the electronic suspension control, which provides automatic vehicle leveling by adjustment of the air pressure in the suspension components, is far better developed than the electronic (but not pneumatic) suspension in my own Volvo.

On our trip to Portland, I had plenty of time to play with the Radar-based Adaptive Cruise Control. This system maintains vehicle speed, but also uses a radar sensor to “see” vehicles in front of the XJ in its lane, and to maintain a specified following distance (gap) behind the car in front. The system will apply the brakes if necessary to slow the car down if a vehicle is ahead and will maintain a driver-selectable gap unt. The set speed resumes when the slower vehicle moves out of the XJ’s lane, or when the XJ moves over a lane to pass. I found the system to work well; when the XJ came upon a slower-moving car in its lane, it slowed down and displayed the word GAP in the info display. Changing lanes removed the sensed vehicle from the radar’s sight, and the car to promptly resumed its speed.

Another useful speed control device is the Automatic Speed Limiter. When the cruise control is not being used, the speed set buttons on the steering wheel can be used to enter a maximum vehicle speed. If you want to make sure you don’t drive faster than 25 MPH on a neighborhood street notorious for speed patrols, set the limiter to 25 MPH. You can roar away at full throttle from a stop, and the car will accelerate to 25 MPH and just cruise along at that speed; the info display shows “25 MPH LIMITER SET” when you’ve reached the set speed. It works just as well on the freeway to prevent from exceeding the speed limit by TOO much.

When not being used for the Adaptive Cruise Control, the radar can be used for the Forward Alert system. This uses the radar beam to scan for obstacles in front of the car, at a distance which can be set by the driver. When an obstacle is sensed, a chime sounds, and a red light illuminates near the info display, which reads DRIVER INTERVENE. This system seemed a little superfluous: a driver who is looking ahead will see the obstacle long before the car senses it.

Around town, the XJ Super V8, which has an EPA rating of 15/22 and requires premium unleaded fuel, got about 14 MPG as indicated by the trip computer. At the end of my 400 mile freeway trip, the average economy on the trip computer indicated 22.9 MPG, which is quite impressive for the large car, and a testament to the fact that I judiciously used the cruise control for much of the trip.


I’ve spent the past week trying to determine what the demographic is for the XJ Super V8. It’s a $95,000 car with an incredible amount of presence and an incredible amount of equipment. The big Jaguar gets attention and attracts commentary almost everywhere it is driven. The 400 HP is more than enough to pass any vehicle in any necessary situation I encountered in a week of driving. It is incredibly well appointed with luxuries. But at the same time, it is almost $20k more than the 300 HP XJ Vanden Plas (which has most of the same features), and about $27k more than a basic XJ8 LWB.

Comparable luxury sedans include the $78,900 BMW 750 iL with 360 HP, the $86,700 Mercedes-Benz S550 with 382 HP, and the $74,600 Audi A8L Quattro with 350 HP. In this company, the XJ Super V8 is the most powerful vehicle, and it appears to be the most expensive. However when priced with features comparable to those found on the XJ Super V8, the Jaguar looks like a much better value. Using TrueDelta’s price/feature comparison, a similarly-equipped BMW would cost $99,855, a similarly-equipped Mercedes-Benz S550 would cost $101,530 and a similarly-equipped Audi would cost $81,925.

Moving up to more powerful versions of the other cars means moving up to 12 cylinders for a long-wheelbase Audi or BMW, at a cost of $120,100 for 450 HP in the A8, or $122,600 for 483 HP in the 760Li for $122,600. The Maserati Quattroporte also offers 400 HP from a non-supercharged 4.2L V8 for an eye-watering $138,236. Ironically, while driving the XJ Super V8 downtown Seattle, I came upon a Maserati Quattroporte, and the driver visibly checked the Jaguar out from the next lane, then looked over at me and gave me a thumb’s up. In my shock I managed to give a nod of my head in return.

I can’t decide what makes the XJ Super V8 $45k better than a $50k car, or $35k better than a $60k car. It is devilishly good looking, with 20″ wheels showing off huge brakes, silver vents and mirror caps. I can’t think of another car with such legroom in the back seat. It is intoxicatingly powerful. During my week with the Jaguar, I went from infatuation to indifference to respect. Only after the car had been collected did I realize how much I enjoyed driving it, and how much I appreciated so many of its nice appointments.

For days I considered the low-resolution, touch-and-wait touchscreen to be a disappointment. In a car that is almost $100k, surely the electronics should be more modern, right? But gradually, the subtle elegance and functionality of the system began to grow on me. The XJ isn’t all about the flashy electronics. It’s about decorum, familiarity, and ease of use. Everything about the XJ was easy to use. That is when I realized that the target buyer of the XJ Super V8 is somebody who wants a performance luxury car that is easy to use. It has classic good looks, a tasteful interior design, and modern features that are controlled in a straightforward manner. What could be better?

, and other cars Techshake has tested, are available in our image gallery at

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2008 Ford Edge Review

2008 Ford Edge Review

By Igor Holas with Melissa J. Sanchez


Immediately after its release, the Edge has taken the car market by storm, sprinting past competitors and effectively establishing itself as a serious contender in the on-road-SUV (a.k.a. Crossover) segment. However, the Edge was surrounded by quite a bit of controversy – the mainstream press universally panned it as mediocre at best, while conversely, buyers could not get enough of it. In most cases, there is a relationship between what automotive media and customers think about a car, but in the case of the Edge – consumers obviously have seen it as attractive car worth their cash.

Needless to say, Melissa and I were excited to see what we would think of this highly popular SUV; if you remember, we began our car-reviewing career by giving a glowing two thumbs up to a car both panned by journalists and unloved by the public. After a week in the Edge, we have to admit the Edge is not quite on top of its game, and while we loved it, and would consider it for our own car, there were obvious missteps made, and we would still prefer the by a great margin.

About the car
The Edge was released in 2007 as a direct response to the highly popular Nissan Murano. Like the Murano, the Edge bet on providing luxurious space for five occupants. Unlike compact crossovers, the Edge and Murano added significant interior width, upscale interior, refinement, and standard V6 power. The Edge was a very clear copy-cat of the Murano, but within three months of release it barreled past the Murano and quickly became the best selling non-compact SUV on the market.

Both these SUVs use a mid-size front-drive car platform as the base, but add all-wheel-drive capability, additional ground clearance, and a sleek tall-hatchback look. They are the modern day wagons – adding just enough off-road pretense, and a nod to SUV styling, to avoid the dreaded wagon label. You should be excited that we are driving the all new 2009 Murano right now and will publish the review, including comparison to the Edge next week.

One of the key reasons of the Edge’s success has been pricing. The base Edge SE starts at under $26,000. Our tester was a 2008 Ford Edge Limited FWD, which starts at $30,320. The tested car included the panoramatic Vista roof ($1,395), DVD Navigation ($1,995), power lift gate ($490), and Sirius radio ($195) for a total price including destination of $35,100.

Compared to the old Nissan Murano the Edge is over $6,000 cheaper, but the new 2009 Murano introduced a significant price cut, and now the Murano is only about $2,000 more expensive. Compared to the slightly smaller , the Edge is also about $2,000 cheaper.
Compared to smaller compact-crossovers such as the Honda CR-V, the Edge is about $2,000 more expensive. Compared to seven-passenger midsize crossovers such as the Honda Pilot, or Toyota Highlander, the Edge is about $3,000 cheaper and about $1,000 cheaper than the Rav4. The Edge is just as expensive as the larger Taurus X, but it is about $3,000 cheaper than the new, more upscale Flex. As always we used True Delta’s Feature Adjusted price comparisons.

If there is one aspect of the exterior design that truly establishes the attractiveness of the car, it would be the proportions. Many past and current SUVs and Crossovers have been tall, long and narrow; to set itself apart, the Edge adds substantial girth, while removing the boxiness of older designs by having a radically raked front and rear windshield. The overall shape is sleek and dare we say, sporty.

Ford designers did a great job of using this canvas and sculpted some very attractive lines in the body. The front sports the best interpretation of Ford’s “Red White and Bold” design theme. This theme, nicknamed “Dave” strives to build almost toy-like simple designs that instantly scream Ford to the onlookers. While the giant slab of chrome is most often referenced as the key element of “Dave,” it is the simple lines, lack of styling gimmicks and perfect proportions that are true keys to the styling language; the chrome bar is just one of the features. The Edge is currently the only car on the market designed from the get-go with Dave-styling in mind, and it shows. While it might look a little bland from some angles, your eyes are constantly drawn along the continuous lines examining the sculpted body. As always, styling preference is highly subjective, but Melissa and I liked the design very much.

Driving the Edge
We did not have any fancy trips planned for the week with the Edge, so it was relegated to our pedestrian schedule – getting the groceries and cat litter, getting Melissa to work, and driving us to TGI Friday’s for a mid-week evening out.

Unlike many of other SUVs we have tested previously, the Edge was expressly designed for this kind of duty. While all-wheel-drive is available (but not present on our tester), the Edge is tuned specifically for on-road situations, such as icy patch or rapid acceleration. The suspension is also tuned without a nary bit of off-road ambition, and the sole reason for fortified underbody sub-frame is to deliver 3,500 pound towing, not to withstand strut forces of the Rubicon trail. The Edge is a wagon designed to look like an SUV, because we, the sometimes simple-minded fad-prone American buyers, are so hung up on not driving a wagon.

In this duty, the Edge performed exceptionally. The fully-independent suspension was typically Ford-refined, swallowing road irregularities with real appetite and keeping most noises out of the cabin. In turns, you could feel the rig weighed almost 4,300 pounds, but the Edge was nowhere near afraid of curves. The body roll was well controlled, but was more noticeable than in the lower-inertia-positioned . While we never managed to make the tires screech for help, we did push the Edge to the point when we felt worried – and while that point came a lot sooner than on the Taurus X (or a car) it was well beyond the point when we gave up with any other SUV we have tested to date (the Escape included).

The engine under-hood is Ford’s new and coveted 3.5 liter Duratec V6 delivering 265 horses and 250 foot-pounds of torque. Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, the power was delivered quickly and smoothly anytime we asked for it. At lower load, the engine transmits a higher-pitch noise to the cabin, but open up the throttle and almost-V8 like roar accompanies the surge of power. The gas pedal is a little light and lifeless, but after a few times behind the wheel we got used to it.

A lot has been said about the Edge’s brakes. When it was released, it tested with longer-than-average stopping distance. Inside sources indicated the problem was caused by Ford’s bad choice of tires and ABS calibration and was resolved for the 2008 model year. While we do not have the equipment to test the exact stopping distance, we tried several panic stops, and they were as short as we would expect.

A comfortable driving position was easily found thanks to the tilt-telescoping wheel, and a seat with a good range of settings. However the seat was only “half power” as only fore-aft slide, seat height, and cushion angle were power-adjustable. Seat-back angle and lumbar were both manually adjusted. This has been a common issue at Ford, and at this price point an unwelcome one; however, it seems newer models like the Taurus X are finally using a full-power seat. The seats were also very comfortable, and offered good comfort in mild driving and good support in the curves. The visibility was generally good in all angles, but the rear windshield is quite narrow and the rearward-view is quite restricted. We did not ever feel unsafe driving the car – it was just odd to see all for edges of the rear windshield in your rear-view mirror.

Living inside the Edge
The Edge sports a cabin design that tries to be more modern and hip than anything else in the Ford family. The dash is low and deep, with neat styling details. This stylishness carries over to the seats that sport attractive leather with contrast stitching and more styling details. Moreover, the low-deep design makes the car feel extraordinarily wide and airy despite surprisingly limited headroom. Overall, the tester’s black leather interior had an excellent first impression of space and luxury. However, upon closer examination the interior just does not seem quite as well executed as the Taurus X.

First and foremost, many details about the dash seem cheaper than necessary. All the materials, except for the door’s elbow pad and the center arm-rest are made of hard plastic – a decent-quality hard plastic, but hard plastic nonetheless. The passenger side dash also has an unsightly array of cut lines as Ford decided to highlight the position of the passenger air bag. There is also no grab-handle for the front passenger. Finally, Ford installed mismatching trim around the front cabin. For example, the vents on the side of the center stack are surrounded by actual shiny chrome, but those by the doors are surrounded by matte grey plastic. Similarly, while the center stack is covered by attractive metallic-looking material, on the portion around the shifter the material is again a dull grey plastic. Upon noticing these details Melissa proclaimed: “Do they think we are too stupid to notice!?!” I agree.

The cabin was comfortable otherwise. The controls were Ford’s standard-issue parts – no surprises there. All the controls were logically placed and easy to use, even if they did not feel or look quite as expensive as the new controls in the Escape.

As mentioned previously the seats were very comfortable, and the rest of the front cabin also provided nice features. The arm rest cubby is nice and big with a power point, and SYNC’s USB and line-in connections. As in the Escape, the compartment has several trays and dividers inside, which are supposed to make the space flexible and adjustable, but as with the Escape, we found these annoying and in the way, and would prefer a more traditional two-tier arrangement. The glove box is not large, but it is big enough, and the Edge provided quite an array of trays, slots and other storage options all around the cabin. As usual for Ford, all the trays were lined with removable rubber inserts.

Overhead was Ford’s new Vista panoramatic sunroof with power sunshades. Unlike the similar sunroof in the , the Vista roof enlarges the glass panel above the front passengers making the cabin feel more airy. Also when opened, the opening is larger than the roof on the LR2, and is very effective in cooling down the interior on hot sunny days. We did not like it as much as the Sky Slider in the , but the Vista roof is so far our favorite glass sun roof, and we enjoyed it quite a bit.

If the presence of the Vista roof and additional space did not convince you that the Edge is superior to the Escape, the rear seats will. There is a surprising amount of space for the rear occupants, and the seats are very comfortable. The Edge offers several luxuries for the rear occupants, such as nicely reclining seatbacks, and arm rest with cup holders. Unlike the Spartan and uncomfortable seats in the , sitting in the back of the Edge is no punishment.

The rear seats fold flat with a single pull on lever (or a push of a button from the cargo bay), and open up the cargo space. The stuff-hauling area of the Edge is devoid of any tie-downs, bag hooks, or other helpful features and given its large flat space this means that your stuff will be sliding around. There is also no cargo cover, so whatever you leave in the back will be visible and serve as potential bait for crooks. We understand that some of you might feel we are nitpicking, but many competitors offer ingenious cargo management systems which offer true value to their customers, and it is time Ford upped the ante in the thoughtful-details department.

Overall, living in the Edge was no hardship no matter where you sat. However compared to the Taurus X, the Edge felt less solid, and less luxurious. It was far from the bare-bones feel of the Escape, but given its price tag (and its competitors) we expected a little more. The basics are there, and the design is excellent, but the devil is in the details, and, as with the Escape, we felt Ford did not pay enough attention to those – mismatched trim, lacking grab handles and cargo tie-downs, and semi-manual seats might be all minor quibbles, but go a long way to make the car feel cheaper than necessary.

Navigation, Audio System, and Drive Information System
Our test vehicle was equipped with voice-activated touch-screen navigation, SYNC, Sirius satellite radio, and six-CD changer with MP3 playback. Everything worked just fine and the experience was as we remembered it from the Taurus X.

However, after driving two vehicles from Jeep, and enjoying their updated navigation and audio systems, and advanced driver information center, we confirmed our initial feeling that they were in many aspects better than their Ford counterparts. The Edge’s navigation sports a dull-blue interface that is showing its age and its POI database is starting to be outdated. The guidance is very precise, more precise than the Jeep or Land Rover, but the map is not quite as feature-laden.

The audio controls were also not quite as intuitive as the Jeep’s. For example, Ford forces you to choose whether you want to see your presets, or audio functions, such as Scan on the screen. So if you become tired of your stations, and want to just flip through what is available, it takes two clicks, and a few seconds to get there. This might be a minor quibble, but it was annoying in our use.

Finally, Ford’s two-line DIC (driver information center) is significantly more basic than the Jeep’s design, and also feels outdated. For example when checking tire pressure, you either get “OK” or “Low” – but no indication of which tire is low. The Jeep’s system shows you a neat graphic with the tire pressure of each tire – so you can decide whether you want to top any of them off before setting on your drive.

Overall, we felt that Jeep’s MyGIG system with its built in hard drive, more modern interface, and up to date maps was better. However, the UConnect system is not quite as advanced as Ford’s SYNC, and as I mentioned previously, we failed to pair our phone with UConnect in both Jeeps we had tested. Ford will also address many of our complaints this summer, as all 2009 models will feature a brand new navigation system with built in hard drive, new interface, much expanded POI database, new, more advanced maps, and Sirius’ travel link service. We will let you know how we like the new system once we test it. However, it seems that for now, Ford has no plans to update the driver information center.

Fuel Economy
We do not usually break out fuel economy into its own section, but we felt it was necessary this time. The simple reason is the exceptionality of the mileage we were getting with the Edge. Around town, you can easily feel the effect of the hefty curb weight, and V6 power, and we averaged only twelve miles per gallon. However, this was in our usual urban driving environment of a traffic light or four-way stop sign at each block, and the resulting endless stop-and-go chore. However, once the Edge was underway on a green wave, or driving in a more suburban setting with fewer lights and better traffic flow, the mileage immediately jumped to almost twenty miles per gallon. Finally, in relaxed highway cruising (without cruise control) we averaged above thirty miles per gallon! We expected 25, maybe even 27 from the Edge, but seeing consistent 30 and even 33 mpg in such a big car was very surprising. In all of our highway drives, traffic conditions had us drive right at the 60 miles per hour sweet-spot, so our results are no-doubt higher than we would get on a true interstate; nonetheless, the Edge is very frugal for a car its size and with so much power, and along with its exceptional ride comfort, went a long way making us forget about the interior missteps.

Melissa and I were very excited to drive the Edge. And when underway, we thoroughly enjoyed the ride, the comfort, the features, and the fuel efficiency. However within days of returning the Edge, writing this review has become a chore – while there are many great features about the Edge, the overall experience was simply forgettable. We have read many reviews calling the Edge mediocre, and while we would not go that far, the Edge has left us feeling a little unsatisfied and longing for more – for that one final step that would have made the car perfect.

The Edge is nowhere near a bad car – it is actually very, very good. It is safe, reliable, well built, attractive, and well priced. However, the Edge found itself at odds with our personal preferences. In the end we preferred the packaging offered by the Taurus X. However, if the complaint we have had throughout this review seem minor, or irrelevant to you, the Edge is simply a great car and worth its price.

IMAGE GALLERY: Click for more images of the Edge.

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Honda Announces Hybrid Fit

Honda Announces Hybrid Fit

By Brendan Moore


It looks like Honda will be the first to market with a subcompact hybrid. At a press conference in Tokyo this morning, Honda announced that they will produce a hybrid version of their popular Fit (Jazz in the rest of the world) hatchback. The plan is to offer the hybrid option at no more than $2000 USD on the third-generation Fit.

“The Fit has great fuel efficiency to begin with, and if you put in a hybrid, it’s going to get even better,” Honda Motor Co. president Takeo Fukui said while announcing the car at a mid-year news conference. “So with crude oil prices going up this much, I think a Fit hybrid is now starting to make sense.”

Since the second-generation Fit will not show up here until late 2008 calendar year as a 2009 model, and the third-generation platform is not expected to show up until a few years later, that leaves more than enough time to reach that (additional) $2000 price point for the hybrid. The Fit Hybrid is probably due for an appearance in 2015.

The Fit already gets excellent fuel economy and a hybrid version should be good for at least another 20 mpg over the 28/34 average mpg of the current model. Since the Fit starts at an MSRP of $13,950 USD, another $2000 gets you a great car with great fuel economy for well under $18,000. It’s too bad for Honda that they don’t have it to sell right now; they could sell a few million over the next several years easily.

In other news from the same press conference, Honda Motor Co. said they will retail a brand-new, improved and affordable gas-electric hybrid in the U.S., Japan and Europe starting in early 2009. This new hybrid signals a shift for Honda, who until very recently did not seem interested in matching Toyota in terms of hybrid offerings.

The company’s president, Takeo Fukui, told journalists that “green” cars, especially hybrids, are going to be a focus of Honda’s market strategy for the next three years, starting this fiscal year that began April 1. “Hybrids have drawn attention for their image, but time has come to go to the next step,” he said, noting that Honda was serious about selling hybrids in large numbers and at mass-market prices.

Fukui did not allow as to what the price of this new vehicle for 2009 might be. But he did say the new hybrid will be a five-door hatchback seating five passengers, and it will showcase new Honda technology that reduces the size and weight of the hybrid system in order to reduce overall vehicle weight, resulting in increased fuel efficiency. But it won’t have next generation lithium-ion batteries. Fukui said lithium-ion technology still hasn’t overcome safety and cost hurdles.

Fukui said that Honda plans to sell 500,000 hybrids per year sometime after 2010. Toyota, by contrast, is targeting annual hybrid sales of 1 million vehicles in the early 2010s, led by the Prius, which has completely dominated the hybrid Civic in the marketplace, making it look like a pipsqueak in terms of sales.

To expand hybrid sales, Honda will introduce a new sporty hybrid based on the CR-Z model, a Civic hybrid and the previously-mentioned hybrid model of the Fit subcompact, in addition to the new hybrid going on sale next year, Fukui said.

Honda, Japan’s No.2 automaker, states that it expects to sell more than 4.5 million cars and 18 million motorcycles worldwide in 2010. Last year, it sold 3.767 million cars and 13.48 million motorcycles. Unlike other automakers that sell in the U.S., Honda’s sales have not been dragged down by the big drop in U.S. new-vehicle sales.

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2008 Mazda5 Touring Review

2008 Mazda5 Touring Review

Battle Van: ATTACK!

by David Surace
photos by Kelly Surace


I come from a generation of kids who think vans are cool, because the A-Team always showed up in a van. Airwolf was essentially a flying van with guns and rockets. Bad guys showed up in windowless white vans, and they could always, without fail, open up the side door and use their firearms in an accurate and responsible manner while the vehicle was moving. Vans had sensitive surveillance equipment, vans had disguises. Where was the place you put your jillion-dollar painting that your henchmen just heisted from the Louvre? The Van, bien sûr.

Fast-forward 25 years, and… the 80’s are cool again! Hairbands are back! Boxy cars are cool! Turbos are rad! Magenta and cyan are acceptable colors for your socks! Dance club DJ’s are sneaking in cuts of The Stone Roses and 808 State and Derrick Carter. High-school garage bands are busy KERRANGing away at post-post-post-post-post-post-post-punk.

So why do American-market minivans, once the red-hot automobile of the 1980’s, have to act like such poindexters today? I’ll tell you why: they’ve all grown up and left behind their everyday hero roots. Except for one tiny action-figure of a van, and it’s called the Mazda5.

It’s sold all over the place (it’s known in Japan as the Premacy) and while it’s comparatively tiny in the United States–she’s only 181.5 inches from stem-to-stern, with a 108.3 inch wheelbase–the Mazda5 fits perfectly in a segment that we simply don’t see over here, which for expediency I’ll call the “space van” market. They’re designed to fit in the tight urban areas of Eastern Asia and Europe, and delicately sip the expensive petrol and diesel (currently hovering at $9 and $11 per US-gallon, respectively, in the UK). These drivers demand all these things, with plenty of room for people and their stuff, three rows of seats, AND their space van must handle like the dickens because–imagine this–they actually like to drive.
But the Mazda5 is such a rare bird in this country. My Copper Red Mica tester surely looked like the proverbial fish out of water when it cruised around Baton Rouge for a week, certainly for the above reasons but also because I don’t think they sell too dang many down here. Let’s see: six passengers, sporty looks, three rows of seats, two rows of which fold flat as Kansas, 21mpg city / 27mpg highway. Why isn’t it selling like hotcakes?

Current Mazda5 owners, I ask you: Did the salesperson take you to some underground lair to complete your transaction? Was the Mazda5 you saw on the lot boobytrapped in any way?

It’s pretty dang comfortable; the first and second rows get all kinds of adjustments, the second row does a neat flip-and-tumble to reveal some under-seat storage. They also slide forward to allow access for my tubby behind to try and squeeze into that third row, which was mainly a dare. Like almost all third rows, this one’s mainly for the kids.

Oh and speaking of which, parents, check this out: when the Mazda5 is on flat ground, you can merely yank the doorhandle on one of the open sliding doors, and walk away–gravity will glide the door to the exact speed it needs to quietly latch shut. No motorized wizardry, just good engineering.

This 2008 model sports a new set of eye-searing electroluminescent gauges which thankfully you can dim at night, but unlike the rest of the Mazda lineup, the function and display lighting is nuclear green and not the usual red. My tester also came with a 6-disc CD changer, an Aux-In port and Sirius satellite radio, but the speaker setup was merely adequate. In fact, the system mainly came into its own while tuned to talk radio.

I will say that Mazda’s done some serious work to deaden some of the underhood racket that you can clearly hear from outside the vehicle. In fact, the more I crawled around in the van when I first got it, the more sneaky places I found sound insulation and foam padding. And they really work miracles once you’re inside; no unpleasant mechanical sounds make it inside the cabin at all.

The thing is certainly handsome for a van. It’s about the size of a Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe, so if you tend to think of it as a sport-compact or hot-hatch then yes, it looks like a four-wheeled guppy. But as a van, it’s completely aggro. The Touring model I had came standard with tall strips of LED brake lights that looked like really angry eyebrows. At the front it has a furious, gaping maw of an air intake, framed by swept and slanted headlight clusters and projector-beam lenses that will stare with fierce alacrity at the soft underbelly of any SUV in front of it. The Mazda5 looks like it wants to take a bite out of your rear axle.

It also comes with a very aggressive wheel and tire package, with fairly wide 17″ Y-spoke alloy wheels and grippy Toyo Proxes A18 tires as standard equipment on all Mazda5’s. That’s fine on a sport-compact, but on a minivan it’s kinda like putting carbon-fiber running shoes on Madeleine Albright.

Except the Mazda5 bears no resemblance to any current or former Secretary of State when it comes to handling. The Toyo tires are exceptionally wide and sticky, and with the wheelbase being so short, the van effortlessly chucked its occupants’ organs to-and-fro at any available 90-degree corner, dry or wet. And I went through plenty of wet; a major storm hit the area last week, and our little action hero dodged all manner of water hazards with zero drama.

It’s certainly not just the shoes. The disc brakes at all corners were quite happy to bite very hard and (figuratively) stand the Mazda5 on its nose, but there’s plenty of pedal travel to keep things civil and gently scrub off speed before a corner. The van’s complicated MacPherson strut assembly at the front is slightly offset from its squat springs to combat any inappropriate camber changes under braking, and the equally complex multilink rear suspension somehow manages to fit almost entirely under the floorpan to preserve the storage space inside. I get the feeling Mazda’s magic trick was to make the springs fairly stiff by minivan standards, but they set the shocks a little softer to improve the ride and keep those meaty tires nice and flat on the pavement.

The end result is that there’s a bit more body roll than, say, a Mazda3 (the chassis from which this vehicle is based), but the ride is still surprisingly supple for such a pointy little thing. It effortlessly dispatched the fast and bumpy sweepers of historic River Road, a tight 55 mph two-lane that meticulously traces the curves of the Mississippi River where it meets East Baton Rouge Parish. I drove several times up and down that road last week, just to see if I could get it to act like a van. It would not.

But every hero has a weakness. In the Mazda5, it’s called the 2.3 liter DOHC inline-4 with variable valve timing, it makes 153 horsepower and 148 lb ft of torque. In my tester it was linked up to a 5-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode. Let me put this delicately: it has no trouble getting out of its own way, you will not have trouble passing people on the interstate, but this is not a vehicle for the power hungry. The real fun to be had in this van is trying to keep its momentum in the twisties. Should Mazda in its infinite wisdom decide to make a Mazdaspeed5, with its wig-splitting turbocharged four, I will literally pick up the couch and shake it vigorously for nickels.

But I’ll have to say probably the most entertaining thing I did all week in this van was to take it to some friends of ours with a few kids, fill up each of the six seating positions, and cruise around the entire neighborhood at exactly 25 mph. The kids were enthralled with the thing: window down! Window up! Moonroof open! Moonroof shut! Lights on! Lights off! Don’t hit me! He’s hitting me!

The writer in me couldn’t help it: …like an angry, malfunctioning robot, with a belly full of screaming children, the Mazda5 prowled slowly through the dark subdivision, still hungry for a tasty rear transaxle.

Eat that, Airwolf.

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