Mazda is leaving no niche unchallenged in its strident farewell to square wheels with boring lines.
Earlier this year, the company entered the specialty sport coupe class with the hip MX-3 GS. This small, somewhat off-center performer recently beat out the Geo Storm GSi and Nissan's NX2000 for top spot in "Car and Driver" magazine's evaluation of bonsai GT cars of the '90s.
Soon there will be a smaller, lighter, rounder, lower, faster version of Mazda's rotary-engined RX-7 sports car. Its styling pedigree implies Porsche 959 out of Nissan 300ZX. And prototypes of the twin turbo charged version have posted Ferrari top speeds.
There will be a new high-value family sedan and an up-market sports coupe and, somewhere on or about mid-decade, Mazda will birth Amita, its new luxury car division. In that expensive, leather-upholstered arena, Mazda/Amita will compete with Toyota/Lexus, Nissan/Infiniti and Honda/Acura and complete a formidable quartet of double-barreled producers of Japanese luxury cars.
"But we're not simply launching a series of models over the next nine months," explains Jan Thompson, vice president of marketing for Irvine-based Mazda Motor of America. He says they will be distinctive vehicles targeted at discerning drivers and that means only one thing. "We're launching the New Mazda."
The latest from the New Mazda is the 929.
And although nothing but a good German shepherd or a Spago pizza could live up to the rhapsodies of Mazda's press releases ("a personal expression . . . with a conscience . . . organic shaping") the 929 is nevertheless a most impressive motor car.
This mid-size, albeit seriously priced luxury sedan brings a sculptured individuality to a market segment where the major design tools seem to be tracing paper and a cookie cutter.
One item of the 929's equipment--a rooftop cooling system--may touch solar technology of the next century, and will doubtless be condemned as excessive. But it's only an option and Mazda deserves some credit for daring.
The car's acceleration and top speed comes up short against the Lexus ES300. It also is priced higher, by about $2,500. The Mazda 929 does not have the handling flair of the Nissan Maxima--but it does have more horsepower than the base Mitsubishi Diamante and the Acura Vigor and certainly is more spacious, less generic and a sniff or two more sophisticated.
Its pizazz quotient is higher than Acura Legend.
And as a looker, the 929 is a miniseries idol.
Painfully aware of a predecessor that showed the slab-sided aesthetics of a Band-Aid box, Mazda ordered a remake from Shunji Tanaka, who manages its design division and is also an artist and sculptor.
Tanaka visited museums and art galleries from Boston to Bangkok. His research acknowledged earlier company borrowings from British lines--such as the Lotus look--that added to the Miata's elan. So he went to Europe to re-examine the cars of generations past.
It is by no accident that there's a wisp of Coventry classicism to the 929. It comes from the sloping, low-fronted profile of the Jaguar 3.8 saloon (hey, it's their language) of the late '50s.
Shiny metal bezels and bright points accent the cardinal numbers of speedometer and tach. The dash clock has real hands and Rolex-style bars instead of numerals. Both are a clean retrospective and pure Edwardian Art Deco.
There isn't an exterior edge that hasn't been softened and rounded until the profile is as much suggestion as it is shape. Doors and side glass curve into the roofline. The front overhang has been shortened, and the rear overhang reduced, but not by quite as much. It all adds a look of purpose to the front half of the 929 and a lengthy luxury to the rest.
The car's height has been reduced by 1.2 inches and the seats lowered so as not to shrink headroom. Longer wheelbase and a wider track effectively lower the center of gravity, which improves the balance of an already stable car.
Tanaka's sense of delicacy is evident inside. Light colors reduce the daily drama of driving anywhere. Instruments and heater controls are in a dash panel that slopes away from the driver and is the subtle signature of an individual, vastly different vehicle.
No wood accents. No textured leather. But there are nice touches of metal on inside door handles and around the gearshift, and their sheen looks deep enough to be nickel plated.
Leather seats are curved and rounded, and even headrests follow the general curvature of the car. Such attention to styling usually means a certain denial of function. Yet the 929's handsome seats support and grip with the best of the high-performance chairs.
Rear-seat legroom. Well, it's rear-seat legroom. No matter how often car builders say they have squeezed a quart of space from pint pot dimensions, there is never enough rear seat room for 6-footers without contortion.
In safety considerations, the 929 does well. Its unit body has been built with deformable crush zones to absorb impacts progressively before they intrude upon the passenger compartment. Even the gas tank has been relocated further away from possible rear-enders.
Seat belts are three-point with a center lap belt for a third passenger in the rear. Anti-lock brakes are standard, as are driver's and front passenger's air bags.
The penalty for that passenger's bag, however, is no glove box. There is a center console compartment for the detritus of daily commuting. Also door openings for paper items, but they are slits no wider than a good slug of bourbon. About two fingers.
Among the driving controls is a brake-release lever set in the dash. Memories rooted to levers set beneath the dash will have trouble remembering the new position. Be prepared for the aggravation of reaching for the release . . . and popping the hood.
Another oddity: No tilt steering wheel.
By its technology, the 929 likely is the most advanced production car on road today.
One $600 option is a panel of small silicon cells built into the roof, which create the contradiction of a solar moon roof. They drive fans that cool the interior of the car. Presuming two hours in downtown Phoenix in August, the miniature blowers will cool what has become a microwave oven of 167 degrees to a chilly sauna of only 140 degrees.
In cold weather, the power switches automatically to trickle-charge the car's battery.
It's an interesting experiment but also an expensive novelty that probably will find few takers until 2015--when solar energy should be doing all the cooling and charging.
Off quite a different wall is the 929's radical cruise control. It functions on what computernoids know as "fuzzy logic."
With standard programming, a computer responds in extremes. On-Off. Yes-No. Open-Closed. With "fuzzy logic," the computer reads between the lines and bases decisions on changing conditions.
A typical cruise control system downshifts for a hill when speed drops below the programmed level. It holds that gear for a fixed time no matter the terrain. Therefore, climbing a long, continuous hill creates constant up and downshifting.
"Fuzzy logic," however, sees its programmed instructions as advisories rather than dictates. It is less sycophantic, exerts more common sense and the result is smoother, more appropriate shifting during controlled cruising.
Travel by automatic pilot will not be a high priority with Mazda 929 owners. The car is too much fun to drive. On the other hand, it is not a snorting powerhouse.
The 929's 3-liter, 195-horsepower, V-6 engine promises much. It actually has a few more horses than the Lexus ES300, but doesn't have better performance. Chalk that up to some excess poundage. Lexus weighs in at 3,362 pounds while the 929--despite much use of chassis and body sections in aluminum--carries 3,596.
Yet in refinement of ride, silence of progress and insulation from outside noise, there is much similarity.
Despite the 929's somewhat lethargic lower end, it is quite muscular in the mid-ranges and inattentive drivers will be doing 80 m.p.h. when the seats of their pants read only 60.
The four-speed automatic--the only transmission offered with the 929--is a slick shifter. Many will find favor with a "HOLD" button on the stick that allows a driver to lock into the first three gears.
The neatest trick is to thumb the button when car and driver are bantering and cantering in fourth during high-impact aerobics on an interesting road. Used just before a curve, the "HOLD" button downshifts gently to balance the car while providing the rear wheels with enough torque to maintain pace and poise through the turn.
Overall, this sedan should continue the miracle of Mazda: three consecutive years of sales records while some around them are losing their shirts.
Watch for 929 to join 747, 409 and 911 as numbers to remember.
* Base $27,800
* As tested $31,720. (Includes leather upholstery, solar moonroof, CD changer, power passenger seat and cellular phone prewiring.) ENGINE :
* 3 liters, 24 valves, DOHC V-6 developing 195 horsepower.
* Rear-drive, four-door, luxury sedan.
* 0-60 m.p.h. as tested, 10.1 seconds.
* Top speed, estimated, 130 m.p.h.
* Fuel economy, EPA city-highway, 19-24 m.p.g.
CURB WEIGHT :
* 3,596 pounds.
THE GOOD :
* Styling somewhere between high architecture and fine sculpture.
* Smooth, silent performer.
* Distinctive, airbag-safe, four-star living quarters.
* Technology that dares.
THE BAD :
* A little pricey.
* Performance not quite up to its looks.
* Brake release positioning.
THE UGLY :
* Slits for door storage.