Sep 072015

What do you drive? Zoom-Zoom with Jinba Ittai ‘cas driving matters

Marketing themes are often hit-and-miss. From Nissan’s once awesome “Life is a journey, enjoy the ride” to Dodge’s cowboy “Grab life by the horns”. Slogans can get random. Mazda is probably the only brand that it’s past and present advertising slogans truly reflect its products.

The “Zoom-Zoom-Zoom” tagline was originated in the early 2000s was a success and one of the long-lasting tagline in automotive marketing. The “Zoom-Zoom-Zoom” line described the “emotion of motion” in Mazda cars; particularly at the time when the performance Mazdaspeed models and the trend shifting RX8 models were introduced.

Jinba Ittai”, an authentic Japanese phrase came attached with the 2006 MX-5 Miata campaign. It directly translate as “human-horse in unity” implying that the MX-5 is the extremity of the driver, sense of oneness and dynamic harmony between man and machine.

To further build up the momentum, “What Do You Drive?” was the tagline in 2011. In it’s entirety it goes like this, “At Mazda, we believe because if it’s not worth driving, it’s not worth building. We build Mazdas. What do you drive?” This is purely charismatic especially Mazda lineup has the products that supports it.

With the recent release of the 2016 MX-5 Miata, the tagline evolved once again to “Driving Matters”. Once again just simply use of two words, no further explanation is needed. It truthfully captures our hearts.

What do I drive here is the Mazda 2. Though not as zoom-zoom as the Mazdaspeed MX-5 but Jinta Ittai is intact because Driving Matters.

Background – What Do You Drive? A 2008 World Car of the Year

The North American version of the Mazda 2 was unveiled at the 2009 Los Angeles Auto Show and available to the market in July 2010 as Mazda’s first subcompact model here in the U.S. Elsewhere, the 2 are more commonly known as the 3rd generation Mazda Demio. It was available to Australian, European, and Japanese markets since 2007. The 2 is based on the DE platform that was co-developed with Ford. This platform is also found under the Ford Fiesta, and Transit Courier.

Mazda 2 earned the World Car of the Year title in 2008 defeated the Audi R8, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Volvo C30, and few others over criteria set by the World Car Awards committee such as merit, value, safety, environment, significant, and emotional appeal and ranked by over 50 jurors from different countries.

In 2014, the Mazda 2 is available in two trim levels: Sport, and Touring. The same 1.5L engine mated to either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission serves the entire lineup. Sport being the base model came standard with most of the essential equipment such as air conditioning, power door locks, windows, and side mirrors. Touring adds more desirable features such as leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruising control, 6-speakers audio,15” alloy wheels, fog lights, rear roof spoiler, and few other cosmetic upgrades.

Our made in Hiroshima, Japan tester in True Red color is the Sport model with $16,355 MSRP including $795 destination and handling fee.

Impressions (LZG Recommendation Factor: 4/5) – Jinba Ittai

Mazda has been a brand that we love for its dedication on the rotary engines and fun-to-drive cars. The past few years it became our most favorite Japanese brand completely replaced our once beloved Nissan.

Without a doubt, the 2 is one of the least powerful cars we have ever tested. In addition to the World Car of the Year title, it also took our titles on being the most expensive per horsepower ($163/hp), and having worst curb weight-to-torque ratio (24lbs/lb-ft).

Akin to the Mazda’s very own Miata, the 2 is not a car that’s meant for pure off-the-line power, or even any sort of performance. The art of this car is in how it makes man-and-machine to become one.

Our 1,000 miles test route took us from San Francisco Bay Area to the Eastern Sierra via SR108 through the oxygen depleting Sonora Pass and endured the wide open throttle torture on US395. The longer we drive this car, the more we fantasy about what if it has a 6-speed MT and 25 more horsepower and torque.

Powertrain Performance and Refinement (Score: 1/5) – Not so much Zoom-Zoom

Under the hood is MZR Z-series [Engine Code: ZY-VE] 1.5L 16-valve DOHC 4-cylinder all-aluminum engine. It’s 78 x 78.4 mm bore and stroke almost square layout and 10.0:1 compression ratio generates 100 hp @ 6,000 rpm and 98 lb-ft of torque @ 4,000 rpm. Variable valve timing is employed on the intake cam. This made In Japan engine is transversely mounted, driving the front wheels via a 4-speed automatic transmission [Transmission Code: FN4L-EL] that were co-developed with Ford

The engine output has nothing to write home about. It has the lowest engine output in the segment as the ZY-VE has been around since 2002 without major changes. So is the 4-speed automatic transmission. Under the hood, the conventional setup reveals its age. The shift lever actuation is via traditional cable linkage to the valve body. Only 4 forward gears in an era where 6-speed is the norm, and while car makers are starting to implement 8- or 9-speed ATs even in the cost conscious subcompact segment. Powertrain is nothing but dated a hard working horse.

First and the most considerable insufficiency is the long 1st gear ratio. In combine with peak torque that arrives at the later part of the rpm range, acceleration is lazy and laboring particularly getting on to and crossing US395 from the slow speed side streets. This poor acceleration made white-knuckled maneuvers to try to match the flow of traffic. Driver has to be properly trained to comfortably mate the pedal to metal for a long length of time.

On paper, the 2 gets 0-60 in mid 9s and quarter mile in low 17s at about 80 mph. This number is significantly longer since the Eastern Sierra region is about 6,000 ft above sea level. Each 1,000 feet gain in elevation robs away 4% of the engine output due to lighter density of air has less power making oxygen molecule. So there was only about 80 hp on the go-pedal during our time there. Acceleration is extremely sluggish.

On the same token, we believe Mazda has made the best compromises from what they have. The transmission maximized all its limited gears. The 2nd gear can reach 64 mph just before the engine redline to aid the 0-62mph acceleration time; avoid another time consuming upshift. When cruising at 70 mph in 4th gear, engine revs at 3,000 rpm for fuel economy while keeping the engine rpm around the meaty part of the powerband.

If all the car makers are all switching to 6 or more speed transmissions, there are numerous good reasons for it. For one, more gears can support a lower ratio 1st gear in which will enhance the lackluster acceleration small displacement engine inherited. A simple mathematics will demonstrate how a lower ratio first gear would help.

Why more gears?

The stock AT has 2.816 1st gear and 4.417 differential ratios which equals to 12.44 overall ratio; the engine turns 12.44 times before the tires will complete one revolution. This overall ratio is also the multiplier to determine the actual torque apply to the road by the tires. The 2’s 98 lb-ft peak engine torque will become 1,219 lb-ft at the wheel propelling the car forward.

With everything else being equal, say we simply fit the 6-speed AT from the ’16 Mazda 2 (3.529 1st gear, 3.824 diff; 13.495 overall), torque on the ground becomes 1,323 lb-ft. This 8.5% increase in torque is equivalent to have a 106 lb-ft engine in our tester. To gain 8 lb-ft of torque that would probably be the maximum for all bolt-on performance upgrades (intake, exhaust, cams, and ECU tuning).

The other criterion to consider is the differences in gear ratios between the gears. A low first gear will need a low second gear to balance out the ratio difference to avoid significant change in engine rpm from one gear to another. Hinting the significance of why close-ratio 6-speed transmissions are now the norm.

We were crying out loud for a 6-speed AT when traveling through the Sonora Pass on SR108. Low power and lack of gears made a very bad combo to go up the steep 26% slope grade.

At about 30 mph, the tranny has issue deciding which gear to use. In “D”, it hunts badly between 1st and 2nd gear, making it impossible to maintain constant speed. Like any educated driver would promptly place the shifter in “2” to solve the head tossing jolts.

Unfortunately, due to the long 2nd gear ratio, car does not have sufficient power to maintain speed. The once applauded no auto downshift feature is now ill-advised as regardless how low the vehicle speed drops it won’t auto downshift.

We then downshift one more notch to “1”, at 25 mph the tranny overprotects and won’t permit the downshift even though the engine rev permits that. As vehicle speed keeps on decreasing with the gas pedal meshed to the floor, we went back to “D”. Bam, the tranny slams it back down to 1st gear for a few seconds, and rapidly get into 2nd for few seconds then, bam, back down to 1st again. It goes through this cycle over and over.

Out of options, we decided that once it slams back down to 1st, we manually placed the lever to “1” as well, and just let the engine rev at just below fuel cut to maintain proper speed and restore its cornering attribute. The good news is the engine’s NVH is solid even under high load high rev condition.

The transmission is the worst part of the car. The same situation happened at 65 mph at 6% incline, the tranny is in the 3rd-4th gear hunt limbo; in 3rd makes the engine rev too high while 4th is too low. The best way is to turn O/D off to use 3rd gear for the hill. We wonder if common Joe would know how to work the transmission as good as we do. Reality though, most common Joe do not even know the overdrive button existed.

Despite gluing the pedal to the floor type of driving, our observed average fuel economy is 34.1 mpg while the worst and best at 29.5 mpg (Manteca to Mammoth Lakes through Sonora Pass) and 41.2 mpg (going from Mammoth Lakes to Manzanar to Bishop on US395), respectively. Our average exceeded EPA rated fuel consumption at 28 city, 34 highway, and 30 combined mpg.

A not so good attribute is also noted, and it is the usual throttle pedal tip-in sensitivity. It’s the norm on low output cars for drivers who are not comfortable in applying heavy throttle input. Secondly, typical American drivers prefer the assimilated feel of low end torque early on at the pedal travel. For car enthusiasts, this tip-in sensitivity makes the throttle hard to modulate. A slight input makes the car to surge forward, and falsely think there are plenty more power available on the tap. Here in the 2 the first 1-inch of pedal travel feels almost like the 90% of actual throttle opening. The pedal travel beyond the first inch of input has no profound effect on acceleration.

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