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2019 Toyota Tundra TRD Pro Crewmax -A Solid Truck Showing Its Age

2019 Toyota Tundra TRD Pro Crewmax -A Solid Truck Showing Its Age

Introduced in 1999, the Toyota Tundra has become a staple among truck drivers.  A  roomy and capable pickup coupled with Toyota’s reputation for reliability and excellent resale value makes Tundras a good investment. Since their inception, they’ve been made in the ‘States. Today they’re assembled in San Antonio, Tx, making Tundras the only full-size truck to be built in the lone star state. So, after two decades with only one major update, how does the newest Tundra stack up?

EXTERIOR

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From the outside looking in, this truck looks enormous and absurdly blue. Toyota calls this color VooDoo blue. Whatever the name, the expansive sheet metal ensures there’s a whole lot of it. It has non-functional hood scoops and bulky, hard-edged styling. The bumpers are sculpted into the bed sides which is a nice touch. As is the “TRD Pro” stamped into the truck’s flanks.

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This pickup wants you to know that it’s ready for whatever you can throw at it. The design language oozes off-road. The black badges contrast nicely with the bright blue paint and complement the black wheels and exhaust tips. This Tundra was optioned up with a spray-in bed liner and a tri-fold tonneau cover. The locking tonneau cover is especially convenient when carrying valuables that won’t fit in the cab.

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INTERIOR

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Interior space is ample. The black leather seats afford passengers the room to sprawl out on long hauls. Between the front seats, there’s a cavernous console with loads of room for your laptop, pistol collection, toddler, etc. The sunroof is a nice option as is the rear window that goes up and down with the push of a button. Second-row passengers have acres of legroom, plenty of room for six-footers to sit comfortably in the back.

THE DRIVE

The ride height is so high it distorts your perception of speed. Until you get used to it, 60 mph feels like you’re creeping. Tundra’s don’t feel cutting edge. Because the last major refresh was over a decade ago, Tundras drive a little rough and don’t feel that precise. That’s not a knock against them, it just shows how Toyota’s priorities are aligned. It feels trucky. But with other brands are making efforts to redefine how trucks feel, Toyota must be feeling the pressure to refine their ride.

They must be doing something right though, the Tundra is the best-selling full-size import truck in North America; selling more than twice as many as next the runner up Nissan Titan. Granted, those two are practically the only legitimate full-size import options. With a redesign slated for 2021, it will be interesting to see if Toyota can close in on the domestic marques.

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Twist the key and the 5.7 liter dual overhead cam V8 rumbles to life, clearing its throat through the TRD dual exhaust. It’s a mellow growl that sounds good around town and while accelerating, but it might get on a very long road trip. Behind the V8 is an eight-speed automatic.

Toyota designed these trucks to look burly from the outside, but they also equipped it with some pull-hard goodies to ensure it can back up those looks. The tow package on this truck includes a heavy-duty battery, rear axle and alternator. It has beefed up engine and transmission cooling too. They even integrated a trailer brake controller, 4/7 pin connector, and a tow/haul mode for the transmission.

The hood is expansive and seeing over the far corner is a challenge. This makes tight work in a parking lot a little tough. This truck would benefit from a forward facing parking camera. During the week long test, the truck averaged 13.5 mpg. That’s not great even for a big ol’ truck

THE DIRT 

If I absolutely needed to buy a truck today, I might look elsewhere. The Tundra feels kind of dated. It’s a little noisy and rough around the edges. Tick all the boxes it takes to option a Tundra like this one and you’ll be in it for $56,106. Why do that when the next generation Tundra is set to come out for 2021. Instead, I might look at a smooth-riding domestic truck. I’d drive it a couple years then maybe trade it off when we see what Toyota has in store for us with the new Tundra.

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2019 Lexus ES350 F Sport – The Best ES Yet

2019 Lexus ES350 F Sport – The Best ES Yet

Now in its seventh iteration, the Lexus ES is better than ever. The first ES came out three decades ago in 1989. Back then they were built on the Camry platform. The newest ES shares a platform with Toyota’s excellent Avalon. Has the Lexus treatment improved Toyota’s recipe?

EXTERIOR

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This ES350 came off the assembly line in Georgetown, Kentucky sporting Ultrasonic Blue paint on its sheet metal skin. I was slow to warm up to the spindle grille, but now I think it looks pretty sharp.

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The roofline makes an arc that sweeps gracefully from the base of the windshield, up over the four doors, and terminates beneath a spoiler on top of the deck lid. The chrome molding around the windows is a nice touch, and it just enough bling. 19 inch F-Sport alloy wheels finished in gray offer a nice contrast to the intense blue.

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Lexus designers did a good job of developing the design theme on this car. Nothing looks out of proportion. And, rather wisely, they stayed away from a completely hard-edged motif. The problem with blocky designs for cars is that they’ll never be totally cohesive. There are certain elements that must be organic. Until we figure out square wheels, I fear we are beholden to at least some rounded features.

 

INTERIOR

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The gauge cluster in front of the driver mimics the hourglass shape of the grille. The driver’s feet are treated to aluminum pedals thanks to the F-Sport package. And everyone’s ears are treated to the 10 speaker Lexus premium sound system. The screen in the dash is lovely, both for its size, 12.3 inches, and its resolution. It’s also nice to see that Lexus has adopted Apple Carplay. I did notice a little distortion 10.2 inch wide heads up display, making this $500 option a questionable value. To be fair though, this is the first time I’ve noticed it in a Lexus product.

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The build quality inside this ES is better than ever. And whether you like red skins on the seats or not, the excellent execution of these seats is undeniable. Everything you touch feels good. In the past, for whatever reason, Lexus’ shift knobs were never tight. They would always spin in your hand. After you buy this Lex though, you can tell all your friends about its nice tight knob.

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There’s a lot to like inside, from the embossed headrests to the tasteful detail stitching on the dash and door panels. One particular detail I liked fixated on is the elegant shape of these door handles. It’s a small thing but it’s one we touch every time we drive. What can I say, I’m a sucker for hardware.

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DRIVE

The ES350 has a 3.5 liter, dual overhead cam V8 that churns out 302 horsepower and makes a particularly mellifluous noise while doing it.  It’s smart too. Variable valve timing allows this engine to switch between the Atkinson cycle, which holds the exhaust valves open just a bit longer for better fuel economy, and the old fashion Otto cycle for power. Passing power is excellent but don’t you try any shenanigans in this car.

Even with all the nanny controls turned off the Lexus slaps your wrist if you flat foot it from a stop. This car has the power to lay parallel rubber lines for half a city block. But Lexus engineers didn’t think that was an essential part of a luxury car’s disposition. When the traction control takes hold it doesn’t just turn down the volume, it shuts down the party and sends everybody home. Rather than tapering off the power it shuts it down pretty abruptly. I mean, what’s the point of having all those ponies under the hood and enduring the so-so fuel economy if you can’t let them run?

The ES350 is exceptionally quiet and comfortable to ride it. It has a truck-load of bells and whistles to keep occupants safe too. Radar cruise, airbags crammed into every cranny, pre-collision system, the gang is all here. Plus the F-Sport trim comes with tuned suspension including performance dampers.

 

THE DIRT

The MSRP on a new ES350 is $44,035. But if you want the F-Sport trim all gussied up like this test car, it’ll set you back $52,904. That’s a considerable pile of scratch. But if it must be luxurious and it must be Japanese, then perhaps it must be this car. If I were in the market, I’d probably go with the ES300h hybrid rather than be teased by that great lump of power under the hood that I can’t use. Perhaps there was a hiccup during my transition from being a child to adulthood, but I don’t like being told what to do, even by a car. Realistically though, who would buy a buttoned-down, mid-sized luxury sedan to do something as juvenile and uncouth as turning tires into white smoke?

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2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature AWD – Mazda Perfects The 5-Seater Crossover

2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature AWD – Mazda Perfects The 5-Seater Crossover

The 2019 CX-5 looks great inside and out, it’s a pleasure to drive and ride in and it will haul kids and groceries. It’s affordable, efficient and good looking. Honestly, what else is there?

EXTERIOR 

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The aesthetic of the CX-5 is a tidy and stylish one. It’s not pretending to look like an offroader or trying to be overly cute. Its style is compact and clean without being adorned with chintzy nonsense. 19×7 inch alloys fill out wheel wells. A wide open mouth for a grille and slits for headlights give this car a sporty look and set it apart from other things on the road.

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The backend follows the same tidy and clean theme. Everything is sculpted and contoured to maintain the smooth lines. Genuine exhaust tips, not just bodywork that looks like exhaust, poke out at both bottom corners.

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INTERIOR

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Rather than a cluttered and unnecessarily complicated dash/console set up, Mazda engineers elected to pursue a clean and simple dash design. The sleek symmetrical theme is soothing. The interface for the stereo and navigation system has a reasonable learning curve and quickly becomes second nature. Apple Carplay and Android Auto ensure seamless connectivity between devices, the car and its occupants.

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The CX-5 Signature seats are wrapped in deep brown Nappa leather. Their design, like that of the dash, is restrained but well-executed. Front seats are heated and ventilated with power adjustment. All-weather mats go a long way toward preserving the carpets.

 

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Rear seat passengers are treated to heated seats and can keep the batteries in their devices topped up using the charger in the fold-out armrest. The interior of this ride is a classy and comfortable space to spend a commute.

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THE DRIVE

Mazda’s 250 horsepower, 2.5-liter turbocharged engine is sublime. seriously, it makes this car pleasure to operate. When lifting after acceleration there’s a little sigh from the turbo blow-off valve. This scoots the slick little crossover to 60 in just over six seconds. Unfortunately, this engine is available in the Grand Touring Reserve and Signature models only. The other trim levels have to make do with a naturally aspirated version.

Per the Mazda standard, this car handles well. It’s fun to drive and inspires confidence to attack corners that other, more wobbly crossovers don’t. The clever proximity key locks the door for drivers as they walk away from the car.

THE DIRT

The CX-5 is a standout in a crowded market. And with five trim levels to choose from, there’s likely a CX-5 for almost any budget. The Sport model starts at $24,350, and the Signature trim, as tested here, will set buyers back $36,890. It sounds like marketing talk, but quality is what sets this car apart from other, similarly priced vehicles in its class. There’s a cohesive style that pervades each facet of the car from the inside out. This, combined with a satisfying driving experience, a decent price point and resonable fuel economy to create what must be the best bang for your five-seater crossover buck.

It does beg the question though, “what would happen if they dropped this darling little motor in an MX-5?” Maybe they’ll release a limited run insanity trim level that comes with a year’s supply of free rear tires.

2019 Eclipse Cross SEL S-AWD – A Total Eclipse Of The Car

2019 Eclipse Cross SEL S-AWD – A Total Eclipse Of The Car

Fanboys cringe. Last year, Mitsubishi revived the Eclipse moniker and hung it on a crossover. Perhaps in an effort to capture the market of folks who drove the sporty-looking coupe during their youth, and now need a back seat to haul their progeny. But why would Mitsu introduce yet another mid-sized cross over into a crowded segment when they already offer the Outlander Sport?

Chances are we all knew someone who drove the old Eclipse, or at least there was one on the high school parking lot. It had a coffee-can exhaust and ill-fitting, primer-colored body kit and peeling tint. “I’m gonna get a turbo kit with my birthday money, or maybe a 4G63 swap” the pimpled the adolescent owner would say before over-revving it while slipping his much-abused clutch lest he stall the engine while trying to look dope. He would pull away leaving only a stain from the many leaks and the smell of burned clutch. With few exceptions, these cars were neither very fast nor very furious.

 

INTERIOR

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Inside the Eclipse Cross, a seven-inch touchscreen in the center of the dash controls the nav and the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible stereo. Audiophiles will appreciate the 710 watt, nine-speaker Rockford Fosgate audio system replete with a ten-inch subwoofer in the back. Just like high school!

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Even with the leather appointments in the SEL trim level, there’s a certain plasticy feel to the cabin. But it’s hard to find anything wrong with the fit and finish though. It has a modern design that’s well executed and logically laid out. Interior room is good, and cargo room, while not the best in class, is adequate. Front and rear heated seats are a treat in the cold weather and the driver has the option to turn on the heated wheel.

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In the console, there’s a touchpad that looks like it was lifted directly out of a Lexus product. “So what,” you might say, “Lexus is nice, I want nice things.” It’s meant to mimic the way we easily swipe around between apps on our devices. But the layout falls tragically short of that mark. It’s practically impossible to use while driving, and really needs to go the way of Beta tapes and eight-track cassettes. One only hopes it doesn’t spread like a virus to other manufacturers.

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EXTERIOR

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The Eclipse cross looks good. It uses design elements that immediately establish that it’s from the Mitsu livery. It also seamlessly incorporates features from other marques. Thankfully, Mitsu hasn’t given in to the jumbo badge fad found on so many other cars.

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It has a blocky, contemporary aesthetic that is cohesive from bumper to bumper. More than one person commented on the wheels during the week I tested this car. And for good reason. The 18-inch alloys are an especially dashing design.

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All-wheel drive means that you won’t worry if things get a little slick out. This Eclipse cross was up-fitted with the option Mitsubishi roof rack rails. It’s a $380 option that not only looks the part, but it adds some functionality to this ride.

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THE DRIVE

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The 1.5-liter power plant under the hood churns out 152 horsepower, which is then dispersed to all for wheels via an eight-speed CVT automatic. This gets the car up to sixty in a not-so-swift eight seconds and change. As for the ride, it’s a little noisy and you can sense some top-heaviness in the corners. However, it’s surprisingly good off-road. I didn’t put it through any mud or snow, but in the rutted and gravely terrain of the photoshoot location, it scrambled around without missing a lick.

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Now, this may only be an issue with this particular car, but the sunroof emitted a whistle at freeway speeds which forced me to keep the moon roof portion closed. Sometimes the press fleet cars get their fair share of abuse and age prematurely. I keep this in mind when I drive them. But when I checked the odometer at the end of my test it read 450 miles. Of which, close to 200 were mine.

Basically, this car breached the womb of the Mistu plant and slid into my driveway on a slick of its own amnion juices. That is to say, it was rather new. To have this sort of issue this early in the game leads me to believe these problems will only multiply or get worse. Of course, if you buy one a repair would probably be covered under warranty.

 

THE DIRT

This is not a bad car. However, it falls victim to the Mitsubishi  “more stuff is better” mentality. It has too many trinkets and gimmicks. Rather than a flip-up HUD screen or a sub-woofer, even though they’re fun, let’s have a sunroof that doesn’t whistle, or some more horsepower, or some more sound deadening. A long list of features looks good next to a bargain price looks good on a window sticker, but tightening up the basics would go a long way toward making this a better driving experience.

The Eclipse cross starts at $23,595, which is on the inexpensive side for a five-seater crossover. For an Eclipse Cross dolled up like this test car, one can expect to shell out just north of $30,000. This is still less than comparably equipped competitors. Mitsubishi appears to have faith in their latest offering too. They’re standing behind it with a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty. That’s about as good as warranties get. But we don’t drive warranties, do we? So, it really comes down to the feeling this car gives owners. My advice: Test drive it and then the comparable Nissan and Mazda to see for yourself.
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2019 Hyundai Elantra Limited – To All The Elantras I’ve Loathed Before

2019 Hyundai Elantra Limited – To All The Elantras I’ve Loathed Before

First off, I like the new Elantra. It’s comfortable, economical and a good value. But each time I got behind the wheel I couldn’t help but slide into reveries about Elantras past. The first car review I ever wrote was for a 2016 Hyundai Elantra Value Edition. I had to go to a used car lot in Dallas to find an example. It wasn’t a press car, and my only experience behind the wheel of it was with a nervous young salesman in the passenger seat.

I got home to write the article and tried like hell. What came out was a 1,000-word goat-choker that included needless observations and a half-cocked confession about wanting to do very bad things in someone else’s car.

“Any time I find myself behind the wheel of a front-wheel-drive vehicle I’m not financially responsible for, I have to fight a bubbling urge to crank the wheel to one side, slip the gearbox into reverse, mash the brake and floorboard the accelerator. And when the brake pads begin groaning against the rotors, let off the brake and see if the car will do a shuddering, squealing and potentially smoky reverse-donut.  This is a holdover from my adolescence when I drove an ’89 Cadillac Sedan Deville that was particularly good at this maneuver (gravel enhanced the effect). There was a sick satisfaction in making the fat, classy four-door do something so uncouth.”

I went on to insult the humble fifth-generation Elantra’s looks too. I think “ghastly” was the chosen adjective. Anyway, while driving this latest Elantra, my mind wandered back scanning over previous exposure to the Elantra. I found that it may be the car with which I have the most experience.

 

INTERIOR

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Way back in high school, I dated a young lady who drove a solid black third generation Elantra. I remember very little about the car other than losing my nerve during a bout of heavy petting in the gray confines of the back seat. At the proposition of terminating my virginity, I suddenly became very timid. What can I say? I was green and shy.

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On the other hand, the 2019 Elantra’s back seat seems much roomier and even has an armrest that folds down. Hyundai has also improved the way the rear seats lean forward for access to the trunk. The front seats are wrapped in leather and offer heat for frigid mornings.

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An eight inch touch screen in the dash controls the stereo and nav system which features Apple Carplay and Android Auto. Ahead of the gear selector, there’s a little cubby hole that with a built-in QI wireless charging pad. This is standard equipment on these cars. It even charges phones without broken screens.

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EXTERIOR

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The year after graduating from high school I found myself in junior college studying auto-body refinishing. I’d parted ways with the girl with the black Elantra and started dating other girls and their cars. I was surprised one day when my Nokia brick began jangling and her number appeared on the screen. She heard I was repairing cars and hoped I could help her out.

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Someone had “keyed” her car. I agreed to look at it and maybe fix it. I remember being led to the back of the car to assess the damage. There, in all caps, “WHORE,” was scratched deliberately and with gusto through the paint down to the steel. I was struck with how well it was spaced on the decklid. Someone took their time. I asked why it happened and she gave me a withering glance that suggested further inquiry was unwelcome. In the end, I sanded and painted the obscenity out of existence.

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Unlike the poor Value Edition I picked on in my first published review, the 2019 Elantra looks fully modern and not at all ghastly. In fact, for an economical car, it looks great. Hard body lines, LED lights and 17 inch alloy wheels all contribute the what must be the best looking Elantra to date. And, unlike my ex’s Elantra, I couldn’t find the word whore anywhere on the 2019’s body.

THE DRIVE

Fast forward a few years and another black third-gen Elantra drove into my life. This one was operated by the woman who would become the mother of my son and my wife. It was absurdly worn for the number of miles on it. A nervous previous owner picked the rubber steering wheel down to the steel. The same nervous owner worried a hole in the carpet with their heel.

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During our protracted courtship, we were visiting a friend’s house. When we returned to her car the driver’s door had been caved in by a hit and run. After that, the window in that door never worked the same. It wasn’t long after that the little car gave up its little Korean ghost on the roadside.

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Unlike my wife’s sad Elantra, the 2019 Elantra did not break down during my test. In fact, the 147 horsepower two-liter hummed along without a hiccup. A smooth shifting six-speed automatic sends power to the wheels. This car is not what you would call fast, but the ride is comfortable and interior noise levels are low for a car in this class. Hyundai claims this car gets 37 mpg on the highway. That’s pretty good for a roomy gas burner like this one.

THE DIRT

Loads of standard features and Hyundai’s excellent warranty makes this car a good value at its base price of $22,600. Even with the added cost of the $3,350 for the Ultimate Package upgrade, $26,960 feels like a good price point given the comfort and features. Consider the added cost as an investment for the driver and passengers. Just know that if you buy one of these for your daughter, she may be at risk of falling for an over-educated, self-indulgent, under-employed, automotive journalist.

 

 

2019 Mazda MX-5 RF – The Best Just Got Better

2019 Mazda MX-5 RF – The Best Just Got Better

This year the Mazda MX-5 turns 30. After three decades or refinement, the MX-5 is better than ever. New standard features and some more horsepower make this darling little droptop even sweeter.

EXTERIOR

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The most notable change for this car is the addition of the fastback styling. Sitting atop the MX-5’s rear haunches are a pair of artfully crafted B-pillars. Which actually lift off the car when the power convertible top is let down. No, it’s not a true convertible, more of a Targa top situation, but it’s still pretty cool. You get the sunshine of no-top driving and the convenience of a power top, and it only adds about 115 pounds to the car. Visibility is slightly limited relative to the soft top version. But it’s a small price to pay to look this good.

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A redesign in 2017 replaced the soft edges in the body with hard creases and the car got grumpy headlights. It looks a little less bubbly and cute. But it’s still got a face you can’t help but love. Just look at this thing. It’s even more precious now that it’s a little angry.

INTERIOR

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There’s no way around the fact that this is a small car. But Mazda makes the best use of the modest space available. Even six-footers can find a comfortable driving position in the heated seats. A telescoping tilt steering column, now a standard feature, lets you put the wheel exactly where it ought to be.

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At first glance, the interior may look a little spartan, but look closer and you’ll notice amenities like speakers in the headrests that pipe in phone calls. There are also classy touches like an upholstered dash, stainless door sill plates and alloy pedals. Cup holders that pop in and out of specially designed receptacles. Removing them out makes room for the driver’s elbow behind the shifter. There’s even a  receiver on the passenger side of the console to keep right-side occupants hydrated.

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Plunked down onto the dash is a 7 inch touch screen to control the Bose 9 speaker stereo. It offers all the convenience we’ve become accustomed to; Bluetooth, navigation, etc. The car even comes standard with a backup camera.

THE DRIVE

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In a word, driving this car is delightful. Under the hood is Mazda’s Skyactiv-G 2.0 liter four cylinder that churns out 181 horsepower. That’s up 26 over last year’s MX-5, and makes this the most powerful MX-5 to date. Those ponies gallop back to the limited slip differential through a sweet shifting 6 speed. Winding the 4 cyl up and stirring through the gears is probably the most convincing argument keeping internal combustion engines around.

This car was fun with 155 horsepower, it was balanced and always under control. To make it misbehave you had to wring it out a bit. With the added power it’s easier than ever to get this little two-seater to step out of line. But it’s still so well mannered to whip it back into shape when things get too slidy.

The sounds of the engine working just forward of your right foot, and the gearbox one inches from your right thigh keep you intimately connected with the car. Even with the top up, you don’t necessarily feel isotlated within this car. It feels a little bit like driving a go-cart or riding a bicycle. As though you’re on it, rather than in it. It’s a real treat for all five senses. It’s hard not to use the same beat down clichés that writers have used since Mazda brought the MX-5 Miata stateside in 1989. But it feels like the simple joy felt when riding a bicycle as a kid.

THE DIRT

Alright, no car is perfect, so what’s the catch? I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the hard top. It creaks a bit.  But luckily there’s a simple solution. Get the ragtop. Also, it’s tiny. But driving this car is good for your soul. Being so close to the elements reminds you that life fleeting and you automatically drive more defensively. It’s a pleasure to operate which makes even the shortest trips a real treat.

It forces us to check our egos at the adorable tiny door. You can’t take yourself seriously in this ride. Yeah, it’s serious fun but there’s no muscle car bravado or luxury car pretense to the MX-5. These cars start at $25,730 for a cloth top model. The RF starts at $33,335 and as tested this car cost $35,905, which is a good chunk for a tiny car. But who cares, just buy one already!

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