Mazda Madness

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I'll just skip the full introduction and fanfare what-have-you and get straight to it: Mazda is flat-out one of the best automakers today and it doesn't receive enough credit. In the world of Asian automakers, Mazda is too often overshadowed by the likes of Toyota, Honda, and now, even Hyundai. When it comes to American and other foreign cars, Mazda also often goes unnoticed and underappreciated. Why is that?

Perhaps because its most famous and longest-running model, the MX-5 (aka Miata), is not exactly the best daily driver, especially if you don't live in ideal Florida-like conditions year-round. Mazda has also changed the names of their models, while Toyota and Honda have been building cars named Camry, Accord, Corolla, and Civic for decades. Branding matters. Only in 2002 and 2004 did Mazda begin to call their popular midsize and compact competitors the 6 and 3 (they used to be the 626 and 323, respectively). As a result, they haven't quite succeeded with the same name recognition of their competitors.

But throughout the past decade, Mazda really began to establish their "Zoom-Zoom" tagline and made cars that were not only affordable and well-built, but also had solid performance capabilities. And now that Ford has sold their 20 percent share in the company (now down to just 3 percent), Mazda is coming into their own more than ever. In the next few months, both design and performance are about to enter a new golden era for the small Japanese automaker. For starters, they're ready to ditch the evil smiling cat-faced Nagare design language in favor of the much-improved Kodo "Soul in Motion" styling.

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Claiming they want to be the Alfa Romeo of Asia, this new design direction is exactly where they should be heading. It's simple, sharp, and sporty. Beautiful? Perhaps, and judging by the Shinari concept revealed last August, Mazda is clearly on to something interesting. The most significant changes, however, will be under the hood. At last month's New York Auto Show, they unveiled the 2012 Mazda3 sedan and hatchback that will feature the first of their new line of SkyActiv engine and transmission technologies.

Adaptable to both gasoline and diesel engines, the main emphasis of SkyActiv technologies is to improve engine efficiency while reducing overall vehicle weight. Mazda claims this can improve fuel economy by some 30 percent. The SkyActiv-G gasoline four-cylinder engine, for example, is a direct-injection design that has a low-friction block that minimizes mechanical drag. The new transmissions will be better at interpreting the driver's intentions and even the body structure and chassis will be lighter, stronger, and more rigid.

The added assistance of electrical technologies such as idle-stop and regenerative braking will also be phased in eventually. Most importantly, the performance factor will not suffer. In fact, it will only improve. Simply put, SkyActiv technologies allow for greater performance by tapping into the hidden power of the internal combustion engine at little to no extra cost for the consumer. They don't even require hybrid and pure EV technology. Later this year, anyone can go to their Mazda dealership and buy a new Mazda3 featuring the SkyActiv four-cylinder mated to a SkyActiv-Drive gearbox.

And set to debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show this September is the Kodo-based production version of the Minagi Concept SUV, which will be called the CX-5. Having learned how to drive a manual on my dad's old Miata, Mazda holds special memories for me. The automaker already has a devout following, but the design and technology revolution that's about to arrive will hopefully lure in many more. Could Mazda just be one of the best-kept secrets that's been here all along? We're about to find out.

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