Model bloat is an epidemic. Cars swell with each generation, gobbling up extra gizmos, safety features, insulation, and mass like a katamari tumbling through a shopping mall. You end up with Yokozuna-weight Toyatas and Hondas and heavyweight Chevys that can go toe-to-toe with their solid-steel-framed ancestors (at least on the scales, if not in a crash test). And weight kills driving dynamics, not to mention performance and fuel economy. Thing is, most people don’t notice model bloat.
Let’s take a look at a car that I have a unique kinship with: The Mazda GLC/323/Protégé/MAZDA3. The first car I can remember was an orange ’78 GLC five door. The first real car I drove regularly was a silver ’88 323. My second car was a “mocha frost” ’93 Protégé LX and my current daily driver is a white ’03 Protégé 5. Now before anybody goes apoplectic, I realize the Mazda 3 is built on a different chassis than the Protege, but it is a direct descendent and takes up the same spot in Mazda’s model lineup.
Since the 1978 model year, the GLC/323/Protégé/MAZDA3 has gained more than 1,200 pounds (544 kg). That little orange hatchback I grew up with only weighed 1790 pounds (812 kg). The 323 I drove tipped the scales at about 2,000 (907 kg) pounds. The ’93 LX had a 2,359 (1,070 kg) curb weight and my current ’03 Protégé 5 weighs 2,750 (1,247 kg) pounds dry. The first MAZDA3 hatchback weighed 2,900 (1,315 kg) pounds and the current MAZDA3 is a portly 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg).
Don’t get me wrong, each weight gain has been accompanied by an increase in power, making the current MAZDA3 faster than any that came before (save maybe the ’93 LX, which hauled). The car has also become much, much safer. That tiny orange hatchback would crumble to bits in an accident while the MAZDA3 gets a five-star safety rating. It has also gained some interior space, though you’d be surprised by how many people and how much crap you could cram into that GLC.
But increased power cannot make up for lost driving feel. My ’93 LX was a blast. It danced through corners like Barishnikov (wearing clogs, but still) and just felt fast. There was little insulation to keep the scream of the DOHC 1.8 four from filling the cabin and it skipped over rough pavement. My Protégé 5 would deftly out handle the LX, but its added weight and subdued feel make it less thrilling. The new MAZDA3 is heavier and cushier still, making what should be a rousing hatchback more like a family hauler.
The MAZDA3 is by no means the worst offender when it comes to model bloat. In fact, it’s one of the best-handling and most fun front-wheel-drive cars on the market. Still, it has grown too pudgy. Even Mazda recently acknowledged that its entire model lineup needs to shed some pounds to enhance performance and increase fuel economy. And when Mazda admits that one of the lightest and exciting cars out there is too fat, you know there’s a problem.
If manufacturers really want to increase fuel economy and actually make their cars fun to drive again, they’ll shed weight from their lineups. Will it happen? Mazda says it’s working on making its cars more light on their feet, but other manufacturers seem to be focused on cramming more technology into their cars to achieve the same goals. What do you think?