["Open Mike" is the off-topic editorial page of TOP, and it appears on Wednesday! Yeah, yes it does!]
Slightly off topic, but not really: I had a bit of wicked fun last week maligning the new Lexus RX L for being asshat-fugly, and does it ever deserve it. But it reminded me of something a long-ago girlfriend named Nell Leclaire once told me: hating everything is a cop-out, because it means you're excusing yourself from the hard work of figuring out what's good and what you like.
Very wise. I've never forgotten that.
It's easy (and, let's face it, fun, and also, sometimes, funny) to scoff, scorn, and skewer. But negative criticism is an indulgence. Positive criticism is more difficult—but more courageous and more useful.
Accordingly—as penance, you might say—I wasted a rather ridiculous amount of time last weekend poring over JPEGs of dozens and dozens of SUVs trying to find some really good-looking designs, to counterbalance my slagging off of the RX L. Yes, I know this was useless labor, but I felt a certain...obligation. Understand, I don't care for SUVs...I briefly owned one, but I've only ever driven two. I mildly disapprove of their excess, their aggression, and, despite the name, their lack of sportiness: if you ask me they are station wagons without the stigma. Or minivans without the stigma. Not my kind of motor vehicle.
And as befits a category with "utility" in its very moniker, many of them look like truckish ugly ducks with style tacked on as an afterthought—appliances that struggle against anonymity. In terms of design, most SUVs are pretty forlorn and dulling to the senses. Aesthetically lumpen. Anyway, long story short, my finalists were the Volvo XC60, above left, an extremely handsome vehicle let down only by the quirk of having its taillight running up the C-pillar, which is a small thing that doesn't detract from a highly successful design. And here for whatever it's worth is my winner:
The Mazda CX-9.
It surprises me in several ways. First, I didn't expect Mazda's design language to scale up so gracefully; second, it doesn't put a foot wrong—there's essentially no jarring note anywhere, however trifling; and third, it even manages a certain elegance, which I would have thought was pretty much excluded by the SUV concept out of the gate.
Talk about useless labor—I even went to look at one in person, to be sure my critical judgement wasn't out of whack from looking at pictures rather than sheet metal. They're handsome in real life, too. (That's when the CX-9 became the second SUV I've ever driven—I took a test drive.)
Here are some positive reasons why I like it:
- It doesn't try too hard. The world is crowded these days; competition in all things is fierce; and people in many fields are struggling to be noticed. This leads to over-the-top, garish, and "added-on" styling elements, busy designs, and a culture that normalizes excess.
- It has beautiful proportions. The ultimate automotive example of bad proportions might be the delightfully bad AMC Gremlin, my brother Scott's first automotive love (my father used to like to joke, "he drove the ass off that car"). Proportion is overlooked in many areas of design, not just cars—even book design, as we were talking about yesterday, even though it's an art in which proportion should be at the forefront. Although the front overhang of the CX-9 is a little much in traditional terms, in these times it's fine. There's not a hint of poor proportion otherwise.
- It's restrained. Although a huge vehicle by my lights, it's actually on the compact side for a three-row SUV. And in a subdued color it's as elegant and conservative as a Brooks Brothers suit. I bet it will age well.
- The front end—biggest opportunity on most cars for forthright styling—is distinctive yet tasteful, two things that are difficult to pull off in tandem. In terms of traditionalism, again, the badge—the Mazda bird-in-flight (did you know it's not actually an "M"? True)—is a little big, but the front end manages all that acreage it has to cover with grace. As any Lexus will show, not a trifling accomplishment.
- The tires actually have some sidewall. I detest beyond expression the current fad for "wagon-wheel and rubber-band" wheels-and-tires (see inset). Like ice cream on a bad filling for me. Talk about bad proportions—this fashion is an obvious distortion. The CX-9's design—not to mention its ride comfort—could have been significantly crippled by excessively large wheels.
- Works in many colors. Some front ends have such strong elements on the front end—holes, grilles, and gills—that they become too graphic when the paint is white or light-colored, so you'd be forced to get the car in a dark color to downplay that. I looked at a number of CX-9s at the dealership and it carries off its good looks in both light and dark paint.
And by the way, it drives quite nicely, at least if you go in with low expectations like I did—even though it conforms to the maxim "all Mazdas are underpowered*." I'd have no objection to owning and driving one, although it's above my pay grade and I barely have need for two seats, never mind nineteen or whatever the a three-row SUV has.
But back on point, here's the takeaway: when you find yourself "hating," or running something down, try doing due duty and flipping it around—by finding a positive example and articulating, even if only to yourself, why it's good. That's how personal growth in terms of your critical faculties will happen, how your aesthetic sense will sharpen. It's a far harder task in any kind of criticism.
Now, enough with the car posts!
*The company might be readying its second-ever exception to that rule, after the unruly Mazdaspeed3: it's putting the 250 horsepower turbo four from this CX-9 (which has 310 lb-ft of torque at a low 2000 rpm) into an upgraded Mazda6 sedan for 2018. Seems about a perfect match to me. I'd take it in Soul Red.
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Featured Comments from:
Jeff: "I spoke with my wallet. After testing SUVs from Volvo (the refreshed XC60 hadn't yet hit market), Mazda (the CX-9 was pretty, but too large and family oriented with three seat rows), Audi (Q5 too small; Q7 too big, and both ubiquitous) and Porsche Macan (most expensive, not entirely practical, and driver interface like airplane cockpit with 30 or so buttons), I finally settled on the Jaguar F-Pace (2017). Perfect size, last of the V6 supercharged engines, and regular compliments from observers (discontinued, but elegant Tempest Grey...and real sidewalls)."
Mike says: Yes indeed, the F-Pace is a handsome vehicle.