They aren't new for 2013, and they aren't even changed a lot from the previous years' models, but Lexus' most popular SUV and Mazda's little bundle of joy both continue to offer their audiences fine vehicles that do exactly what they're supposed to.
And how can one complain about that?
On the one hand, you have a luxurious and reasonably efficient SUV – the Lexus RX 450h – that adds hybrid performance to the regular RX prescription. And on the other, you have a rippin' great fun roadster – the Mazda MX-5 (nee Miata) – that for more than two decades now has offered drivers about as much fun on a reasonable budget as they can wish for.
Let's start at the top of the line, with the Lexus. The RX has traditionally been Lexus' best selling model and there's good reason for this. After all, SUV/Crossovers are an incredibly popular segment of the market, mainly because they offer wagon/hatchback convenience with a high-mounted view that's a real boon when commuting because they let you see what's going on around you better.
The Lexus does all this well – unless you need a third row of seats – while enveloping you in the lap of luxury and giving you all wheel drive stability. And with this hybrid version, you might be able to save yourself some money on gas (once you've paid the hybrid premium up front) and feel better than your non-hybrid-driving neighbors who continue to ravage Person Nature.
Of course, if you bought it to save the earth, perhaps you should be walking everywhere so as not to risk being perceived as a hypocrite.
Toyota – Lexus' corporate parent – says that hybrids account for one out of every five Lexus vehicles sold, which is a pretty significant achievement, as well as possibly being a sign that P. T. Barnum was right. The 2013 edition of the RX 450h comes with new technology upgrades, including the new second generation of the company's Remote Touch mouse-like interface that works fine and seems pretty neat in concept but which in practice may have you taking your eyes off the road more than you'd like.
There's also a new drive mode select system, with Sport, Eco and Normal driving modes – and guess which is the most interesting.
Outside, the 2013 RX (not just the hybrid) has had the Lexus "signature spindle grille" inflicted on its nose, as well as new headlights with LED's, revised taillights (featuring "vortex generators"), an updated rear license plate garnish, new front fascia and a revised fog lamp bezel. Other than the grille, it's basically a bunch of subtle upgrades to an already pleasing design.
Inside, Lexus has moved the garage door opener buttons from the overhead console (in front of the sunroof) to the rear-view mirror (where you can actually see them!). There are more storage compartments in the center console, a pen holder in the lid (in case you're writing the great Canadian novel while driving), and the box now opens wider and can hold such stuff as a tablet computer (so you can surf and drive!).
Lexus has also given easier access to the USB audio interface (though as usual the Bluetooth interface is more convenient as long as you don't mind battery drain on your device), a bigger back-up camera image in the rearview mirror and – now as standard equipment – a "Vehicle Proximity Notification System" which appears designed to warn oblivious drivers and/or pedestrians that you're about to mow them down.
One other handy upgrade – or perhaps "downgrade" is a better word – is that Lexus claims the RX 450h is nearly three grand cheaper than the 2012 model, yet comes with extra stuff.
One thing they haven't tweaked is the upgraded Mark Levinson audio system, which sounds great but which since Day One has refused to play the DVD-Audio 5.1 surround version of The Who's "Tommy." Time was when it stripped out the vocals, making the disc sound like karaoke, but a tweak a couple of years ago changed that. Yep, now it won't play the disc at all! Instead, it gives you a few seconds of a track, then repeats it ad nauseam. Heckuva reason to spend the extra, eh?
Most people won't notice or care, but it could make one wonder about the supposed relentless pursuit of perfection…
The RX450h' comes with a 3.4 liter Atkinson-cycle six cylinder engine mated to the electric stuff and it gets its power to the wheels via a continuously variable transmission (with a sequential "manual" shift mode) that's about as enjoyable as most. At least the RX has plenty of sound deadening to tame the CVT howl, though when you tromp on the gas it still comes through a tad.
Three option packages are available for the RX 450h. The Touring Package, according to Lexus' media website, includes P235/55R19 tires on 18 inch aluminum alloy wheels – which must be pretty interesting (since the printed spec has the tires an inch larger in circumference than the wheels!), though during the test period we didn't notice any "whup whup whup" from tires that are sliding around. Guess the spec must have been a misprint…
This package also includes a 12 speaker premium audio system with a rear subwoofer and a single in-dash DVD player. You also get a wallet-size smart card key, voice-activated HDD navigation system, the remote touch mouse thingy and power folding electrochromic side mirrors.
The "Ultra Premium Package 1" adds a heated wooden steering wheel, the above-dumped upon 15 speaker Mark Levinson Surround Sound 7.1 channel audio system, front-seat power thigh support, "semi-aniline" (a colorless, oily, slightly water-soluble liquid, according to the dictionary) leather seat surfaces, parking assist, a neat but obtrusive heads-up display (which you can shut off) and roof rail crossbars. You can partake of a blind spot monitor and lane change assist if you insist on such things.
The Ultra Premium Package 2 ups the ante by including two sets of wireless headphones and a dual-screen rear-seat DVD entertainment system to keep the ankle biters occupied. You also get a pre-collision system and dynamic radar cruise control.
Add it all up and the base price of $56,750 jumps up to a whopping $71,400.
Smiles per gallon…
While the Lexus hybrid pushes miles per gallon, Mazda's MX-5 is all about the driving experience and it does a fine job of carrying out its mandate. When Mazda single handedly resuscitated the two seat roadster segment, the little roadster hearkened back to such classic sports cars as the MGB, Triumph Spitfire, Alfa Romeo Spyder and Fiat 124 Spider.
Except that Mazda upped the ante by adding to the fun factor the reliability for which Japanese carmakers had become known. The rest is history: a beloved segment was reborn.
Since then, the MX-5 Miata became simply the MX-5 and went through some evolution that has left the car larger and heavier, equipped better, but still an absolute blast to drive. And they even added an optional retractable hard top that buttons the car up as tightly as a coupe – remarkably, without truncating the trunk.
The current MX-5 is still small inside, but not quite as cramped as it was originally. And it's still a joy to drive, though you can feel the extra weight the car has put on over the years (ensuring that art mimics the human experience!).
The car, which starts at just shy of 30 grand, is powered by a two liter inline four cylinder engine that's rated at 167 horsepower @ 7000 rpm (158 horses on the automatic transmission-inflicted versions) and 140 lb.-ft. of torque at 5,000 rpm.
It's more than adequate, and is approximately the same output as the previous generation Mazdaspeed Miata's turbocharged engine put out. So now you don't get the turbo lag, but you also don't get the delicious "whoosh" of the turbo kicking in; you also don't get the wild feel that came from that kind of power in an appreciably lighter car. It makes one hope there'll be a Mazdaspeed MX-5 coming.
Alas, the way the market is going, we may be more likely to see a frugality-focused Skyactiv version instead, and that would be a shame.
In the meantime, the MX-5 soldiers on as arguably the best value you can get in a roadster, at least until the "Scionbaru" FR-S/BRZ ragtops come along (which will apparently be soon!).
MX-5's are available with either a five or six speed manual transmission (Mazda Canada's test car had the six speed) or the abovementioned six speed automatic with paddles. Driving it feels almost Porsche-like (as much as an apples-to-oranges comparison can be between a "mainstream" and a "high end" car), with handling that feels hard wired into your brain.
One area where the MX-5 falls down, however, is in the driving position. The pedals are laid out so that your right leg has to sit with your knee quite bent if you want to reach the clutch comfortably and after a couple of hours this really starts to wear on you.
The car also doesn't come with Bluetooth or automatic headlights, two safety features no car should be without in 2013. To be fair, it would probably be tough to hear the phone using Bluetooth when you have the roof down, but it should still be there.
The 2013 MX-5 only features a minor refresh, which is fine. There's a mildly redesigned front end, including a new front bumper, fog lamp cover and a mesh-type grille. The wheels get black center mini-caps, there's a smaller hood for the instrument cluster and some other minor trim tweaks.
The GX trim level gets a glossy dark grey roll bar garnish, a glossy dark grey interior decoration panel and a bright silver finish on the headlamp bezel, while the GS trim gets you stuff such as 17" Dark Gun Metallic wheels, a "brilliant black-colored" power retractable hard top and door mirrors, body colored (red, in the case of the sample) interior decoration panel with graphics and red stitching on the seats.
The top line GT trim level gets new 17" alloy wheels, and some color tweaks.
The car is a blast to drive and not a lot of upgrades are required. Two possible suggestions to Mazda would be the abovementioned turbocharged version or perhaps a small V6 (whatever happened to that little six that was in the old MX-3?). Other than that, the car is reminiscent of Mary Poppins: practically perfect in every way.
While the Mazda MX-5 starts at just shy of $30,000, the top line GT with automatic transmission will set you back closer to $42,000. That's starting to be serious money; fortunately, the MX-5 will pay you back with serious fun.
Copyright 2013 Jim Bray