From the March 1988 issue of Car and Driver.
The market in bucks-up sedans is rich with choice these days. No matter what expensive automotive personality you prefer—from tautly muscled freeway runner to cushy metropolitan carriage—you can have it your way exactly. Off the shelf and no waiting.
The only problem is sorting through all the possibilities. You’d think the economy was booming or something, given the emergence of all the $20,000-plus sedans over the last few years.
We’ll attempt to ease you through the process of elimination by staking out the Mazda 929’s place on the spectrum. This four-door is on the reserved side: highly filtered in its machine sensations and very well behaved. Mostly, it minds its own business, rather like an Oldsmobile: it’s there when you need it, but it doesn’t bother you with small talk. You come away from it with little to say except, “Hmmm, this car is in very good taste.”
The 929 is new, introduced last fall. Marketing sedans to affluent Americans is unfamiliar territory for Mazda: until the current model year it had reserved its large carriages for Japanese buyers. But everybody wants a piece of the high-end American market now, because that’s where the money is; the weak dollar merely added desperation to a move that Mazda had already planned. Similar plans, made by car builders around the world, are providing the wealth of choice in this end of the market today.
The 929 is a thoroughly international design except in one dimension: in width, it’s pure Japanese. Its body is exactly 1.7 meters (66.9 inches) wide, which is the upper limit for one of the Japanese tax classes. Go a fraction over 1.7 meters and the price gets serious. Other makers respond the same way. For example, the Japanese-market base version of the Acura Legend is just barely less than 1.7 meters wide.
The result, in the 929’s case, is a car rather narrower than you would expect for its overall length. At 193.1 inches long, the new Mazda is only 3.3 inches shorter than the Oldsmobile Ninety Eight, yet it’s 5.5 inches narrower. So the 929 is a relatively long but narrow car.
The interior capacity reflects the shape. The 929 offers plenty of legroom even for back-seat passengers and a reasonable 15 cubic feet of trunk. But three-across rear seating is clearly the limit; forget the Little League.
Although the machinery under the 929’s skin tends not to draw notice to itself, there is plenty to talk about. This is a rear-drive car (surprise!), with a fully independent suspension in back. Mazda calls the rear arrangement “E-Link” because the transverse links, one upper and two lower, resemble the letter “E” when viewed from above. Struts suspend the front end. Disc brakes are on duty at all four corners, though they are vented in front only. Anti-lock brakes are optional.
The engine is an all-new 60-degree V-6 of 3.0 liters. It has electronic fuel injection, an overhead camshaft for each bank, and two intake valves and one exhaust valve for each cylinder. It produces 158 horsepower at 5500 rpm.
That’s a decent number of horses for this class, and the 929 performs well, with a zero-to-60-mph time of 8.9 seconds and a quarter-mile pass of 16.6 seconds at 82 mph. Actually, these times are a bit slower than you expect until you hear of the 929’s 3348-pound curb weight. Rear drive is heavy. Moreover, the engineers speak of “upgauging” sections of the unit body where a little extra weight would provide big increments of stiffness. They managed to build a notably solid car, but the 158 horses have a load of work to do.
The performance numbers are actually a bit quicker than you might expect from the driver’s seat. The mannerly behavior of the mechanicals suggests a more leisurely pace. While the 929 is in no way an Oldsmobile imitation, it does share the values expected of upper-price Detroiters. For example, the velour-covered front buckets are cushy, meant strictly for straight ahead. And you can pushbutton the Auto Adjusting Suspension into “Soft,” which makes the shocks go as limp as grocery-store string. Then you can float down the Interstate tributaries in traditional American style.
Of course, you don’t have to put the shocks on “Soft.” You can push “Sport,” which provides nicely controlled body motions, certainly not too aggressive for anyone we know. Or push “Auto” and let Mazda decide what’s right for the moment. No matter which setting you choose, the 929 never strikes an athletic pose. This is a good-citizen sedan.
Some aspects of the 929 approach excellence. The anti-lock brakes stopped our test car from 70 mph in only 175 feet, consistently and with no fade. Another 929 we tested, an automatic-transmission version, stopped in 179 feet.
Short stops are made of two components: impending lockup achieved simultaneously at all four tires, and the tires’ traction. The 929 achieves its marks the hard way—with nearly optimal control of lockup at each corner. The tires look more aggressive than you might expect on such a good-citizen sedan—their 0.65 aspect ratio suggests sporting intentions—but their demeanor falls within the general range of touring tires. That is, they pay as much attention to ride as they do to traction. They kawop loudly over expansion strips but otherwise do not call attention to themselves. The 929’s skidpad traction, at 0.76 g, is good for a touring car but definitely not sporting. Again, this cornering performance is accomplished by the 929’s efficient use of its tires. Only mild understeer is present at the limit, and a small flick of the steering and a big dip into the power will get the tail out.
This willingness to participate in tail-out cornering is the 929’s one significant gesture toward sportiness. Rear drive makes that possible. The staff is of two minds on rear drive versus front drive for this type of car. The sport-above-all-else drivers say that rear drive is absolutely the best way because it offers the possibility (though not the guarantee) of superior dry-weather handling. The sport-where-sport-is-appropriate drivers say, “Yeah, but this car is really a family hauler, so why not use front drive to bias it for the best defense against low-traction mishaps, which should be the concern in this type of car?” Mazda says, “The rear-wheel-drive layout offered superior handling, ride quality, and favorable weight distribution without adversely compromising interior spaciousness.” The consensus is this: the 929 has an efficient rear-drive layout. Looking around inside the car, you probably can’t tell which end has the drive wheels. But when the road gets slippery, you’ll know.
Nor will looking around inside reveal the 929’s country of origin (provided you don’t peek at the Mazda badges, of course). You can rule out the U.S. fairly quickly, because the 929 has too little brightwork inside to be a $20,000-plus Detroiter, but the clues stop there. The look is tasteful and internationally correct. The instrument panel offers clean, white-on-black gauges; the tach reads to 8000, the speedometer to 150. A profusion of little black buttons and switches suggests the complexity of a 747 flight deck. The steering column telescopes to satisfy most arm lengths, but the wheel blocks a number of the small controls. The power driver’s seat adjusts over a wide range, yet even its lowest position provides a high eye point. The velour upholstery contributes a softness that makes the 929 feel more like a Detroiter than a high-priced German, but leather is available for $1175 extra. That expenditure would change the feel of the car considerably, pulling it smartly toward Europe.
Which brings us back to personality. The 929 is not easily pigeonholed. We drove our test car for several hundred miles without knowing its price. And we couldn’t guess. Everything about it seemed mannerly and tasteful. Maybe $30,000? But the international appearance also lacked individuality, leaving us feeling that we’d driven a number of other cars much like it. So maybe the 929 was a $20,000 car? It didn’t have the eager-machine feel that lurks just beneath the surface of a Legend or a BMW, so we marked down its price a little. But it also didn’t have the don’t-bother-me-I’m-cruising attitude about quickening the pace that you find in many upmarket family haulers. So we marked it back up.
On revelation day, a base price of $18,950 emerged, and the test car’s list of options raised the final number to $22,288. Given the other choices in today’s market, the Mazda 929 feels like a car that lives up to its window sticker.
Other cars have been described as characterless, but the Mazda 929 comes closest to that description. Not that it lacks ability when I step on the gas and turn the wheel. But it neither excites nor enrages me in the slightest. It just goes, and stops, and turns, and even handles.
If Ma and Pa got out of their big Buick and into a 929, they would instantly be at home. It’s quiet inside and out, and it offers all the trappings of luxury. The 929 has the same general feel and manner when cruising as a Buick, though with superior feedback through the wheel. Ma and Pa wouldn’t notice that, however, nor would they ever find out that the 929 can fling into a corner and then exit in a broad, tail-out slide. And you can actually steer the 929 with your right foot when it’s at the limit.
That’s the problem with this car. It doesn’t even hint at its true abilities. It has excellent anti-lock brakes, and it handles well for a large sedan. But it never entices you to find out. Unlike its most obvious competitor, the Acura Legend sedan, it doesn’t have a racing-heritage soul just under its skin. —Nicholas Bissoon-Dath
I can’t warm up to the Mazda 929, for one simple reason: its looks could put me to sleep. Here’s a very capable and comfortable car stuck in one of the most ho-hum packages ever. The staid Acura Legend looks positively rakish next to this Mazda. Children know the basic three-box shape from Saturday-morning cartoons: ask a kindergartner to draw a car and you’II get a 929 every time. “Let’s see…hmmm…big trunk back there, then up and over where the people go, and then down in the front, where the motor is.” Simple.
People will spend money for a good-looking-but-lousy car, but they won’t buy a dull-looking-but-worthy car unless it’s cheap—and that the 929 is not. The 929 is certainly capable, but until it gets some snazzy creases it’s going to remain a yawner.
Mazda’s done the hard part already; a lot of makers never get the mechanicals right. Now it’s time for the easy part: a lively new body is all the 929 needs to win me over. —Arthur St. Antoine
It’s a pity that Mazda didn’t muster the corporate courage to go all the way with the 929. Giving it rear-wheel drive was a remarkable show of intestinal fortitude, but the plotters and planners hedged their chutzpah from that point on. The 929’s styling is bland, and it drives as if someone had mandated, “Make it good but not too good.” All in all, the 929 stirs the soul about as much as a peck on the cheek from Aunt Alice.
But this Mazda, like all Mazdas, is a reasonable value. At twenty grand, more or less, it slips neatly between the mainstream domestic sedans and the upper-echelon Eurotourers. With six-cylinder power and decent interior accommodations in one tidy package, the 929 will gradually establish itself as a contender.
Gradually isn’t quite what I had in mind, however. This platform has plenty of potential, and I hope Mazda gets on with the job—quickly and affirmatively. Bring on two more cams, six more valves, larger wheels, and fatter tires, I say. When you’re this close (numerically) to the Porsche 930, why settle for good enough? —Don Sherman
To strengthen its assault on the luxury car market, Mazda has introduced a new engine in the 929. A 60-degree V-6 displacing 2954cc, the so-called JE engine combines aluminum heads with a cast-iron block that extends below the crankshaft. Each head houses a single camshaft, and both shafts are driven by the same hydraulically tensioned cogged belt. The engine is an oversquare design, with a bore of 90.0mm and a stroke of 77.4mm. Although the compression ratio is a modest 8.5:1, the engine develops 158 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 170 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. A Mazda/Nippondenso electronic engine-control system with port fuel injection seeks the best combination of performance and economy under all conditions.
The JE engine incorporates a couple of design features not commonly found in luxury-car powerplants: a three-valve-per-cylinder layout and a variable-geometry tuned-induction system. The valvetrain consists of two intake valves and one exhaust valve per cylinder, actuated by rocker arms fitted with hydraulic lash adjusters. A pent-roof combustion-chamber design and an angle of 38 degrees between the intake- and exhaust-valve stems allow the spark plugs to be located near the center lines of the cylinders. Mazda engineers chose a three-valve layout because it provides better breathing and more efficient combustion than a two-valve system, yet does not add as much complexity, weight, and cost as a double-overhead-cam, four-valve arrangement.
The JE motor’s tuned-induction system is similar to that of the Porsche 928S4. Designed to produce as much torque as possible at all engine speeds, the system tailors the pressure pulses generated at the intake valves to increase the airflow into the combustion chambers over an unusually broad rpm range. The intake manifold comprises a special plenum chamber and a 16.9-inch-long runner to each cylinder. The plenum consists of two chambers—one for each bank of cylinders—connected by a 9.8-inch-long resonance tube and by a larger passage, controlled by a butterfly valve, at one end. The trick is to time the pressure pulses to arrive at the intake valves just before they close, helping to fill the cylinders with air. At low engine speeds, the engine computer keeps the butterfly closed, thus channeling the pressure waves from one side of the plenum to the other through the narrow resonance tube. Above 3500 rpm, the computer opens the butterfly, changing the timing of the pulses to suit high-rpm needs.
Neither this clever manifold design nor the three-valve-per-cylinder layout makes the JE V-6 a high-rpm screamer—but that was never Mazda’s intention. In a luxury sedan, healthy output over the broadest possible rev range is more appropriate, and the Mazda engineers have achieved that goal with minimal cost and complexity. —Nicholas Bissoon-Dath
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