Lost, Losing It in Mazda3

If automotive photographer Jim Dunne can read palms, how come he can't read a map? Dunne says he first showed his palm-reading skills as a tot on his mother's lap. Nearly 70 years later, he's still doing it, when the mood strikes. Whether he's psychic or not, many people proffer their upturned hands upon learning (from him) of his He's almost legendary, not as a prognosticator, but as a photographer

If automotive “spy” photographer Jim Dunne can read palms, how come he can't read a map?

Dunne says he first showed his palm-reading skills as a tot on his mother's lap. Nearly 70 years later, he's still doing it, when the mood strikes.

Whether he's psychic or not, many people proffer their upturned hands upon learning (from him) of his “gift.”

He's almost legendary, not as a prognosticator, but as a photographer of vehicles in development that manufacturers don't want photographed yet. He has many trophy shots he's sold to auto publications. He's good at that cloak-and-dagger game. And he acts like he knows what he's doing when gazing at people's palms.

But Dunne gets thumbs down in map reading. On the other hand, you can end up at interesting places.

I learned that partnering with him on a ride-and-drive press preview of the all-new '04 Mazda3 compact. It replaces the Mazda Protege in a market segment that's critical for Mazda, Japan's No.5 automaker.

Dunne and I drove a Mazda3 trying to follow a route around Chantilly, France, north of Paris. We kept getting lost.

After so many wrong turns, he spotted an A1 freeway sign to Paris.

“Do you want to go to Paris or do you want to keep getting lost?” he asked.

I replied with a fast turn onto the entrance ramp, feeling the car's new electro-hydraulic power-assist steering kick in. I slipped the 5-speed manual into overdrive and had that 160-hp 2L engine cranked up for the big city.

It might have occurred to us that, if we couldn't find our way around Chantilly with a map of the countryside, we might encounter greater problems in Paris without a map of the metropolis.

But darned if we didn't reach our destination, the legendary Louvre, after racing up wide boulevards and squeezing through narrow roads in the company of some wild and crazy drivers.

Finding our way required flagging down pedestrians and asking for directions. Dunne did that by lowering the window and shouting, “Hey, come over here.” It seemed like a dubious way to connect with prickly Parisians. Yet they all came over and tried to help.

Slipping through narrow streets with parked cars jutting from both sides had me wondering if our 69-in.-wide car could clear it without losing a side mirror or two. The Mazda3 is one of the tallest, longest and widest vehicles in its small-car segment, giving it a roomy interior and a muscular exterior. But less seemed best on Rue de la Tight Fit.

Elsewhere, quick U-turns tested the car's MacPherson-type front suspension system and 17-ft. (5.2-m) turning circle.

“You just did a U-turn in front of the police station,” said Dunne.

“You said to turn around.”

“Not a U-turn in front of the police station!”

After visiting the Louvre for about five minutes and taking, oh, about 10 wrong turns, we headed back to Chantilly on freewheeling A1.

Cruising along, the Mazda3 has a big-car feel. It's tuned to give the front-wheel-drive vehicle rear-wheel-drive characteristics.

We were soon lost again after Dunne, studying the local map, reckoned we could reach Chantilly faster by a shortcut. He thought it would trim 20 minutes. It added 40. On the protracted drive, he told a few how-I-got-that-photo anecdotes and related tales.

Like how he bought a slice of land abutting a Chrysler test track in Arizona. His “ranch-ette” provides a lovely place to snap photos of passing prototypes, much to the chagrin of camera-unfriendly track staffers.

“You should have seen the security guards' faces when they found out who their new neighbor was,” he says.

We finally arrived at Chantilly, late, but in time to see our group's charter bus departing for — where else? — Paris. How we chased down and boarded the bus is another story.

For a compact, the Mazda3 has a huge glove box. Program manager Akira Tanioka touts that. It's big enough to stash a laptop computer or 16 CD cases or lots of maps.

I'd recommend the latter, unless you know where you're going like the back of your hand.

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