Mazda6 “mule” with SkyActiv technology; photo by Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

By Jim Kerr

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Mazda SkyActiv test mules

Recently, I took a mule out for a test drive. Not the four-legged type, but an automotive mule. In auto industry slang, a mule is a test vehicle – a prototype used to evaluate components, systems and technologies, and just like the four-legged mule, these vehicles are not pretty. Function takes precedence over everything else.

Mazda provided the mules we drove on this occasion. There were gas and diesel engines, automatic and standard transmissions, and different-colour outside mirrors so we could visually tell the cars apart. The car’s white paint hides a lot of modifications. Look closer and you will see pop rivets abound; the metal around the headlight assemblies must have 50 of them. Wheel arch shapes have been modified with more pop-riveted panels. The hood release is a cable sticking out of the grille, with the end wrapped in duct tape.

There are two gas doors – the original door that doesn’t work anymore, and a new one mounted, again, with pop rivets. The rear contains even more add-on panels. Are those really bumperettes? I don’t think so. They must have a purpose – after all, a mule is a test bed – not a styling exercise.

Inside, it shouldn’t surprise me that the vehicle is right-hand drive, but it does. The dash appears to be out of a Mazda6 but I am not quite sure. Plastic filler panels are pop-riveted on to fill the gaps between the dash and the windshield. Fit and finish obviously aren’t important; function is. The centre dash has a display panel that doesn’t work. The air conditioning does, thankfully. The console panels are loose and duct tape holds much of it together. On one car, the parking brake is even duct taped down so it can’t be used.

The turn signals work but have to be cancelled manually. The speedometer and tach are easy to read, but ignore all the warning lights. If the car has ABS, stability control or traction control it’s not obvious by all the lights that are on. There are no air bags. I am amazed that Mazda was able to get these vehicles on the road in Canada – there must be a ton of paperwork to go through because these cars, while safe mechanically, don’t meet current vehicle safety standards by any stretch of the imagination.

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