AMR Preview: Mazda 3 - Small Package, Big Fun
I still remember the days when Mazda's "Zoom-Zoom" slogan didn't exactly have credibility. What with the pretentious Millennia, aging 626, and a tame Protegé, and no RX or MX sports coupe, the only product in Mazda's lineup that could even come close was the Miata. Even that car, for all its nimbleness, was slightly under powered. It would seem that the slogan was pure marketing hype, and to me, it was for awhile. How things change in a few short years. The Mazda 6 debuted in 2002 to wide acclaim, the RX-8 reintroduced the rotary-engined sports car, the Miata got the Mazdaspeed touch and the Protegé - while still on an aging platform - got two special editions (MP3 and Mazdaspeed versions). While these two special editions did much to enhance the Protegé's image and performance, they could not mask the fact that the car was getting old and did not fit in with the current corporate styling and model naming trend (as exhibited in the RX-8 and 6). However, in an industry where "special" or "limited" editions of a model often herald the impending demise of it's production, we could be sure of a replacement coming down the pipeline soon.
Assimilating itself with the numerically oriented naming trend (which actually reaches back to the 626 and 323 sedans for Mazda), the Mazda 3 debuted on a new global platform, which also underpins the 2005 Volvo S40 Sports Sedan and the redesigned Ford Focus, called C1. With features never before seen in this segment and aggressive, European styling wrapped up in a package that promised a more engaging driving experience, it seems that the Mazda 3 is ready to take on the "Zoom-Zoom" slogan and wear it proudly.
The Mazda 3 has two body styles, one is a 5-door hatch and the other is a 4-door sedan. In my opinion, the hatch has the overall best look of the two. It may come across as a bit bulbous, but the overall design seems to work better than the sedan, especially when viewed in profile. The sedan is not ugly by any measure, but it seems to have been cut short at the rear; it looks like it ends abruptly when viewed in profile. When looked at from a quartering tail view, though, there is no indication of this abruptness and the rear fascia and taillight treatment is actually very attractive. Both models have similar styling cues to the other models in Mazda's lineup and have a decidedly European flavor to them, which is a characteristic many other Japanese competitors cannot lay claim to. In fact, I see a lot of 2005 Volvo S40 in the 3 sedan, but that should come as no surprise considering the two companies are corporate cousins, and the cars are based on the same platform. The front end of both versions of the 3 is aggressive and sporty, with a headlight treatment befitting a much more expensive vehicle. Interestingly, you can order HID headlights with the 3 - an option not even available on the more expensive 6. As you'll see, this is not the only place where the 3 seems to upstage its bigger sibling. For rolling stock, the sedan comes with standard 15-inch steel or 16-inch alloy wheels depending on which version you get (3i or 3s, respectively). However, the hatch (which comes only in "s" trim) includes 17-inch alloys shod with wide (205 series) V-rated rubber. The 17-inch wheels are also optional on the 3s sedan and are bundled with side-sill extensions that further enhance its appearance. While the 17-inch wheels improve road feel, people wanting a more comfortable ride would probably prefer the smaller standard 16-inch wheels of the sedan.
Leaps have been made in improving on the cabin of the Protegé. Inside the Mazda 3 looks nothing like the interior of the Protegé, more importantly, the 3's interior feels nothing like it either. The material quality is greatly improved, and is now a good match for the VW Jetta in this respect. The fitment of interior panels is also top-notch, maybe even a step above the big-brother 6. The overall layout of the dash and center stack looks like it belongs in a car costing thousands more. There is a central LCD information display at the top of the center stack just like the one in the 6, which is in perfect sight of the driver. Leather is optional, as is a tire-pressure monitoring system (bundled with the HID headlights). The stereo sounds very good for this segment, but it also echoes a trend of functionless design cues that Toyota's Scion brand has made popular. Every time you adjust the volume, a string of LEDs brighten. It's a feature that is obviously purely aesthetic, but it's an interesting detail that you rarely see in this class. It's also nice to see more functional details like steering wheel mounted controls and a well-illuminated cockpit in the 3. The big surprise - at least for this segment - is the availability of a navigation system, which is yet another option not available on the 6. I do question the viability of such an option on an "economy" compact car like the 3, and wonder just how many people will spring for it. The availability of a big-ticket item like a navigation system also points to some interesting, less costly, omissions. I personally would have expected a heated seat option in this car and was a little disappointed to see it absent from the options sheet. Along the same lines, heated side mirrors are becoming more commonplace and should have also been available. While many of the 3's competitors don't offer heated seats or mirrors, they also don't offer a navigation system or HID headlight option, which is from where my confusion stems. Why offer such expensive options and omit a much lower-cost option that would arguably be more popular with the 3's target customer base? It's also quite troubling that such upscale features aren't even available on the more upscale 6 yet.
Regardless, the 3's interior is a very nice place to spend time and is not at all cramped when compared to other cars in the class. With 17.1 cubit feet of cargo space when the rear seats are up and 33 cubic feet when they are down, the 5-door can just about swallow anything you throw in it. The sedan provides adequate trunk space for this class at 11.4 cubic feet, but the sedan's seats also fold to expand the carrying capacity when needed.
This is an area where the Protegé really lagged behind the competition. Until the MP3 version came along a couple years ago, consumers were stuck with a merely adequate 2.0L I4, producing 130 hp. The MP3 only improved on that slightly, offering 140 hp. It wasn't until the Protegé's final year that we saw some real power, to the tune of 170 hp in the turbocharged Mazdaspeed version. However, this model was limited in production and not everyone could grab one in time. With the new Mazda 3, we see improvements in the base 2.0L engine output (now producing 148 hp), but we also get the option of having a 2.3L I-4 in "s" versions which puts out 160 hp and produces a healthy 150 lb-ft of torque. Both engines are big improvements over the base engine in the Protegé, no doubt, and the 2.3L matches the horsepower output of cars like the Civic Si, RSX, and Mini Cooper, but there are many other compacts available with more horsepower and/or torque. A few that come to mind are the Nissan Sentra SE-R, VW Jetta 1.8T, and the outlandish Dodge Neon SRT-4. Even Saturn offers their Ion with 210 hp now. The stakes in the sport compact market have definitely been raised in the last couple of years, and I would have liked to see the Mazda 3 come to market with at least the same output as the last Mazdaspeed Protegé. However, with the rumored Mazdaspeed version of the 3, we can look forward to a more powerful car offering as much as 200+ hp. Until then, the 3's base 148 hp does an admirable job getting you around and the optional 2.3L spices up the ride a bit, but it's definitely a mid pack performer in this class in terms of raw power.
Another impressive feature for this class is the optional four-speed auto-manual transmission. Rarely do you see this feature in economy cars, but it's nice to see Mazda incorporate it as it certainly supports the 3's sporting intentions. The standard five-speed manual allows you to wring the most out of both engines, though both transmissions do a good job of transferring the power to the ground smoothly.
Also worth noting is the 3's four-wheel independent suspension replete with front and rear stabilizer bars. This is a much better setup for handling prowess than the cheaper torsion beam rear suspension used on other compacts. For stopping power, all Mazda 3's come with standard four-wheel disc brakes, which are yet another nod to the car's intentions to deliver an exciting - and safe - drive.
The Final Review
Overall, the Mazda 3 is a huge improvement over the former Protegé. It provides more features, style and quality in a more powerful and engaging package than its predecessor. It even comes complete with a 4 year/50,000-mile bumper to bumper and power train warranty, as well as an equal amount of time of roadside assistance. Quite simply, I believe Mazda has a winner on its hands that could be made even better with a few tweaks. While the base engine output is very adequate with 148HP, the optional 2.3L should have a bigger advantage than 12HP in my opinion. Bump the 2.3L's output to 170HP, add heated seats, and you'd have a very comfortable daily driver for all seasons that can also do an excellent impersonation of a sports car.