As they say in Hebrew, im ta’am v’rai’ach ain l’hit’vakai’ach, with matters of taste you can’t argue, and in general I agree with Jack Baruth’s principle that folks who know nothing about design shouldn’t say much beyond “like it” or “don’t like it”. Still, it’s impossible to review current Mazdas without at least mentioning their, ahem, cheerful styling. And after spending a week with the Mazda 3 S Grand Touring five door (hereafter, the M3SGT), I’m afraid to say that styling was the major drawback. Of course, that also means that everything else about the MS3GT was pretty darn good.
I’ve never gone to design school nor would I call myself an artist or designer, at least compared to the folks who draw cars for a living, but my day gig is running a small custom embroidery shop so I actually work with design. I hate to be shallow and generally put styling below other factors when evaluating cars, but Mazda’s goofy yet almost sinister grin is just too much for me. I happened to like elements of Mazda’s current Nagare styling language and think that Franz von Holzhausen’s Furai concept was spectacular, but I just can’t countenance, if you will, former Mazda design chief Laurens van den Acker’s grinning front ends. It brings to mind the classic Gahan Wilson cartoon of a doctor recoiling in horror from a patient whose body is covered in smiley faces.
Aesthetics aside though, the styling does provide very good visibility. The M3SGT was a bit of a relief, having just driven the Honda CR-Z that has huge blind spots. Its A pillars are wide, per the current fashion, but that’s the price of air bag safety. The hood falls away fairly sharply but you have a good idea where the corners are, and other than the pillars, forward and side visibility is fine. Rear visibility is good, in part thanks to the unusually shaped C pillars. The front doors also open very wide, almost 90 degrees, and ingress and egress are easily accomplished.
The leather trimmed front seats, eight way power on the driver’s side on this fully loaded tester (MSRP $25,530), are comfortable, though I didn’t feel as cosseted as I did in the Mazda 6 (also in S Grand Touring trim). I was surprised at a lack of a lumbar support adjustment, though my chronically bad back didn’t really notice. There’s plenty of room in the back seat, but then I have short legs so I almost always have plenty of room. With the rear seats folded, the 3’s flat cargo surface and low loading deck win practicality points for the hatchback bodystyle.
The dashboard is laid out nicely, with two round binnacles holding the tachometer and speedometer right in front of the driver, easily visible through the steering wheel. The leather wrapped and cross stitched steering wheel is smallish, with duplicated audio, and nav controls, plus the usual cruise control and info display switches. In between the speedo and tach is a small liquid crystal display with fuel and odometer info. An auxiliary IP sits above the main gauges and towards the center of the dashboard. That second panel includes a liquid crystal info display for the climate control and audio, plus a 3″X4″ color LCD screen for the nav system. The nav screen can be switched to display trip computer data and audio system info. Some may find the nav screen too small but I found it less distracting than a larger center stack screen. I also like how it’s right below the windshield so you don’t have to take your eyes far from the road to check it.
Though the texture and colors of the panels are the same, the door panels use a hard plastic while the dash has a softer touch. Everything you actually touch when operating the car feels nice, and the switchgear gives an especially good impression of quality, with a solid, tactile feel. The clutch is perfect, with a very smooth takeup. The shifter is very good, though I’d prefer shorter throws. The shifter is spring loaded to naturally line up in the 3-4 slot, with heavier pressure needed to get into 5-6 than 1-2. This seems logical and I only had trouble finding first a couple of times.
Overall, the interior ergonomics are fine. I like the big central tuning button on the sound system. Everything was within reach and all the controls that I needed to use were intuitive enough that I didn’t have to RTFM (unless I wanted to).
This M3SGT came with dual zone automatic climate control that worked just fine. While no ACC can get a car as cold enough or as hot enough fast enough for me, once a comfortable temp was reached, the ACC worked almost imperceptibly. If you want fresh air or sunshine, there’s a factory two-way glass sun roof.
In terms of driving dynamics, as expected from Mazda, the M3SGT is a proper driver’s car. The 2.5L 167 HP four cyl engine pulls strongly and begs for revs; if I wasn’t paying attention to the tach, I easily hit the rev limiter in first and sometimes even second gear. You can chirp the tires in first without really trying and there’s more than enough power for any real world driving. Actually, on wet roads I thought the Dynamic Stability Control kicks in a little early but that’s largely due to the ease with which you can break the front tires loose.
The combination of a good power to weight ratio, a smooth clutch and a six speed transmission gives the driver a number of shifting options, including 1-3-5 and 2-4-6 shifts. If you want to hypermile, there’s almost always a higher gear available for you, and unlike the CR-Z, you don’t have to downshift to fourth when you need to pass on the highway. The M3SGT pulls very strongly from 60 in 5th gear and unless it’s an emergency, you shouldn’t even have to downshift from 6th to pass on the interstates. Though the dual exhausts sound sporty around town, out on the highway the M2SGT is quiet and composed, turning a comfortable 3,250 RPM at 80MPH. The Grand Touring tag implies that it’s suitable for long distance drives and at freeway speeds the Mazda3 S GT feels perfectly at home, about as comfortable a ride as you could expect in a car of this size. Gas mileage was 26-27mpg over about 400 miles of mixed urban and suburban driving. With the cruise control set to 70mph on a flat road, instantaneous gas mileage readout showed 37mpg (YMMV).
The handling is, again, as would be expected from Mazda, tuned towards the enthusiast end of the spectrum. There’s the slight understeer you’re going to get with FWD but minimal body roll, and while the steering is not quite as quick as on the Honda CR-Z, it has substantially more feel than the Honda sport hybrid. On the Honda, that lack of feel combined with otherwise good steering was disconcerting. On the Mazda, there is a balance between feel, grip and precision that brings a smile to the face just about every time you drive it. The steering is perfectly weighted, with just the right touch of resistance. I noticed, while taking some photos underhood, that the M3SGT has braces on the front strut towers that bolt to the cowl. I don’t know if they are standard on all Mazda3s or just the sportier ones, but they certainly don’t hurt the car’s handling.
The ride isn’t bad for a compact car tuned to handle. Riding around urban and suburban Detroit with its potholes and frost heaves, the ride was a little bit busy and pitchy, but not uncomfortable. The ride is firm but not stiff. I didn’t hear any rattles, but then this was a relatively low-mile press fleet car. Though the four wheel disc brakes work just fine, I’d prefer a little firmer pedal. Getting a little bit of heat into the pads seemed to firm up the feel a bit and the one emergency stop I made was handled with aplomb.
When I tested the 2010 Mazda 6 S Grand Touring in February, I didn’t like the fact that the headlamp levelers (necessary to cope with load related pitch changes with the sharply aimed HID lamps) were manually adjusted. That feature is now automatic on the 6SGT’s little brother. One feature not available on last year’s 6 that came on the M3SGT I tested is AFS, adaptive front lighting system. The HID lamps can swivel, per input from the steering and speed sensors, to light up the area you are turning into. Directional headlamps are almost as old as the automobile (the Tucker’s center headlamp moved with the steering, and the Citroen SM had directional headlamps has well), but I doubt the concept has worked this well before. I can’t say that the AFS is imperceptible, because you do indeed notice it, but what you notice is how much easier it makes nighttime driving. Also, it’s kind of cool the way the lamps self-test and go through their range of motion when you first turn them on.
Other than a few relatively minor quibbles, and the fact that I personally don’t like the styling, there really was nothing not to like about the Mazda 3 S Grand Touring 5 Door. Unless you really need to seat 5 or more or want the increased comfort of a mid size sedan, I can easily see the M3SGT5D meeting the needs of most young families. It has just about all the features and space that a family car needs while still being the kind of car that brings a smile to your face every time you hop in.
Mazda provided the car, insurance and one tank of gasoline for this review.