For a car company that seems to have a perpetually precarious existence, things are going well at Mazda. Sales of their new range of products, like the CX-5 and the Mazda6, are relatively strong – I say relatively because the Mazda6’s volumes are about 10 percent of the Toyota Camry, and the whole brand sells fewer cars than Honda does Civics. But Mazda is banking on the new Mazda3 to help them get real traction in the market place. Not only is there a new car, but a new factory in Mexico as well, which will help insulate Mazda from then yen’s penchant for yo-yo’ing, as well as any future Fukushima-like disruptions.
The old Mazda3’s biggest flaw was its looks. Its visage was hideously unattractive, wearing the “Nagare” design language that some executive must have signed off on after a long night in Roppongi. The car you see above has a whole new look, and the result is one of the best “ugly duckling to beautiful swan” transitions in recent memory. The sedan still retains the same basic horizontal teardrop shape that plagues all modern compacts in the name of fuel efficiency, but the details were done right. It reminds me of the Lexus IS, and even the smaller wheels make the car look good, a rarity today. The hatchback looks like a CX-5 crossed with a Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback, and while I have traditionally preferred this bodystyle on previous generations, I think I have to give the aesthetic nod to the sedan.
The interior has undergone a major improvement since the last generation, but in typical Mazda fashion, there is still some corner cutting evident here. There was no evidence of Cherokee-esque fit and finish issues, but some of the supplied parts were subpar. Namely, the headliner it the definition of nasty. It feels like it was made out of egg cartons, and crunches when pressed with one’s fingers. Your college drinking buddy may not notice, but it stood out to us as a notably cheap spot on an otherwise nicely finished interior. Higher trim models have a pseudo-heads up display that flips up from the top of the gauge cluster (above), capable of displaying one’s speed, navigation turns and other features. It seems redundant given the voice prompts from the navigation and the basic ability to glance at the speedometer, and to top it off, it looks like it was stolen from a Nerf gun and is prone to breaking off with even the slightest disturbance.
Most functions related to the entertainment system are handled by the new MazdaConnect system, which replaces the Atari-esque system used in the new Mazda6 with a fresh, modern looking interface. Of course, it’s all displayed on a 7 inch screen that looks like an off-brand Made In China Android tablet that’s been glued to the top of the dashboard, which saps some of the premium feel out of the cabin.
MazdaConnect is controlled by an iDrive-like knob and is relatively easy to use, but has some annoying quirks. Looking for a satellite radio station, for example, is highly frustrating, if not distracting. Once you’ve selected a station, you can’t change the station unless you manually go back through the menus and select a new one. Scrolling through is not an option, and the steering wheel controls only allow you to move through presets, rather than the entire band. It is more distracting than texting and drive. The volume knob has also been placed next to the MazdaConnect wheel on the center console – an intuitive location but highly unconventional and one that takes some getting used to, since every other car on earth has it placed in its traditional spot on the center stack.
In return for these annoyances, the Mazda3 delivers one of the best driving experiences money can buy. Other compacts, like the Dodge Dart, the Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra GT are “good” to drive, but the Mazda3 is in another class, closer to the BMWs of a past era than anything else in the segment. The dynamics of the car will be instantly familiar to anyone who has driven a Mazda6 or CX-5, but even sharper. The heaviest Mazda3 is about 170 lbs lighter than the lightest Mazda6 (3172 lbs), with base versions coming in at around 2800 lbs. In today’s car market, this is fairly svelte, and it translates into a rewarding drive. There is very little body roll, while the suspension is composed over rough pavement. The steering is sharp, direct and nicely weighted. Mazda engineer Dave Coleman told us that his target was his LeMons car, which uses a manual Miata steering rack. It’s tough to compare a contemporary electric power steering system with a 25 year old Miata unit, but certain things, like the high degree of caster dialed in to make it self-center quicker, will be familiar to anyone who ever owned a Miata and tinkered with the alignment settings. There is a level of engagement with the Mazda3 that is absent in every other car in this class. It’s not a merely A-B commuting tool, but a car that encourages you to drive as if you really cared about having fun behind the wheel. It’s a difficult quality to find in any car nowadays, let alone a C-segment economy car.
Two powerplants are offered, though only the base 2.0L Skyactiv engine will offer a 6-speed manual alongside a 6-speed automatic. The bigger 2.5L engine offers more horsepower (184 versus 155) and more torque (185 lb-ft versus 150 lb-ft), and feels a lot gutsier on the open road, though in true Mazda fashion, the engines aren’t particularly brimming with character like the better Honda twin-cams. Then again, a naturally aspirated motor is becoming a rarity in new cars, and fuel economy is the chief order of the day. In this aspect, Mazda does not disappoint. Our 2.5L hatchback, with Mazda’s capacitor-based i-Eloop regenerative braking system, is good for 29 mpg in town and 40 mpg highway. Neither motor is particularly stirring, emitting rather muted grunts and groans. Just like the pre-NC Miatas, the chassis is the jewel of the package here, but at least the Skyactiv motors are tuned for economy and efficiency, unlike the thristy boat anchor of a 1.8L engine fitted to most early Miatas.
Where the 2.0L feels just a bit strained (particularly when merging or passing on highways), the 2.5L is always ready with adequate grunt, and the 6-speed Skyactiv automatic is even better than the excellent manual. It feels more like a dual clutch gearbox than a conventional automatic, in part because the torque converter isn’t even used past 5 mph. In spirited driving, the automatic will hold gears until redline and match revs when the paddles are used to manually change gear. Mazda has been coy about whether the 2.5L will actually get a manual, stating that only the automatic will be available “at launch”. Perhaps this leaves the door open to the possibility of a manual in the future. The i-Eloop system is as transparent as its name is silly. The only way we knew it was working was when a display screen showed it re-capturing energy under braking. If only Mazda’s marketing department could come up with such clever monikers.
For all the complaints about the anesthetized nature of modern cars, here we have a vehicle that brings a truly engaging driving experience to the masses at a price-point accessible to most new car buyers. Despite a couple of cut corners here and there, the car’s big flaws, namely its exterior styling, spartan interior and poor fuel economy in the larger engine variants, have all been remedied beyond mere correction. It may not be the choice for your grandmother, or anyone looking for a simple, dead-nuts reliable appliance, but the new car is a significant leap forward, and the only choice in the segment for anyone interested in spirited driving. And finally a candidate for best in segment.
Mazda provided airfare, accommodations and meals for this press drive