When it first burst onto the scene in late 2003, the Mazda Mazda3 (yes, that is its correct name) took the market by storm, rewriting the book on what a small car could be. Available in sedan and five-door hatchback, the Mazda3 brought a fresh look to the compact car market, infused with smart good looks and loaded with features previously unheard of in its price range. But, the thing that really made the Mazda3 a hit was its incredible ride and handling. Quick, responsive and with one of the best five-speed manual gearboxes of any car we’ve driven, the Mazda3 simply has no glaring drawbacks. This may explain why during its five-year run, the 2004-09 Mazda3’s sales never waivered, not even during one of the worst economic meltdowns in modern history.
Why You Want It
The 2004-09 Mazda Mazda3 is a terrific compact driver’s car that is affordable, frugal and easy on the eyes. Those with a more economical bent should look to the base 3i trims, which feature a less powerful but more fuel efficient 2.0-liter engine. The base cars also ride on smaller 15- and 16-inch tires and wheels providing a smoother, quieter ride. Of course, those who are all about driving should settle for nothing less than the 3s Sport, Touring and Grand Touring models. With their big 17-inch performance tires, 157-horsepower 2.3-liter engine and sport-tuned suspension, the 3s models are some of the best handling, best riding cars in this segment. Even better, the Grand Touring trim offers some great features, like heated leather seats, height adjustable HID headlamps, rain-sensing wipers and a killer Bose sound system. If there is one fly in the Mazda3’s ointment, it is the car’s rather noisy interior. Apparently, in an attempt to keep costs down, thick carpeting and some decent sound insulation were Mazda’s sacrificial lambs.
Notable Features & Options
The base 3i features a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, five-speed manual transmission, four-speaker AM/FM stereo with single CD, four-wheel disc brakes, tilt/telescopic steering wheel with audio controls, tachometer, intermittent wipers and 15-inch wheels. The Touring trim brings keyless entry with alarm, power windows, door locks and mirror, as well as 16-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, cruise control and a six-speaker stereo. The 3s includes a five-door hatch model, a 156-horsepower 2.3-liter engine, anti-lock brakes, fog lights, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and 16-inch alloy wheels, while the Grand Touring trim adds HID headlamps, heated leather seats and automatic temperature control. In 2006, Touring and Grand Touring trims feature standard front side-impact and side curtain airbags (optional on all other trims), and in 2007 electronic traction and stability control was made standard on all 3s trims. In 2009, 3i Sport models gain standard anti-lock brakes and side curtain airbags. Among the most desirable Mazda3 features are a power glass sunroof, Bose audio with six-disc CD/MP3 changer (2006 and up Grand Touring), DVD navigation (Grand Touring), and a five-speed Sport AT automatic transmission with manual shift mode.
2005 – A special edition SP23 is offered and features heated leather seats, 17-inch wheels and Bose audio.
2006 – The 3s Touring and Grand Touring are added, with many of the previous SP23 features making their way into the Grand Touring trim. A new five-speed automatic is available for 3s trim models and the 3i’s 2.0-liter engine receives variable valve timing.
2007 – The Mazda3 gets a slight front end makeover, as well as new 16- and 17-inch wheel designs. 2007 sees traction and stability control added to the 3s models, as well as a rear seat armrest with cup holders, an auxiliary audio input jack and a 12-volt outlet located inside the center console.
2008 – Standard front side-impact and side curtain airbags are added to the 3s Sport trim.
2009 – The 3i Sport receives standard front side-impact and side curtain airbags as well as anti-lock brakes (ABS), while the 3i Touring gains 17-inch wheels, fog lights and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Grand Touring trims gain an eight-way power driver’s seat. Many of these changes were made mid-way through the 2008 model year and appear on late model 08 cars.
Engines and Performance
Although early brochures show the Mazda3’s horsepower ratings as 150 for the 2.0-liter and 160 for the 2.3, later year revisions to how horsepower is measured sees these numbers fall to 148 and 156 respectively. Mazda3 cars equipped with the 2.0-liter motor are quite zippy and achieve impressive fuel economy figures estimated around 24 city/32 highway with the five speed manual. The 3s trims feature a slightly larger 2.3-liter engine that puts out about 10 more horsepower but significantly more torque, making them much more sporty and fun to drive. In 3s form, the Mazda3 shines brilliantly. Winding back roads that would terrify most SUVs are a welcome romp in the sandbox for the Mazda3, and usually requires some self restraint to avoid amassing numerous speeding tickets. The Mazda3’s steering is so perfectly balanced it requires almost no correction once the wheel is turned. The manual transmission is beautifully tight and gear shifts require little more than a flick of the wrist. The suspension is taut, yet never harsh, the brakes strong and fade resistant, and the ride amazingly smooth. Other than the obtrusive wind and tire noise inside the cabin, there is really nothing about the Mazda3 we find needs improvement.
Recalls, Safety Ratings and Warranties
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, has issued the following recalls for the 2004-2009 Mazda Mazda3:
2004-05 - A recall was issued for a faulty sensor that could short and cause the airbag warning light to improperly illuminate.
2007-09 – A recall was issued regarding the possible loss of power steering assist, a condition that could result in increased effort to steer or control the vehicle.
2009 – A recall was issued for 7,100 cars for an improper yaw rate setting in the electronic stability control module. The error caused the system to become out of compliance with federal motor vehicle safety standards.
Recall repairs are required by law even if the vehicle is out of warranty. Your dealer can check to see if the repairs were performed and if not, will fix the car at no charge to you.
As for the 2004-09 Mazda Mazda3’s safety record, it varies by year and equipment. Early model cars earn four out of five stars in the government’s front end crash test, but only three out of five stars in the side impact test. NHTSA did not test the Mazda3 with optional side airbags. The Insurance Institute for Highway gives the Mazda3 a POOR rating in its side-impact crash test, but again did not test cars with side and side curtain airbags. The Mazda3 earns a top rating of GOOD in its off-set frontal crash test.
The 2004-2006 Mazda Mazda3 has a 4-year/50,000 bumper-to-bumper warranty. In 2007, the warranty period changed to 3-year/36,000 mile bumper-to-bumper, with a 5-year/60,000 mile powertrain warranty. Mazda does offer a Certified Pre-Owned program that adds a 1-year/12,000 mile limited warranty from the date of purchase, as well as a 7-years/100,000 mile powertrain warranty effective from the date the vehicle entered service.
Word on the Web
Overall, the Mazda3 wins high praise from enthusiasts and advocates alike. Consumer Reports gives the Mazda3 good marks for reliability, while Kelley Blue Book has the Mazda3 earning strong resale values over its lifetime. Enthusiast sites, such as Mazda3forums.com and Mazda3Club.com, also are filled with high praise for the Mazda3. The few complaints we found seemed to deal with front struts failing after just 50,000 miles, the lack of heated side mirrors and the poor placement of the rear hatch release (there is no internal or remote release for the hatchbacks). A number of Grand Touring owners say the Bose system sounds muddy and isn’t worth the extra money, but we liked our test car’s system just fine. There are also numerous complaints about the weak air conditioning system not being able to cool the car in very hot weather, and the flimsy carpet wearing thin in highly used areas. Early model owners seemed to vent about the Mazda3 not achieving its projected EPA fuel economy. In fairness, the EPA did revise its testing method in 2009, resulting in lower and more realistic estimates.
While there are numerous cars in the compact segment, the Mazda3’s biggest competition comes from Honda’s Civic, which though impressive in its own right, can’t match the Mazda3 for handling, power, and creature comforts; it also does not offer a five-door hatchback model. The Volkswagen GTI can outrun the Mazda3, but its poor reliability and repair record, and higher cost should make shoppers think twice. The Ford Focus shares a common platform and engine (the 2.0-liter) with the Mazda3, but it is nowhere near as refined or fun to drive. Finally, there’s the Hyundai Elantra, which while less expensive and having a better warranty, can’t match the Mazda3’s refined manual gearbox, precise steering and go-cart like handling.
Auto Trader Recommendations
If you’re shopping for a sedan, we think most people will be very happy with the 3i Touring trim. This model has the most fuel efficient engine, but also is nicely equipped with enough goodies as to make it almost plush. If you need the utility to carry equipment or pets, you’ll need to move up to one of the 3s trims (Sport, Touring or Grand Touring), which brings the more powerful 2.3-liter engine and even more standard equipment. We also strongly recommend finding a model with the SRS (side airbags and side curtain airbags) system. Cars so equipped with have the letters SRS stamped into the plastic A-pillar (windshield post) as well as on the sides of the front seats. Traction and stability control, another important safety feature, is only offered on certain cars after 2007 and becomes standard on the 3s Touring and Grand Touring model from 2007 on.