The Mazda 3 is sporty, roomy and fun. It's available as a neatly styled four-door sedan or as a more adventurous looking five-door hatchback. The sedan has a sweet, rounded shape and smooth, cohesive design. The five-door looks more aggressive, but a lot of utility with its hatchback design and folding rear seats.
Quick, nimble handling makes the Mazda 3 (or Mazda3 as the company renders it) fun to drive on twisty country roads. The free-revving 2.3-liter engine delivers spirited performance. The five-speed manual transmission shifts beautifully, and there's an interesting automatic available with a manual-shift feature.
The four-door sedan is available with a choice of 2.0-liter or 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine. The five-door hatchback comes only with the 2.3-liter engine.
The Mazda3i four-door sedan comes with the 2.0-liter engine ($13,680). Standard equipment includes AM/FM/CD, tilt and telescope steering wheel with audio controls, 15-inch steel wheels, halogen headlights, a stainless steel exhaust system, wind-up windows and manual door locks. A five-speed manual gearbox is standard, an automatic transmission ($900) is optional. Air conditioning is optional ($850). Also optional: power windows, mirrors and door locks, cruise control, remote entry, an upgraded driver's seat, upgraded audio with six speakers, and 16-inch alloy wheels, available as a package ($1,400).
Two-stage frontal airbags are standard. We strongly recommend the safety package ($800), which includes side-impact airbags for the front seats, side air curtains for head protection for front and rear-seat passengers, and anti-lock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD). That would make a well-equipped (and commonly equipped) Mazda3i more like $17,275 (with the $545 destination charge), or $18,175 with the automatic.
The Mazda3s is more powerful and better equipped. Available in the four-door ($16,615) and five-door ($17,105) styles, the 3s comes standard with all the power conveniences plus air conditioning, cruise control, an upgraded stereo and foglights. The five-door hatchback gets sporty 205/50 all-season radials on 17-inch steel wheels.
Options for the 3s include the automatic transmission ($900), the safety package with side-impact airbags, curtain airbags, ABS and EBD ($800); leather upholstery ($590); xenon high-intensity discharge headlights with a tire-pressure monitoring system ($700); and a navigation system ($1,750). A Sport Package ($490) combining 17-inch wheels with sill extensions is available for the 3s sedan.
A package combining a moonroof with a six-disc CD changer ($890) is available on all Mazda3 models. Sirius Satellite Radio ($399) can be dealer-installed in any Mazda3, though there's also a labor charge.
The Mazda3i is available at no charge as a Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) that trades four horsepower (down to 144 horsepower) for significant reductions in emissions.
Whether four-door sedan or five-door hatchback, the Mazda3 is a wonderful car to walk around. The four-door and the five-door share no body panels. This represents what Mazda is known for: innovation and the risk that comes with it. When you look at the two cars, you can see that the styling of each nose would only work with its own tail. Grafting a hatchback onto the nubile nose of the four-door would never do. The five-door needed an edgy proboscis, which it got. It's uncommon for a manufacturer to go to the extra expense of tooling more panels than absolutely necessary for a second body style, but Mazda had a high styling standard for this car.
The four-door sedan has a sweet rounded shape forward of the A-pillar. Mazda's trademark wedge grille has horizontal bars on the 3s, plain black mesh on the 3i. The headlamps have a smooth and sexy shape, swept back like cat's eyes and sparkling with three beams inside. The whole front bumper, including the air dam at the bottom with foglights in the corners, is impressively integrated. There's a small seam on each fender between the headlights and the wheel opening, and between the headlights there's only the hood crack. Everything south of that is one smooth and effective piece.
The rear of the sedan is another smooth cohesive design with an integrated bumper, and again only small seams at the edges. The deck is short and high and nicely softened at the top. At all four corners, the wheelwells fit tightly around the tires; there used to be a rule at Mazda that there had to be enough of a wheelwell gap to install tire chains without removing the tire, which the stylists hated and finally defeated with the Mazda3.
The five-door hatchback is no wider, but it appears wide-shouldered because of the aggressive nose; the fenders are dropped and sculpted to rise to the hood and flow into the front doors. The boxy top half makes the whole car look wider. There's less rake from the tops of the doors to the roof (affording more shoulder room), but the rear of the roof is gently rounded to the liftgate window, to soften the profile. There's a tidy spoiler above the rear window.
The rear fenders are aggressively defined over the wheels. There's a big notch in the rear bumper, under the hatchback's liftgate, to clear the back of your hand when you grab the latch. We thought the design was a bit exaggerated until we used it the first time and appreciated its excellent function.
The taillights chase after the twentysomething sport-compact set. The glass is clear, and inside there are three bulbs: amber turn signal, white backup, and red brake. It's a style that has gone more or less mainstream, with manufacturers trying to appeal to trends that began with aftermarket and the young.
It's especially nice that there's no chrome trim. Black around the windows, body colored everywhere else.
Mazda3 is a global car, sharing technology and components with the Volvo S40 (and the European-market Ford Focus). It's like a talent co-op. People say component sharing makes cars all the same but it's not so. Mazda developed the engines and transmissions, Volvo did the chassis and safety, and Ford of Europe did the basic suspension design. The tuning of the suspension was in Mazda's hands, worked out at its Hiroshima test track. Each manufacturer did what it does best, and the result is the best of three worlds.
A lot of work went into the rigid unibody chassis. In a head-on collision the front of the chassis is designed to redirect energy to the outside rails, and not down the center toward the front seats. The steering column is crushable and the pedals are designed to retract away from the driver's feet.
The Mazda3s interior is sturdy blue or red-check cloth. The optional leather seating surfaces are smooth and black and priced well compared to other cars.
The seats are great, with adequate bolstering. The 3s has adjustable lumbar support, and the hip position is elevated, reducing front legroom a touch, but providing excellent forward visibility as well as a very tidy relationship with the pedals and especially the short shift lever. There's no dead pedal, but the outside of the driver's right shin rests comfortably on the edge of the center stack.
The three-spoke steering wheel, leather-wrapped in the 3s, feels great in the hands, and the control buttons (cruise control, sound system) have a positive feel. There's an attractive faux carbon-fiber strip on the instrument panel, while the dashboard shelf is golf-ball grainy, not unlike the new Cadillacs though Mazda says it was the Porsche Boxster they were trying to copy.
Three big gauges are dead ahead for the driver, but they're down in tunnels where they effectively hide from the glare of the sun. They are electroluminescent, which means day or night the numbers are lit in reddish-orange. Even without the color, the 140-mph speedometer would be awfully busy, with hash marks for miles and a smaller kilometer measure with more hash marks inside the mph numbers. The dash panel looks better at night than during the day, with the reddish-orange lighting having its chance to be seen. There are glowing rings around most of the dials including the cigarette lighter, in kind of a dull maroon.
The glovebox is not only huge (9 quarts), but the door is dampened and the compartment has its own light. There's a deep but not long console under the driver's right elbow, and between the seats are two built-in cupholders with a neatly hinged cover in black plastic. The cupholders have a canal between them so other things such as a cellphone can be stored and easily reached there. The window switch for the driver is illuminated at night, a very useful feature.
The back seats in the five-door hatchback are surprisingly roomy and supportive, even when relatively tall people are sitting in front. There's acres of rear headroom and decent legroom with room for big feet to slide under the front seats. The rear door opening is a bit narrow, though.
Cargo space in the five-door with the seats folded flat in is 31.2 cubic feet. We came out of an Ikea store with an unassembled table in a flat box measuring 48 inches long and 30 inches wide, and it slid neatly into the back. Flipping the seats down is easy. We reached in from behind, pressed down on one small square button on each side, and an easy shove forward dropped each seat flat. A separate compartment is hidden under the floor. Fold the seats back up into their passenger-friendly position, and there's still 17.1 cubic feet of cargo room, a fair amount for a compact car. The Mazda3 can't carry as much cargo as a Toyota Matrix, but it's a lot more fun to drive.
The sedan has a more average-size 11.4 cubic-foot trunk, but its rear seats still fold 60/40 for carrying long objects.
Visibility is limited in the rearview mirror of the five-door by the two rear headrests and the center brake light, which intrude a little into window space.
The larger, more powerful 2.3-liter engine that comes with the Mazda3s has plenty of spirit. It makes 160 horsepower, but it is, after all, an atmospherically aspirated (not turbocharged) four-cylinder, so there's not a ton of torque at low rpm. At 1000 rpm it generates only 120 pound-feet, which climbs to 140 at 3000 and peaks at 150 at a relatively high 4500 rpm. Be prepared to downshift to accelerate suddenly, either with the manual five-speed gearbox or the four-speed automatic.
Redline is 6500 rpm, but the engine is happy zooming to 7000. The 16-valve head is quite sophisticated, with variable valve timing and a variable induction system that optimizes intake efficiency and torque. The block is aluminum, there's a cam chain rather than a belt, and the exhaust manifold is stainless steel. The engine is very smooth and quiet at consistent freeway speeds, and has a nice sporty sound when it's revving under acceleration. The 2.3-liter Mazda3 with the manual transmission rates 25/32 miles per gallon EPA City/Highway, while the 148-horsepower 2.0-liter gets 28/35.
The standard five-speed manual shifts beautifully, especially the upshifts, which were almost as smooth as an automatic, with no real driver effort. Mazda worked hard on designing new synchronizers and cable linkage for reduced friction.
Mazda calls the optional automatic transmission Activematic. That's a fancy name, but it is a fancy transmission. You can just put it in Drive and go, but it also features a manual mode programmed for quick shifting. Put it in Drive and it's smart, maintaining its gear going downhill for engine braking or uphill to reduce hunting.
Handling is quick and nimble, making the Mazda3 fun to drive. It's a blast on winding country roads. It's also sharp, true and steady in emergency lane-change maneuvers. The Ford group in England designed the suspension, but it was tuned by Mazda at its long, rolling test track at Hiroshima.
Mazda3s models with the 2.3-liter engine come with slighter larger brakes than those on the 2.0-liter 3i. We found the brakes to be quite effective and sensitive; a mere light touch on the brake pedal around town is nice.
The Mazda3 is sporty, practical and affordable. It's fun to drive and fun to look at. The Mazda3 is solidly executed, with no flaws, but a strong engine, transmission, handling, brakes, comfort, packaging and looks. We like the versatile five-door.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Sam Moses reports from the Columbia River Gorge, with Mitch McCullough in Los Angeles.
|Model Line Overview |
|Base Price (MSRP) |
|Model lineup: |
|Mazda3i ($13,680); Mazda3s sedan ($16,615); Mazda3s hatchback ($17,105) |
|148-hp 2.0-liter DOHC 16-valve inline-4; 160-hp 2.3-liter DOHC 16-valve inline-4 |
|5-speed manual; 4-speed automatic with manual shift mode |
|Safety equipment (Standard): |
|two-stage front airbags with passenger weight sensor; collapsible steering column and breakaway pedals; front and rear side impact beams; LATCH anchors and tethers for child safety seats in the rear |
|Safety equipment (Optional): |
|ABS with EBD; side airbags for front seats; side curtain airbags for front and rear |
|Basic warranty: |
|3 years/50,000 miles |
|Assembled in: |
|Hiroshima, Japan |
|Specifications As Tested |
|Model tested (MSRP): |
|Mazda3s five-door hatchback ($17,105) |
|Standard equipment: |
|air conditioning; cruise control; six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo; power windows, door locks and mirrors; remote keyless entry; electroluminescent gauges; driver's seat with height and lumbar adjustments; cargo cover and cargo management system; 17-inch alloy wheels; halogen headlights and foglights |
|Options as tested: |
|leather seats ($590); ABS, side-impact airbags and side-curtain airbags ($800); power moonroof and in-dash 6-CD changer ($890) |
|Destination charge: |
|Gas Guzzler Tax: |
|Price as tested (MSRP) |
|front-wheel drive |
|2.3-liter DOHC 16-valve inline-4 |
|Horsepower (hp @ rpm): |
|160 @ 6500 |
|Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm): |
|150 @ 4500 |
|5-speed manual |
|EPA fuel economy, city/hwy: |
|25/32 mpg. |
|103.9 in. |
|176.6/69.1/57.7 in. |
|Track, f/r: |
|60.2/59.6 in. |
|Turning circle: |
|34.1 ft. |
|Seating capacity: |
|Head/hip/leg room, f: |
|38.2/54.9/41.9 in. |
|Head/hip/leg room, m: |
|Head/hip/leg room, r: |
|38.3/53.9/36.3 in. |
|Cargo volume: |
|31.2 cu. ft. |
|Towing capacity: |
|Suspension F: |
|independent, MacPherson struts, lower control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar |
|Suspension R: |
|independent, multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar |
|Ground clearance: |
|5.7 in. |
|Curb weight: |
|2826 lbs. |
|Brakes, f/r: |
|disc/disc with ABS and EBD in. |
|Fuel capacity: |
|14.5 gal. |