The Mazda3 is a wonderful car to walk around. Both of them. 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. But 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 nose, which it got. It's uncommon for a manufacturer to go to the extra expense of making more of a second body than is mechanically necessary. Mazda had a high styling standard for this car.
The four-door sedan has a sweet rounded shape forward of the A-pillar, rising gently from the hood. The trademark wedge of a grille has horizontal bars, softer than the five-door's tough black mesh. The headlamps have a smooth and sexy shape, swept back like a cat and sparkling with three beams inside. The whole front bumper, including the dam at the bottom with foglights at the corner, is impressively one piece. 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 the integrated bumper, and again only small seams at the edge. The deck is short and high and nicely softened at the top edge. At all four corners, the wheelwells fit more 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 stance of the five-door is no wider, but it appears wide-shouldered because of the aggressive nose; the fenders are dropped and sculpted to rise to the hood. The boxy top half also makes it look wider. There's less rake from the tops of the doors to the roof (affording more shoulder room), but the tail of the roof is gently rounded to the liftgate window, to soften the profile. There's a tidy spoiler above the window.
The rear fenders are aggressively defined over the wheels. There's a big notch on the rear bumper under the hatchback's liftgate for 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 both the upcoming Volvo S40 and the European 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 did the suspension design. The suspension tuning was back in Mazda's hands, worked out at their rolling Hiroshima test track. Each manufacturer did what it does best, and the result is the best of three worlds.
Mazda3 is a couple inches longer, wider and taller than the old Protege. A lot of work went into the new unibody chassis, which is 40 percent more rigid than the Protege's. Mazda had a bare chassis on display at the vehicle's introduction, painted different colors to designate features pertaining to safety and beefy structure. 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.