A replacement for the Protege5, the Mazda3 is now in its second year of production and still seems to be going strong. And what's not to like about this compact beauty? It's got: sports sedan-like handling, good fuel economy, sparkling performance, great build quality, lots of safety features, style and a reasonable price. The Mazda3 is also available as a 4-door sedan. Starting price for 5-door S: $17,665; Warranty: 4/50,000mi.
The styling of the Mazda3 seems to have been inspired by Chris Bangle's bafflingly "flame surfacing" technique used on the new BMW 1-series wagon, which has been on sale for several months now in Europe. But where the BMW 1-series looks a little too long from the A-pillar forward, I can't see a misstep or odd line anywhere on the Mazda3 wagon. Regardless of your particular tastes, the capital S on the 5-door Mazda3 S could very well stand for "Stylish" as presented on a hatchback or small wagon body style. The hatchback also brings other rewards of a more practical nature as well: the rear seatbacks fold forward to open up a large and useful carrying space behind the front seats. I did notice the badging changes (of which I didn't like) from the base 2.0L engine to the 2.3L model. The base sedan model comes with very little in the way of signage and crome but the 2.3L model adds little chrome "2.3" badges on the doors. It sure seems most North American car buyers want more and bigger signs on their automobiles. But I don't. I'd delete that option since the car looks great without the "look-at-me" items.
In the Driver's Seat
Already a big cargo area at 17 cubic feet, fold the seats down for a total of 31. Bring on the loot!© Colin Hefferon
If we were in Europe or Japan, the Mazda3 would be the ideal sized car. But for North American buyers, it's best for singles or couples with no kids. The driving position can be adjusted to suit not just people my size (5'11", 180 lbs) but also people much smaller or much bigger. A friend who is 6'6" and (admits to) 245 lbs claims he felt a little cramped in the driver's seat. Which came as no surprise to him, he says, because very few cars seem built to accommodate really big guys. With the driver's seat and seat back adjusted for my ideal driving position, however, I was able to get into the rear seat immediately behind the driver with no problem. My knees slightly brushed the driver's seatback but I could have sat back there for a couple of hours with no discomfort. Entry to the front seats through the large front doors poses no problem for average sized people. Again, my extra-sized bud had to twist and turn a bit. One gripe: I found closing the front door a bit of a stretch. Here's something even BMW owners will appreciate: the shifter has smooth, easy movements that make it a real pleasure to use. The Mazda3 comes with lots of standard features but chances are you'll want to dip deep into the options pool, too.
On the Road
All 5-door Mazda3 hatchbacks sold in the U.S. come with the highly-refined 2.3L DOHC 4-cylinder with variable valve timing, which develops 160hp and 150lb-ft of torque @ 4500rpm. This engine is a technological tour de force. The base sedan, however, comes with a 2.0L engine developing 148hp. This 2.0 engine meets California's very strict PZEV and SULEV emissions standards. I had the opportunity to test the 5-door with the optional 17" alloy wheels and performance tires on both dry pavement and on wet snow. I learned two things from that experience: tires aren't everything; they're the only thing. Especially when you're driving for performance. By the way, if you live in a snow-belt state, you'll need two sets of tires and wheels. All season tires just won't cut it if you want all the performance you paid for. Of course, you'll also need the optional traction control for maximum benefit. With proper tires, you'll enjoy zooming around on both snow and dry roads.
See? Done right a hatchback is a good looking car. Painted white just makes it even better.© Colin Hefferon
The 4-door sedan version of the Mazda3 is available in identical trim to the hatchback and is (to me) almost as desirable as the wagon. It has a locking trunk, which people in most markets in North America seem to prefer to the wagon's more practical but also more exposed storage space. I drove each for a week but in the end preferred the 5-door wagon simply because I found its Euro-hatch styling well nigh irresistible. And, okay, also because the slope of the sedan's rear window made it difficult to keep clear in the heavy rain and snow we experienced. While the 5-door Mazda3 shares its platform architecture with the much more expensive Volvo V50 Sportwagon that's not to say the two automobiles are identical. But if I were in the market for a sporty, compact wagon (and I had the extra ten grand) I'd buy the V50 T5 AWD. Why? The Volvo V50 T5 AWD is more luxurious and it's AWD whereas the Mazda3 is FWD only. But for those of us without the extra ten grand (that would be most of us, right?) I can't think of a better all-round value than the 5-door Mazda3. This one's quick, stylish and cheap. Simply put: it's fun!