Since its introduction in 2004, the Mazda3 has earned a reputation for being economical, fun to drive, and well outside of the mainstream. Mazda's goal for the redesigned 2010 Mazda3 was to make a car that would bring new buyers into the fold without abandoning the factors and features that current Mazda3 owners hold so dear. Have they done it? Read on. Price range $15,715 - $25,560; EPA fuel economy estimates 21-25 MPG city, 29-33 MPG highway.
First Glance: Viva la Mazda Tres!
Thanks to an odd scheduling quirk, I wound up being the only American writer attending the Mazda3 press preview amid a group of journalists from Mexico. (Tell me that doesn't sound like a sitcom waiting to happen.) I learned two bits of information from my fellow periodistas that I never would have guessed: The best Mexican food in the US can be found in Chicago, and Mazda is Mexico's Next Big Thing.
Mazda started selling cars in Mexico just three years ago, and their success has been phenomenal. In many ways, Mazda is in the same boat here in the States. Though they've been here since 1970, none of their cars except the Miata and the RX-7 ever attracted a serious following -- not until 2004, that is, when the first Mazda3 came along. The 3 was good looking, reliable, and fun to drive. It was a big hit with the press and quickly earned a following among buyers who wanted an economical, enjoyable car that was outside of the mainstream, but who couldn't afford to buy German.
Mazda's goal for the 2010 Mazda3 is to broaden the 3's appeal without losing the attributes that made the old car a hit. Styling-wise, Mazda gave the new 3 the same RX-8-inspired nose job they've applied to other models, though it doesn't work as well for the 3 as it did for the Mazda6 and CX-7: The big, pouty grille (link goes to photo) looks like a fat lip, and the strong fender arches don't match up with the rest of the car -- it looks like someone took a Mazda3 and bolted on the fenders from an old Ford Focus.
In the Driver's Seat: Mazda styling, Lexus features
You'll find the bulk of the improvements inside. The new cabin is fantastic -- beautifully designed and built with nicer materials than the old car -- but it's the creature comforts that set the Mazda3 apart. There are five versions of the Mazda3 sedan: i Special Value, i Sport, i Touring, s Sport and s Grand Touring. The top-of-the-line Grand Touring is lavishly equipped: Heated leather seats, power driver's seat with memory, dual-zone automatic climate control, rain-sensing wipers, and headlights that turn with the steering wheel. A navigation system, Bose stereo and keyless push-button ignition are optional. But even the Special Value model isn't too shabby, with power windows and mirrors and a CD player as standard. Models in the middle (i Touring, s Sport) include air conditioning, Bluetooth phone compatibility, alloy wheels, cruise control, power door locks and keyless entry. All versions come with six airbags and antilock brakes, and all but the i Special Value and i Sport get electronic stability control.
The 3 has a height-adjustable driver's seat and tilt-and-telescope steering column. Visibility is excellent and there's plenty of room up front. The back seat is comfortable but a bit tight compared to its rivals, and only the outer seating positions get headrests. Mazda hasn't announced trunk volume, but they say it's similar to the old car (which, at 11.5 cubic feet, wasn't very big). No matter, as Mazda also offers the 3 as a hatchback, which stows 17 cubic feet of cargo.
On the Road: More of the same
The fun-to-drive factor was the old Mazda3's strong suit, and the new car follows in its footsteps. I took my first turn behind the wheel of a 3i Sport, which is one step up from the base model. The 3i comes with the smaller of the Mazda3's two engines, a 148 horsepower two-liter that produced all the thrust I needed. It was on the twisty back-roads that the 3 really came alive -- the handling is tight and responsive and the ride is better than I remember from the old 3. I had a fantastic time behind the wheel. That's saying a lot, considering that I'd spent the previous week driving a Subaru WRX and a Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, both high-performance all-wheel-drive sportsters that cost a good $10,000 more than the front-wheel-drive Mazda3. EPA fuel economy estimates for the 3i are 25 MPG city and 33 MPG highway for the 5-speed manual and 24/33 for the five-speed automatic -- not great compared to the competition (the Civic and Corolla score 26/34 and 27/35 respectively), but better than last year's 3.
Next, I took a turn in the lavish 3s Grand Touring. "S" models are powered by a 167 horsepower 2.5 liter engine -- a huge (by compact car standards) motor plucked from the mid-size Mazda6. The car I drove had a 6-speed manual, and while I loved the extra urge of the bigger engine, I thought the ride was a little less comfortable and a lot less quiet than the 3i; I blame the S model's larger (17") wheels and lower-profile tires. EPA fuel economy estimates for the S are 21 MPG city/29 MPG highway for the manual, 22/29 for the automatic -- pretty crummy for a car this small.
Journey's End: Verdict is still out, but it's looking good
Pricing starts just under $16k, similar to the Honda Civic. A Mazda3 with all the trimmings will top $25k, more than most compacts -- but then again, the Mazda3 offers more features than most of its rivals.
Numbers aside, I really like the new 3. The interior is brilliant, and I love that it's available with creature comforts that just a few years ago would only be found on luxury cars. The Honda Civic EX-L and Toyota Corolla XLE offer leather and navigation, but not active headlights or a power driver's seat with memory. (Too bad, though, that the 3 doesn't offer those features with the smaller, more fuel-efficient engine.) And I'm glad that Mazda hasn't changed the 3's basic character -- few affordable cars can match the Mazda3's fun-to-drive factor, although the Mitsubishi Lancer GTS certainly tries.
While I applaud Mazda for offering electronic stability control (ESC) on most of the lineup, it should at least be optional on the entry-level 3i SV and 3i Sport. As the least-expensive Mazda3 model, it's logical to assume that the 3i is likely to be purchased by the youngest and least-experienced drivers -- the ones who need ESC the most. Several of the 3's rivals, including the Kia Forte and Toyota Corolla, come with ESC standard; so should the Mazda.
Overall, the new 3 is a promising car, one that I'm sure will achieve Mazda's goal of pleasing existing 3 owners while bringing new buyers into the Mazda family. I expect the 2010 Mazda3 to be a hit -- both north and south of the border. -- Aaron Gold