The all-new 2004 Mazda 3, or Mazda3, as Mazda calls its new line of compacts, replaces the tried-and-true Protege. The Mazda3, available as a four-door sedan or five-door hatchback, is bigger, more powerful, more fuel efficient, safer and better-looking than the Protege. There isn't much more that could be asked of a car beginning a new generation, especially a compact car. Oh yes, it's cheaper, too, when you compare content along with price.
The four-door and five-door models each offer their own styling. The sedan has a sweet, rounded shape and smooth, cohesive design. The five-door looks more aggressive and is available with a more powerful engine and bigger brakes. Its hatchback design and folding rear seats makes it suitable for a trip to Home Depot.
On twisty country roads the Mazda3 is a blast. Handling is quick and nimble and the available 2.3-liter engine delivers spirited performance. The five-speed manual shifts beautifully and there's an interesting automatic that has a manual-shift feature.
Mazda3i ($13,680); Mazda3s sedan ($16,405); Mazda3s five-door ($16,895)
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.
The standard cloth interior is sturdy, in blue or red check with leather at the edges. The leather is smooth and black and a well-priced option compared to other cars.
The seats have adequate bolstering, but when Mazda's performance arm, Mazdaspeed, makes a version of the Mazda3 it should have racier seats. Power seats aren't available, but who needs them in a car this small? There is 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.
In the rearview mirror of the five-door, the two rear headrests and the center brake light (CHMSL) intrude a little bit into window space.
The three-spoke leather steering wheel feels great in the hands, and the control buttons (cruise control, sound system) have a positive feel. There's an attractive faux carbon fiber horizontal strip on the panel, while the dashboard shelf is golf ball grainy, not unlike the new Cadillacs, although Mazda says it was the Porsche Boxster they were trying to copy.
The glovebox is not only huge (9 quarts), but the door is dampened and it 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.
Cargo space with the seats folded flat in the five-door 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 in the back of the five-door with the 60/40 fold-down rear seat flattened. 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.
The three big gauges are dead ahead for the driver, but they're awfully busy down in the 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 is busy, with hash marks and a smaller kilometer measure with more hash marks inside the mph numbers. The dash panel looks better at night than 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.
There are 12 new colors, some of which look almost metalflake, for example the new Solar Yellow Mica, probably just as bright but not quite as bold as the Protege5 yellow.
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 a non-turbocharged four-cylinder, so there's not a ton of torque. At 1000 rpm there's only 120 pounds-feet and it 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 engine is quite sophisticated, with variable valve timing and a variable induction system which 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. It's very smooth and quiet at consistent freeway speeds, and has a nice sporty sound when the engine's revving under acceleration. The 2.3-liter engine with the manual transmission gets 25/32 miles per gallon, and 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. This is the result of the redesigned synchronizers and cable linkage for reduced friction.
Mazda calls the optional automatic transmission Activematic. You can just put it in Drive and go, but it features a manual mode programmed for quick shifting, making the Mazda3 the only car in its class offering such a transmission. It's also programmed to maintain its gear going downhill for slope control (engine braking), and uphill to reduce hunting.
Handling is quick and nimble, making the Mazda3 fun to drive. On twisty country roads, the Mazda3 is a blast and it's 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.
The five-door with the 2.3-liter engine comes with slighter larger brakes than those on the 2.0-liter Mazda3i. We found the brakes to be quite effective and sensitive; a mere light touch on the brake pedal around town is nice. In fact, the whole braking system has been upgraded with better hoses, master cylinder and pads, plus wider tires.
Mazda is rightly boastful about its new entry level car, because it offers far more than anyone might expect in this price class. It's solidly executed, with no flaws, at least not at first blush: strong engine, transmission, handling, brakes, comfort, packaging and looks. The five-door should be the shape of things to come with its versatility.
The old econobox ain't what it used to be. This is what it has become. Is this a great world or what?