Zoom for the 3s’ superb driving dynamics. Zoom with outstanding practicality. Zoom…this is a lot of a car for $20,000.
This compact wagon was acquired as a rental vehicle with 7,300 miles on odometer at the time of pick up. It stayed with us for three days. We traveled approximately 1,250 miles. Test route included long stretch of freeway run from San Francisco Bay Area to the congested Las Vegas Strip. The Mazda3 was packed with weekend getaway gears for its three average size adult occupants. The average fuel economy is approximately 25mpg.
Mazda introduced the Mazda3, also known as the Axela in Japan, in 2003 for 2004 model year to replace the Protégé. The 2007 model lineup includes two body styles, a four-door sedan and a five-door hatchback. Mazda3i is standard on the sedan and Mazda3s as an option, all 5-door hatchbacks are Mazda3s, as “s” stands for Sport where the “i” series equip only with a 2.0L 144hp engine. There are three trim levels for the 5-door hatchback in 2007 – Sport (base), Touring, and Grand Touring, each only with subtle packaging/optional equipment variances such as extra safety features on the Touring, and Grand Touring is equipped with electronic gadgets in addition to Base and Touring features.
The tester is the Touring of the hatchback lineup, and it is assembled in Hofu, Japan. Under the hood is Mazda’s all-aluminum DOHC 16-valves 2.3L MZR 4-cylinder engine, generates 151hp@6,500rpm and 149Ib-ft of torque@4,500rpm with variable valve timing and variable induction system. Engine is transversely mounted, driving the front wheels via a 5-speed automatic transmission. Traction is provided by a set of P205/50VR17, Goodyear Eagle RS-A high performance all-season tires. The 3s’ chassis is based on parent company Ford’s global C1 platform is supported by all wheel independent suspensions with Macpherson strut in front and Mazda’s E-type multi-link in the rear with stabilizer bars on both ends. Stopping power is generated by 11.8” vented disc brakes in the front, and 11” solid discs in the rear with ABS (Anti-lock Brake System) with EBD (Electronic Brake Force Distribution) and brake assist, along with DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) & TCS (Traction Control System) for the Touring model.
Impression doesn’t necessarily imply the word “impress” in this section of the test drive review. We should have renamed this section as “apprehension” instead for some other reviews. But this is not true for the Mazda3s. Our impressions of the Mazda3s have always been impressed by its outstanding value, driving dynamics, built quality, versatility and styling. We have been paying tremendous attention and had spent some brief moments driving the Mazda3s in the past.We had once considered purchasing the Grand Touring hatchback. We will elaborate on that.
It is impossible not to look at the price when shopping for a car in this class segment, and compare the standard equipments. The Mazda3s is loaded with standard features that are available to more expensive cars, such as projector headlights, fog lights, 17-inch alloy wheels, 5-speed automatic transmission, tilt/telescopic steering wheel, to a very decent standard sound system. The Grand Touring trim, even has standard Xenon High-Intensity-Discharge (HID) headlights, LED taillights, rain-sensing windshield wipers, heated front leather seats just to name a few. For extra $3,000, the Grand Touring can even be equipped with in-dash flip-up navigation and satellite radio system, also the moonroof package with 7-speakers Bose sound system with 6-CD in-dash MP3 player, which is above-and-beyond the cars contending in this market segment. A list of standard and option package that is unheard of in this entry segment. With the MSRP ranging from $18,500 for the Sport, to $21,500 for the Grand Touring, choosing the Mazda3 is a no brainer when compare to compatible cars namely, Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, and Toyota Corolla while none of them offers the versatile hatchback style. However, we are extremely pleased with the standard equipment on the Touring trim.
With that being said, a conscious shopper in this increasingly competitive segment will not judge on standard equipment alone, and pull out their hard earn money. Even the standard features and equipments might have already scored the sale. How does the Mazda3s drive is a critical component in their decisions as well. What it comes down to as a car is that, it is meant for driving. It does not do any good, if you have a Plasma TV screen, and Logic 7 Pro sound system in a car and the driving dynamic just make you want to stay away from the cockpit. We can assure you that Mazda3s is one of the best driver’s cars, period. As a matter of fact, its driving refinement and dynamics are better than some of the cars twice its price.
Let’s cut-to-the-chase shall we?
The moment you place yourself into the driver seat, you will notice immediately this car means business. The fit-and-finish is awesome. Instrumental panel gaps on the dash are minimal and even, switch gears on the center console are strategically positioned and offer quality feel to operate, the now-seem-to-be the industry norm “3-ring” instrument gauge cluster may seem generic, but the refreshing tri-mode lighting electroluminescent gauges seem to save-the-day from the norm; red digits and dials with blue outer ring background for night time, white-on-black during the day, and blue for entry provide not only the function of being legible regardless day or night, but also give different atmosphere to prevent the sense of dull.
Adjusting the seat covered by non slippery fabric that presents great lateral support, you will easily find the proper driving position as if you are part of the car. Noting the inviting shifter and handbrake that placed conveniently close to each together and that black leather-wrapped sophisticated in appearance steering wheel. There is the sense of urgency that runs through your body that you will want to drive it NOW. And what a joy it is to place your palms on the thick-rimmed and quite small in diameter leather-wrapped steering wheel that can make the car dance at your will. A tempting cockpit indeed, the product designer has gotten the message across.
Fire up the engine, vibration transmitted to the cabin via the pendulum type engine mount system is noticeable yet communicative. The pendulum-type mounting consists of two engine mounts and a torque rod for better vibration isolation and shift shock from the powertrain. A jab on the electronically controlled throttle and watch to tachometer respond to it instantaneously. The engine does not rev with reward winning quickness but it revs smoothly to redline thanks to the dual shaft balancer. Dual shaft balancer equipped engines tend not to rev as quickly due to the mass of the balancer components driven by the engine. Balancer is used for larger displacement 4-cyclinder engines to counter balance secondary vibration from the crankshaft.
On paper, the engine has not much to write home about, 2.3L with 151hp & 149ib-ft and with EPA rated fuel economy at 22/29mpg City/Highway, is about average in today standard and it just gets the job done. A brief comparison to a 15 years old Nissan KA24DE engine, equipped on 1993 to 2001 Altimas. They both have identical displacement, engine configuration, and output but one is 15 years older. That left us head scratching when compare spec on paper. But the MZR is EPA certified as PZEV, stands for Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle, the KA however, should be all gross polluters by now. We are not too happy about the PZEV label robbed away 5hp – 3s sold in other States has 156hp.
On the road, the engine provides adequate acceleration and passing power, actually slightly above average in its class. Output is generally linear but in favor of midrange output where power tends to fade off gradually at its 6,500rpm redline, which consists with the longer stroke than bore, undersquare cylinder arrangement. Through the use of electro-powered steering, the parasitic lost from a conventional power steering pump is eliminated especially at higher rpm, equates more engine power is reserved for propelling the car. Like most drive-by-wire system, the logic of the throttle map seems to tune for the tip-in throttle response by allowing the throttle plate open at a greater angle than pedal input to simulate greater engine power at low end. In the Mazda3s’ case, it is not as apparent compare to the SO obviously done Toyota Corolla, where the remaining 50% of the pedal travel has no effect on power delivery – is that because the bread-and-butter sedan driver has no tendency to give more than 50% throttle input?
The 5-speed automatic transmission is efficient to transfer the engine power to the ground to propel the 3s’ ~3,000ibs curb weight from 0-60mph in 8.6 seconds and completes the quarter mile at 84mph in 16.4 seconds*. An automatic transmission that provides a 5th gear with manual mode has become a more-and-more common feature in the premium segment however. Manual mode is activated via the wobbly gate shifter by pulling shifter toward the driver at “D” and push forth is “-” and back as “+“ and it will hold gear at redline and ride on the soft rev limiter until the driver signal the upshift. This is always a big plus for driver control and involvement that can greatly reinforced the sporty nature of the car. Even it lacks the engine rpm rev match feature, the downshift is as smooth as it can be, and shifting is responsive regardless in auto or manual mode. The logic algorithms are intelligent enough to account for uphill or downhill slopes, it will ensure the next gear will allow for sufficient power before upshifting to avoid gear hunt, and provides engine braking respectively. The programming in auto-mode also allows shifting at the engine’s maximum rpm since the engine it is not ashamed of revving to its limit. Gear ratios are perfectly matching the engine, ample of acceleration in lower gears, while cruising at 80mph in top gear, the engine revs at approximately 3,000rpm which is essential for freeway fuel economy.
The area where the 3s standout from pack is its superb handling and braking. Various magazine testing had provided evidence that the 3s is capable of generating 0.87g of lateral grip on skid pad, and stop from 60mph in 118 feet*. For comparison purpose, the performance oriented 2006 Honda Civic Si pulls 0.86g and 125ft respectively. Despite the MacPherson struts front suspension setup, the road feel transmitted thru the electro-hydraulic power assist steering is accurate and genuine with the rather quick 14.6:1 steering ratio. The steering feel does not have the typical electro-powered overboost feel. No doubt this is a front-wheel drive, but the torque steer is not really that apparent, but of course it is there if purposely provoked. Perhaps keeping the engine output at its current rating is meant for preserving this quality steering feel without needing the extra components to counteract the high output front-wheel drives’ birth defect. Turn in is neutral and responsive, thanks to the more evenly distributed front and rear weigh from the wagon style, with mild but easy to control understeer near limit. The corning limit is so high and in conjunction with the minimal body roll you thought you are driving a RX8. Leave you wondering why BWM’s consistence with MacPherson struts, and Honda changed out their proclaimed Double-Wish Bone system.
Road noise intrusion is noticeable mainly due to the equipped tires are geared toward performance rather than comfort but we found it communicative and not loud enough to be annoying. The rear suspensions work in harmony with the dynamics of the car. Unlike some of 3s’ competitors that in favor of the simpler torsion beam rear suspension setup for cargo room space and cost reduction. Mazda went the extra step to provide their E-type multi-link independent setup where the coil springs are mounted in board of the shock absorbers allowing for non-intruded cargo space and performance. The Mazda exhibits great composure over various pavement surfaces where a mid corner bump will not upset its balance. This translated to an impressive 69-mph slalom speed*, and easy to rotate with lift throttle input. The superb handling can exceed performance cars if not equivalent to. The 3s demonstrates ride quality of a car that cost twice as much; closely equivalent to a G35 with sports suspension package in which we think it has the best suspension tuning for comfort and performance from Japan.
Braking power is abandon and very confident. Driver can simply squeeze on the progressive pedal; the 3 will come to a stop at will with style or any drama even under hard braking in a turn which demonstrated the very effective brake assist, and electronic brake force distribution feature. ABS activation is smooth and subtle, there’s just plenty of braking resistance on reserve that will seldom lock up the wheels. The pads seem to be on the aggressive side, where the rotors on the tester are showing some wear.
The Ford family’s global C1 chassis provides very solid feel in the Mazda3 which greatly contributed to its premium driving sensation. Instead of the body flexing and rolling thru bumps and corners, the rigid body allows for the 3s well-tuned suspension to do it duty while limiting noise, vibration and harshness. The platform was co-developed with Volvo, and it currently underpins the European Ford Focus, and various Volvo products. This platform sharing greatly benefitted the production/development cost which allows the 3 to be priced at this level. And the hidden fact is the 3 earned four out of five stars frontal-impact crash test and three stars side-impact rating in NHTSA tests.
Front seat space is great for average size adult. It has that cozy enclosed feel but not abandon yet not as cramp as the 3rd generation RX7. Rear seat is comfortable and provide good lateral support, leg and head room is a bit shy for people taller than 5’10”; a driver’s car indeed – extra passenger is dead weight for performance driving thru mountain passes anyway. The hatchback is more versatile than any SUV in daily life in our opinion. With the 60/40 folding rear seat up at their normal position, the cargo room is spacious enough to swallow our 3 days worth of luggage for 3 of us and a hundred pounds or so worth of souvenirs from SEMA trade show. With the seats folded down, you have converted your little performance hatchback into a PUV, performance utility vehicle – going camping with 2, you don’t even need to pitch a tent.
With the Mazda3 always being the winner in various economy car comparison tests held by the well-recognized car magazines. It is a no brainer for any car enthusiasts to choose the 3s over any Corolla, Civic or even Sentra SE-R. We were a bit disappointed at the fuel economy during our test. The 3s ranged from 17 to 30 [mpg], the lower value can be blamed on the stop-and-go Las Vegas Stripe traffic where it took us 45 minutes to go from MGM to LV Convention Center. The higher number was from cruising on I-5 at 75mph against occasionally strong headwind and crosswind where the 3s’ 0.32 drag coefficient didn’t really help. The freeway number is consistent with EPA’s 29mpg highway rating. We believe it can top 31[mpg] at 65 [mph] with less unfavorable wind.
Sounds good so far doesn’t it! Then why we didn’t buy one if it’s so great
As we went out to test drive the car in 2006, the combination of our 250ibs salesman onboard in a 100 degree muggy summer day with AC on at full blast while the salesman wanting to demonstrate the handling aspect of the 3 by taking us to a wide one lane incline swapper freeway on ramp from a complete stop with the then standard 4-speed transmission, the Grand Touring was suddenly become overloaded, and felt ultra underpowered. The entry speed at the end of ramp was too embarrassing to mention. Even we were impressed with the handling aspect and all the fancy gadgets, we were completely turned off by its available power. An extra 20 or 30 horsepower, an extra gear, and most importantly a lighter salesman in the Grand Touring might have sealed the deal.
Performance & Acceleration: 7.5
Comment: Fuel economically adequate.
Comment: Efficient and smooth.
Handling & Cornering: 8.5
Comment: Impressive for this market segment.
Brake Feel: 8.5
Comment: Modulate by varying force not pedal travel.
Ride Characteristic: 8.5
Comment: Firm but that’s how a performance oriented car should be.
Interior Comfort: 7.5
Comment: Cozy and sufficient for a compact.
Comment: How much is this car again? $30k? Obviously, made in Japan.
Comment: In reality, this is a station wagon but doesn’t drive or appeal that way.
Comment: Lacking Bluetooth, iPod connectivity but we are nitpicking now.
With the increasingly high fuel prices, the 3 has becoming one of the best alternatives in the market. It has got style, great to drive, good fuel economy, practicality, fit-and-finish and superb value with electronic gadgets that reassemble cars costing twice as much. If we are in the market again, we will definitely buy one, despite the current model already has 4-years presence in the market. Zoom-zoom-zoom is still on top of the game for the 3 at least. END
*Edmunds.com 2006 Economy Sedan Comparison Test: Honda Civic vs. Mazda3s test number.