When Mazda undertook the “3s” lastest major update, they were faced with the same dilemma that has plagued automakers forever. How to make a brand new car that largely retains the features of an already successful vehicle, satisfy the car’s loyal following and bring in new customers. It isn’t as easy as it may sound. (How many Ford Five Hundreds do you see on the road?) So has Mazda done it?
Since 2004, the Mazda3 has earned a well-deserved reputation for being an economical, fun to drive alternative to the other econo-Japanese cars on the road. It is largely praised by the media and delivers a real dose of driving excitement that is absent from this segment usually. Accounting for 1/3 of all Mazdas on the road the 2010 Mazda3 has some pretty big shoes to fill while it attempts to attract new buyers.
While the “zoom zoom” factor was one of the top priorities of the old Mazda3, the new model is thankfully blessed with similar attributes. The 3 comes with two engines, a 148 horsepower two-liter used in the base and 3i Sport models, and a 167 horsepower 2.5 liter for the “S” models. While the former is adequate and peppy, the “S” is downright powerful in the 3’s downsized body. In fact, the engine was cannibalized from the larger sibling Mazda6.
The top-end Mazda3 with larger 17-inch wheels and lower-profile tires makes the trip to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds. Configured with either engine, the front-wheel drive the 3 maintains the previous generations aptitude for delivering tight and responsive handling, and when paired with the 6-speed manual, you may even forget that you are driving Mazda’s entry level car and not some sort of Miata hardtop. Many reviewers have even favorably compared the Mazda3 to the Subaru WRX and Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, cars that cost $10-grand more.
If taking into account the performance leanings of the Mazda3, fuel economy is really pretty solid. However, if you are looking for a Civic-replacement, it may seem to fall a bit short. 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. The Civic and Corolla score 26/34 and 27/35 respectively. It gets worse for the S models with EPA fuel economy estimates at 21 MPG city/29 MPG highway for the manual and 22/29 for the automatic.
Clearly Mazda wants to set the 3 apart stylistically from the crowd, and they’ve done it. The current Mazda image that has been applied to the RX-8 and other vehicles in the lineup is apparent in the 3 with the large grille, aggressive fender flares and distinct headlights. Whether this appeals to your senses is a matter of opinion of course. Many searching for their next commuter car may be turned off by the “youthful” style choice.
Inside, the improvements to the 3 are most apparent. The interior is beautifully designed and built with nicer materials than the old car. 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 equipped like a luxury car of just a few years ago: 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 is nicely equipped, 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. While seating is slated for five, that may be pushing it for more than short trips. Trunk volume isn’t huge, but not so much that it is a drawback either.
Pricing starts just under $16k, similar to the Honda Civic. A Mazda3 with all the bells and whistles will top $25k, but offering more features than most of its rivals.