The current Mazda 3 is among our favorite small cars, and with more than 1.8 million units sold to date, one of Mazda's most important models. Rather than mess with a good thing, the Zoom Zoom company isn't changing much for the new, second-generation compact sedan. (Mazda has chosen to reveal the four-door sedan now at the 2008 Los Angeles Auto Show; a five-door hatchback, our favorite version of the 3, will be revealed later.)
The new 3 is about three and a half inches longer than last year's car, and weighs about a hundred pounds more (depending on equipment level), but the other dimensions haven't changed, including the wheelbase. That's a good indication that not much has changed underneath the 3, either-and indeed while the 2010 3 has significant revisions to its chassis, including increased use of high-tensile strength steel to reduce the body-in-white's weight by 24 lb while stiffening the suspension attachment points, it rides on largely unchanged suspension and brakes. Don't interpret that as a bad thing-the last 3, even at the end of its six-year production run, was still at the top of its class in our book.
Choose 2.0-liter or 2.5-liter Four-cylinder powertrains
Mazda also didn't make any changes to the base 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which produces 148 hp and 135 lb-ft of torque. A gem of an engine, it's both rev-happy and torquey, and mates to either a five-speed manual transmission or a new five-speed automatic (which replaces last year's 4-speed automatic.)
Those buyers wanting a little more power can now opt for the Mazda3s, which uses the same 2.5-liter four as the larger Mazda 6i sedan. This new engine replaces last year's 2.3-liter, and produces 11 more horsepower and 18 more lb-ft of torque, for totals of 167 hp and 168 lb-ft. The engine also receives an additional gear-the manual now has six forward ratios. The automatic remains a five-speed.
Swiveling Headlights! Oh, My!
Mazda boasts that the 3 is a compact car that offers many of the features available only in larger, more expensive cars. And indeed it does, with a fully loaded 3s Grand Touring offering class-exclusive swiveling bi-xenon headlights, a 10-speaker Bose Centerpoint surround system, dual-zone automatic climate control, and an eight-way power driver's seat with memory function.
Strangely, though, many of these options are available only on the top-spec Grand Touring trim level, which is available only with the larger 2.5-liter engine. That means if you want the small motor, you can't have the heated leather seats, power driver's seat with memory, heated mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone climate control, automatic headlights, bi-xenon swiveling headlights, LED taillights, fog lights, rain-sensing wipers, leather steering wheel and shift knob, keyless go, or even navigation. If Mazda's aim is to make the 3 a compact car that buyers used to larger cars will happily downsize to (in this age of sudden fuel economy conscience), then the luxury features need to be available with the small engine, too.
The Smaller Engine is the Best Choice for Fun and Efficiency
In fact, the smaller engine is probably the one we'd choose if we were buying a 3. Equipped with a manual, the 2.0-liter returns 25/33 city/highway on the EPA testing versus 21/29 for the 2.5-liter-a significant improvement. The smaller engine is also easier to drive, with better calibrated throttle mapping and sportier power delivery. It's slower than the 2.5-liter, but with less than 20 hp separating the two engines, the 2.5's increased thirst for fuel isn't fully offset by the extra power. (And let's face it, 29 mpg highway isn't exactly spectacular for a compact car, especially when the much larger Mazda6 receives the same highway rating.)
Still as Fun to Drive as Before
And while the Mazda3 doesn't deliver the fuel economy you'd expect from, say, a Honda Civic, it's quicker and more fun to drive. It also has a much nicer interior than you'd expect from a car in this price class, with very high-quality materials and a quiet, smooth ride befitting a much larger car. In fact, even the 2.5-liter-a very large four-cylinder indeed-is so unbelievably smooth that you'll never hear or feel a vibration, from idle to fuel cutoff. At idle, you can't tell if it's running, and cruising at 50 mph with the windows down, you might not even notice that you're accidentally still in second gear and approaching redline. You simply won't hear or feel the engine-this kind of refinement makes the new 3 slightly less visceral than the old one, but more grown-up at the same time. Torque steer is well controlled, brake feel is superb, and the shifter is light and generally precise. The steering isn't as communicative as some of Mazda's other offerings, but it's still very good. Pushed beyond its limits, the 3 understeers more than its big brother sedan, the 6, but it doesn't plow through corners the way some other cars in this class do. We didn't get a chance to sample either automatic transmission, as the first batch of pre-production cars available for testing were all manuals.
Harumph. The iPod Setup Falls Short
Other than an electronic throttle calibration that's far too aggressive on the 2.5-liter car (and which can be easily fixed by Mazda's engineers before the car goes into production), there's only one real misstep, and it concerns a display in the top of the dash. Base cars use a backlit, red dot-matrix display atop the center console, familiar from other Mazdas, to show radio station and other audio information. Higher-spec 2.5-liter cars use a smaller version of the red display but add a separate window, called a "Multi-Information Display" to its left. This MID displays trip computer functions as well as music information (such as iPod track information). The problem with the MID is that it displays information in white and in a dramatically different font and size than the main, red display-it looks so out of place that it might as well be from another car. Top-of-the-line models with navigation system substitute the white monochrome screen for a full-color display, but when displaying trip data, the screen still doesn't match any other displays in the car.
And unfortunately, we were so frustrated with the iPod integration that we decided to use the (thankfully also standard) auxiliary jack and use the iPod's internal controls instead. Like some other iPod integration systems, this system doesn't allow quick scrolling through albums, so browsing through a fully loaded 40GB iPod was basically impossible. Luckily, the Bluetooth audio integration (for both streaming MP3s from your phone as well as making calls) worked flawlessly.
It's Still at the Top of the Small-car Heap
All in all, the new Mazda3 is likely to remain one of our favorite small cars. Small ergonomic foibles aside (and let's face it, ours are minor complaints), the 3 is once again proof that a small, relatively economical car doesn't have to be a penalty box. It's also cute, distinctive, and it looks substantial on the road. Mazda hasn't yet released pricing, but expect the 2010 3 to see only moderate price increases-figure around $17,000 for a well-equipped 3i, heading up to close to $25,000 for a fully loaded 3s Grand Touring. Even despite the tough times in the automotive industry, we expect the new Mazda3 to be a hit-and can't wait to see what the new five-door hatch looks like.