One in three cars Mazda sells wears a badge that displays the number three. Coincidence? Perhaps. But maybe the compact 3’s name has something to do with its popularity. A quick Web search netted the following enlightening information about the number three: the numeral raises the spirits of others, spreads optimism and cheerfulness wherever it travels, and possesses the ability to sell itself. That’s a hell of a recipe for showroom success. And since the 3’s predecessors – the GLC, then the 323, then the Proteg – weren’t nearly as popular, clearly their names must be at fault. Mazda’s in-house numerology team obviously agrees, since they’re keeping the name unchanged on the new-for-2010 second-generation car.
Then again, there’s quite a bit that Mazda left alone with regard to its highly successful small-car formula. Even though it calls the 2010 model all-new, scant changes were made to its C1 architecture. Suspension mounting points and wheelbase are unchanged, but Mazda used additional high-tensile-strength steel for added stiffness and reduced weight. The 3’s body is about the same size as last year’s car, with an increase in length of just over three inches being the only significant dimensional change.
As before, Mazda will offer the 3 in both four-door sedan and four-door hatchback form. The sedan is by far the more popular variant in the States (we import the majority of all the sedans built), so Mazda chose to bring that body style here first. From dead-on, the new 3 looks a bit silly – like an anime gremlin wearing an I’ve-been-naughty grin. From any angle, though, its design is youthful, distinctive, and instantly recognizable as a Mazda. Organically shaped grilles in the lower front corners, like those seen on the Kiyora show car from the 2008 Paris auto show, visually widen the front end and flow into swollen front fenders à la RX-8 and Mazda 6.
Just like last time, Mazda’s littlest five-seater is offered with a choice of two suffixes – the entry-level 3i as well as the 3s, which boasts a bigger engine, beefier brakes, and a sportier appearance. Last year’s 2.0-liter four continues duty in the base 3i, producing 148 hp and 135 lb-ft of torque. Both of its available transmissions have five gear ratios – the automatic gaining one since last year. Mazda says that engine software revisions and aerodynamic improvements will help the manual car achieve an extra 1 mpg both in the city and on the open road, and the extra gear in the automatic helps net even bigger gains – 2 mpg city and 3 mpg highway for an expected EPA rating of 24/33 mpg. As before, the 2.0-liter remains a pleasure to flog, retaining its composure and happily producing thrust as the tach needle swings deep into the red zone.
In place of the old car’s 2.3-liter, the 2010 Mazda 3s receives the new 2.5-liter four-cylinder, first seen in the 2009 Mazda 6 sedan. Large four-pot engines tend to be rough and coarse, but not this one – Mazda’s engineers did an astonishing job of quieting this long-stroke heavyweight by adding balance shafts and other refinement measures. There is no vibration to be felt at any engine speed, there’s never any harshness, and with the windows down or the stereo playing, the engine is nearly inaudible. The old 2.3-liter was more vocal, and we miss its outgoing personality. But the larger engine’s bite is likely more important to buyers than its bark. Peak output is up 11 hp to 167 horses, and a good chunk of the 2.5-liter’s 168 lb-ft of peak torque is available throughout the rev range. The five-speed automatic transmission is optional again on the 3s, but the standard manual transmission now comes with six forward gears in place of last year’s five-speed. The only option missing from our fully loaded, retina-searing celestial blue 3s Grand Touring test car was the automatic.
And when we say fully loaded, we mean fully loaded – this little charmer was equipped with luxury features you’d never expect to find in an economy sedan. Our candy-colored 3’s youthful appearance seemed at odds with its decidedly grown-up arsenal of equipment: swiveling bixenon headlights, dual-zone automatic climate control, an eight-way power driver’s seat with memory, a ten-speaker Bose Centerpoint sound system, a tilt/telescope steering wheel, heated seats, leather upholstery, keyless ignition, navigation with full iPod integration and Bluetooth, rain-sensing wipers, LED taillights, electroluminescent gauges, and . . . you get the point.
These features, some of which are not available in the Mazda’s competitors for any price, could put the 3 on the shopping list of buyers looking to downsize from larger gas slurpers. Unfortunately, most of these luxury goodies aren’t available with the more economical smaller engine, and even though the 2.5-liter’s thirst for fuel is shot-glass petite in a Big Gulp SUV world, its 29-mpg highway economy figure barely exceeds that of the similarly sized BMW 328i, which has a much more powerful, 230-hp six-cylinder under the hood. Even the more efficient 2.0-liter’s anticipated ratings can’t match those of the and the , the 3’s main competitors.
Then again, the 3 is much more fun to drive than those nerdy fuel misers. Mazda‘s now ten-year-old “Zoom-Zoom” mantra dictates short, closely spaced gear ratios that give the 3 a sporty disposition but ultimately hurt fuel economy. From behind the wheel, you won’t think “economy” anyway – the 3 offers a comfortable driving position, its rock-solid brake pedal responds with sports-car bite, and its thin-rimmed wheel accurately transmits its driver’s inputs to the front tires. Torque steer is notable by its absence – a trait we sincerely hope that the (inevitable) turbocharged Mazdaspeed 3 maintains. Dynamically, the Mazda 3 continues as the class benchmark, although the new 3 seems to understeer more resolutely than its predecessor, and overly aggressive throttle calibration makes smooth driving in the manual-transmission 3s a real challenge.
Like its predecessor, the Mazda 3 sedan has a roomy cabin with a comfortable back seat. A standard 60/40-split rear seat increases its cargo-carrying capacity, although the trunk’s small, vertical opening will reject some large objects – exactly the reason we prefer the stylish hatchback. Still, the interior plastics are first-rate, especially up front, where soft-touch, expensive-feeling materials abound. The new 3 has the familiar Mazda red LCD screen located atop the center stack to show radio and climate-control information. The 3s model has an additional readout that Mazda calls a Multi Information Display – essentially a trip computer and a supplemental display for the stereo. Unfortunately, this screen looks as if it were lifted out of another car entirely – neither its white color nor its smooth font match anything else in the car, and it sometimes shows redundant iPod information. On cars equipped with navigation, the second display doubles as the nav system, but its tiny size makes it difficult to read maps, and it remains a visual afterthought when displaying trip-computer or iPod information. Worse, only the driver can access the navigation’s functions, as the controls are inexplicably located on the steering wheel.
Gripes like these are minor, however – Mazda started with a car that was still at the top of its class after more than five years and made it even more appealing to buyers. Pricing hasn’t yet been announced, but since Mazda has changed so little of its winning recipe, we doubt that the sticker will change much. We predict that this small sedan’s smiling face will draw buyers into Mazda dealerships, and its power, refinement, and surprising level of equipment will have them talking to the finance guys in no time. And if you don’t believe us, you can ask your favorite numerologist.
2010 Mazda 3s
base price $19,000 (est.)
engine: DOHC 16-valve I-4
displacement: 2.5 liters (160 cu in)
horsepower: 167 hp @ 6000 rpm
torque: 168 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
transmission Type: 6-speed manual
steering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
suspension, front: Strut-type, coil springs
suspension, rear: Multilink, coil springs
brakes f/r: Vented discs/discs, ABS
tires: Yokohama Avid S34D
tire size: 205/50VR-17
L x W x H: 180.9 x 69.1 x 57.9 in
wheelbase: 103.9 in
track f/r: 60.2/59.6 in
weight: 2963 lb (per manufacturer)
fuel mileage: 21/29 mpg (est.)