The old Mazda 3 was already one of our favorite small cars. Twice an AUTOMOBILE MAGAZINE All-Star, the previous 3 was a cut above its contemporaries. When Mazda's highest-volume car went in for a redesign for the 2010 model year, it emerged with a more powerful engine (in the "s" models, at least), an additional gear for its manual and automatic transmissions, a plethora of new luxury features, and new styling led off by a front end that West Coast editor Jason Cammisa described as "an anime gremlin wearing an I've-been-naughty grin."
But was the new 3 really naughty or nice? We were anxious to find out, so we ordered one for a long-term test. We skipped the base "i" model for two reasons: First, it's available only as a four-door sedan, and we prefer the looks and practicality of the four-door hatchback body style. Second, the base car uses a carryover 2.0-liter engine, while the "s" edition has a new 2.5-liter four. In our car, the 2.5 was paired with a new six-speed manual transmission. We did show uncharacteristic restraint by staying with the Sport trim level rather than the Grand Touring, which has a fairly lavish list of standard features for a small car, including leather, a power driver's seat with memory, and swiveling xenon headlamps. Still, we were hardly suffering in our Sport hatchback, to which we added a power moonroof, a ten-speaker Bose surround-sound audio system with a six-disc CD changer (the aptly named moonroof/6CD/Bose package, for $1395), as well as keyless ignition, satellite radio, and a compact navigation system (together comprising the technology package, for $1195). That brought the bottom-line sticker price to a still-very-reasonable $22,570.
At that price, it's hard to argue that the 3 is anything but a bargain. As assistant editor David Zenlea put it: "The 3 occupies the sweet spot in terms of both pricing and size. It's cheap enough that someone looking at an econobox could theoretically stretch to get it, but it's also big enough and grown-up enough that a mid-size-sedan buyer should give it serious consideration."
An important aspect of the little Mazda's grown-up demeanor is its excellent chassis. From the logbook: "The suspension is incredibly poised, sopping up bumps with almost Germanic composure." The steering actually provides some feedback, and we liked the overall effort levels. We also were digging the fact that Mazda is able to keep torque steer at bay, despite the big four-cylinder's 168 lb-ft of torque.
That ample torque, combined with the 2.5-liter's 167 hp, was enough to move the 3056-pound Mazda along at a reasonable clip; we measured 8.1 seconds from 0 to60 mph. In real-world driving, though, the Mazda felt quicker than that, partially because the engine is smooth enough that we enjoyed wringing it out, and partially because the relatively closely spaced gearing keeps the engine close to its torque peak.
That engineering solution makes for a lively powertrain, but it's not a formula for ultimate fuel economy. As copy editor Rusty Blackwell observed, "It seems that the highway mileage could be boosted significantly-and overall noise reduced at the same time-if Mazda made fifth and sixth gears a bit taller. Even with the optional engine, a compact car like this should be able to crack 30 mpg in EPA tests." (The 2.5-liter 3 is rated at 21/29 mpg city/highway; the 2.0-liter version earns a 25/33 mpg rating.) We averaged 26 mpg overall.
We might have gotten a bit better mileage with the automatic transmission (despite its having only five forward speeds); and we might have opted for it had we known how much staffers would complain about the manual's clutch engagement. While most drivers praised the shift action of the gearbox itself, nobody liked the high engagement point of the clutch, which, in concert with the overly sensitive throttle, became the most oft-repeated criticism of the car. Some drivers professed to becoming accustomed to it after several months, but, as associate editor Eric Tingwall noted, "The excellent automatic transmission that many of us have sampled in other Mazda 3s is a fine consolation prize for those who can't deal with this clutch."
Right behind the clutch on the list of major-league gripes was the navigation system. In a car this inexpensive, a factory navigation system is an unusual option -- although it's becoming less so -- and Mazda's approach to it is unusual as well. The screen size is miniature, and the display is in front of the driver rather than in the center of the dash. The only controls for it are located on the steering wheel, so a front-seat passenger isn't able to help with the programming. In theory, the steering-wheel-mounted controls should at least offer the ability to make inputs while keeping eyes on the road, but nearly all functions -- even simple map scrolling -- are locked out while the car is in motion. The price is relatively low compared with most factory systems, but it's still more than you'd spend on a good aftermarket system, which would have a larger screen, more functionality, and could also be used by a passenger. The best anyone could say about the factory unit is that it didn't take up a power outlet, leaving two for running a radar detector and charging a cell phone at the same time.
On a more positive note, there was nearly as much agreement on the little Mazda's seat comfort. After logging 1800 miles in three days on a quick jaunt to the East Coast, senior web editor Phil Floraday deemed the seats "very comfortable." Contributor Ronald Ahrens, who took the Mazda on a trip to southern Illinois, also praised the "excellent ergonomics." But he demurred on some of the dashboard lighting, saying, "My personal preferences preclude the garish garland of orange/red lights on the instruments and accessory controls." At least we were able to extinguish the gimmicky blue flashing light that accompanied changes in sound system volume (look in the "Audio Cont" menu). Apart from the questionable lighting, the cabin is generally well finished, if not quite as plush as that in the Grand Touring trim level.
We are always suckers for a hatchback's versatility, and that was the case here, too. Although the Mazda's stylized hindquarters make for a less boxy shape, and therefore less cargo space, than in something like our recently departed Honda Fit, office vagabond Zenlea found that "the 3 offers plenty of room for your boxes, furniture, or, in my case, poorly packed Hefty bags full of clothing."
Finally, we must mention reliability. Our Mazda 3 rolled through 26,630 not-always-careful miles with nary a hiccup. Dealer service visits were routine in the extreme-just the way we like them.
With this much poise, practicality, and punch packed into such a reasonably priced package, it was no surprise when this new Mazda 3 (together with its overachieving Mazdaspeed 3 sibling) ended up on our All-Stars list for 2010.
"It strikes a smart balance between an enthusiast's car and an easygoing daily driver," said deputy editor Joe DeMatio. Or, as New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman concluded more emphatically: "This is the practical small car that America needs -- with seating for five, room for gear, and a sure-footed chassis that entertains without abusing the passengers. After spending time with it, I no longer felt like I wanted to wipe the smile off its face."
The Mazda GLC debuted in America in 1977 as a rear-wheel-drive hatchback that shared many parts with the rotary-engined RX-3. It initially had a 52-hp, 1.3-liter four-cylinder mated to a four-speed manual. This GLC -- for "Great Little Car" -- was produced until 1980.
The second-generation GLC, offered from 1981 to '85 and powered by a 68-hp, 1.5-liter four-cylinder, switched to front-wheel drive and added a sedan to accompany the hatchback, although a rear-wheel-drive GLC wagon stuck around through 1983.
The 323 replaced the GLC and jumped a class from subcompact to compact with the 1986-89 models. It was longer, heavier, and had more interior space than its predecessor. Power came from an 82-hp, 1.6-liter fuel-injected four-cylinder. In 1988, the race-bred, all-wheel-drive 323GTX appeared with a 132-hp, 1.6-liter turbocharged engine.
The early 1990s brought a redesigned 323. The hatchback retained its 82-hp engine, while the four-door sedan, now called the Protegé, got a 103-hp 1.8-liter. Although the two compact cars had similar faces, they didn't share much else, as body panels and wheelbases were different. By 1995, the hatchback 323 was dropped, leaving just the Protegé.
The second-generation Protegé debuted in 1999 and brought back the wagon body style in 2002 as the Protegé5. In 2003, the Mazdaspeed Protegé was introduced with a 170-hp turbo 2.0-liter and other goodies.
The first Mazda 3 hit the streets for the 2004 model year. Two four-cylinders were available in the sedan -- a 2.0-liter and a 2.3 -- but only the larger engine was offered in the hatchback. The hatch also bore the Mazdaspeed 3 in 2007. That torque-steering monster produced 263 hp from its turbocharged 2.3-liter engine.
Pros & Cons
+ Fun to drive
+ Reasonably priced
+ Totally reliable
- Mediocre fuel economy
- Awkward clutch
- Inferior nav system
3-yr/36,000-mile roadside assistance
11,771 mi: $35.71
19,681 mi: $54.37
11,756 mi: Purchase, mount, and balance four Continental ExtremeWinterContact winter tires, $526.50
22,620 mi: Remount stock Yokohama Avid S34 all-season tires, $111.51
EPA city/hwy/combined 21/29/24 mpg
Observed 26 mpg
Cost per mile:
(Fuel, service, winter tires) $0.13 ($0.41 including depreciation)
Prices & Equipment
Price as tested
ABS; traction and stability control; air-conditioning; power windows, mirrors, and door locks; tilting/telescoping steering column; cruise control; six-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo with steering-wheel controls; Bluetooth; foglamps; seventeen-inch wheels; front, side, and side curtain air bags
Moonroof/6CD/Bose package (242-watt Bose ten-speaker surround- sound stereo, moonroof, in-dash six-disc CD changer), $1395; technology package (compact color navigation screen, keyless push-button ignition, six-month Sirius satellite radio subscription, perimeter alarm), $1195; all- weather floor mats, $80
*Estimate based on information from intellichoice.com
2010 Mazda 3
Body style: 4-door hatchback
Accommodation: 5 passengers
Engine :16-valve DOHC I-4
Displacement: 2.5 liters (152 cu in)
Horsepower: 167 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 168 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Steering: Electrohydraulically assisted
lock-to-lock: 2.9 turns
turning circle: 35.8 ft
Suspension, front: Strut-type, coil springs
Suspension, rear: Multilink, coil springs
Brakes f/r: Vented discs/discs, ABS
Tires: Yokohama Avid S34
Tire size: 205/50VR-17
headroom f/r: 38.1/37.7 in
legroom f/r: 42.0/36.2 in
shoulder room f/r: 54.9/54.0 in
hip room f/r: 53.7/52.2 in
L X W X H : 177.4 x 69.1 x 57.9 in
Wheelbase: 103.9 in
Track f/r: 60.2/59.6 in
Weight: 3056 lb
weight dist. f/r: 60.1/39.9%
cargo capacity: 17.0/42.8 cu ft (rear seats up/down)
fuel capacity: 15.9 gallons
est. fuel range: 410 miles
fuel grade: 87 octane
Our Test Results
0-60 mph: 8.1 sec
0-100 mph: 21.6 sec
1/4-mile: 16.1 sec @ 88 mph
30-70 mph passing: 8.9 sec
peak acceleration: 0.50 g
speed in gears
1) 32; 2) 53; 3) 79; 4) 106; 5) 118; 6) 100 mph
cornering l/r: 0.89/0.89 g
70-0 mph braking: 170 ft g
peak braking: 1.01 g