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.