2004 Mazda 3

Chantilly, France—

The rural roads an hour north of Paris aren't nearly as bad as Michigan's, but they're no prize, either. It's fair to say that a day's drive there in the newest member of the Mazda family was a good indication that we're going to love the 3 once it arrives in America.

Driver Side Rear View

Having fond feelings for the Protegé it replaces, we were pleased to see the Mazda 3's boldly sculpted face, which bears a strong resemblance to both the RX-8 and the 6. And we were also pleased to note that a dimensional increase will allow back-seat passengers in both the elegant four-door sedan and the edgy four-door hatchback to breathe easier. Surprisingly, the sedan and the hatch share not a single body panel.

If you appreciated the sporting nature of the Protegé, you'll also breathe easier. The 3's two available four-cylinder engines include the base 148-horsepower (slightly less in California emissions trim) 2.0-liter and an optional 160-horsepower 2.3-liter handed down from the Mazda 6. Both engines are from Mazda's new MZR engine family. The 2.0-liter does the job, with 18 more horses than the Protegé's 2.0-liter. But it's certainly not as convincing as the bigger engine, which has as-yet-untapped capacity, according to Jim O'Sullivan, Mazda's U.S. president. A five-speed manual gearbox (based on the 6's) can be traded out for an automatic four-speed that has a manual mode—a rarity in this class. The Mazda 6 is also the source of the 3's sophisticated rear multi-link suspension, which is set up to give the car great stability in high-speed sweepers. The front suspension consists of MacPherson struts, with fluid-filled bushings at the rear of the lower arms, mounted to a rubber-isolated subframe—another rarity in the economy class. If the suspension felt a bit harsh on the worst of the French bumps, improvements in braking, steering, and bending rigidity (now 40 percent stiffer) were both noticeable and welcome.

Driver Side Steering Wheel View

The cabin has lost some of the Protegé's wilder, Roppongi nightclub atmosphere, but it is still much hipper than the cabin of your average Japanese entry-level sedan. The 3's gauges are black, with red numbers and needles, and they are bathed in a blue night-light. The radio can be operated by an older adult, even one with bifocals. The glove box will actually hold a personal computer, and we don't mean a PalmPilot.

The big news: The Mazda 3 shares common pieces and architecture with Europe's next Ford Focus and the Volvo S40, a move that saved the blue oval fifteen percent in development costs and allowed Mazda to bring out the 3 a year early. Volvo's contribution was significant, from major safety improvements in the structural design to dual front air bags and optional side curtains, seatbelt pretensioners, and whiplash-reducing front headrests, among other features. In any case, the 3 is a Mazda, nestling snugly alongside the RX-8 and the 6 and backing up Mazda's "Zoom-Zoom" marketing message with the reality of engineering.

Those praying for a whiff of sport in the sub-$15,000 range should put the 3 on their shopping lists. A Mazdaspeed version is in the pipeline, but for now you can order either the sedan or the hatch with a Sports Appearance package (bumpers, side skirts, spoilers, foglamps) until the real go-fast goodies arrive. As the Mazda 6 has shown its formidable competition from Honda and Toyota the path to the enlightened mid-size sedan, so shall the Mazda 3 underline the ability of an entry-level four-door sedan to be not only useful and of impeccable build quality but also fun to drive.

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