Looking Good on a Budget By Ed Hellwig Date Posted 09-30-2003 Give it one quick glance and you probably wouldn't guess that the Mazda 3 is the newest player in the highly competitive economy car segment. With its distinctive snout, smooth flanks and shapely rear end, it looks more like a downsized European-bred machine than a Japanese car that starts well under $20,000. Look inside and the perception doesn't change much. A sleek yet functional design blends with high-quality materials and ample passenger room to give this new Mazda an upscale look and feel that few cars in the class can match. Drive it a few miles, or for several hours as we did, and the feeling that the 3 is not just another import econobox grows even stronger. Could it be the new standard for economy cars in the U.S.? With competition like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla to contend with, we wouldn't go that far just yet, but our initial impressions indicate that anyone looking for an affordable, fun-to-drive sedan or hatchback would find more to like in the Mazda 3 than either one of those other perennial front-runners. A direct replacement for the Protegé and Protegé5, the Mazda 3 comes in both sedan and four-door hatchback body styles. The sedan is offered in two trim levels — base "i" and upgraded "s" — while the four-door hatchback comes in "s" trim only. A Sport Appearance package that adds additional bodywork and larger wheels for an even sharper-edged look is available on all models. Mazda backs up the 3's sporty image with a pair of engines that places it at the top of the class when it comes to horsepower. The base sedan uses a 2.0-liter four-cylinder rated to produce 148 horsepower (144 in Calif.), while the upgraded "s" models use a 2.3-liter four-cylinder that bumps the horsepower number to 160. Both engines can be equipped with either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission. As you might expect, the engines feel similar in their strength and power delivery. When you consider that the base 2.0-liter has more horsepower than many of its competitors' top-level engines, it's not surprising that it feels more than adequate around town and on the highway. Refined and quiet throughout its full rpm range, the 2.0-liter requires only careful attention to gear choice to maintain peak power. Drop a gear and higher-speed passing is rarely a problem, and even if you're lazy and leave it in too high a gear, it still manages to pull its way out with little fuss. The more powerful 2.3-liter engine scratches to the redline more eagerly while retaining a smooth and quiet delivery that doesn't discourage winding out each gear. There's more pop than the base engine, but only those with a dedicated yearning for performance are likely to find it necessary to have the larger engine. The five-speed transmission is the same unit used in the midsize Mazda 6 although a few modifications give it a more substantial, refined feel. The four-speed automatic features manual-shift capability and electronic slope control for less juggling of the gears when negotiating hills. With the Protegé's well-established track record for superior ride and handling, the 3 has big shoes to fill, but with the help of a few hand-me-down parts from Mazda's midsize sedan, it's well up to the task. Liquid-filled suspension bushings, an electrohydraulic steering system and an all-new multilink rear suspension design are just a few of the 3's upgrades that deliver refined road manners that will surprise those expecting the typically flabby ride and handling of most economy cars. Tightly controlled but rarely harsh, the 3's suspension leans toward the sporty end of the spectrum without beating up your insides along the way. Feedback through the wheel is still better than average, and the brakes are firm and powerful. The only downside is that road noise is up, too, so there's still some room for improvement. Much the same could be said about the 3's interior, as it's better in nearly every way yet still not without its flaws. Unlike most cars in this class that offer nothing more than purely functional setups, the 3's cabin has a more cohesive layout that manages to inject a little style into the equation. From the individually recessed gauges to the symmetry of the center stack controls, the attention to detail is evident. Satellite steering wheel controls are a nice touch for a car in this price range, but we could do without the cheesy LEDs that light up in correspondence with volume or station changes. And as good as they look, the controls don't have the high-quality feel that you get with the Honda Civic. Larger in most exterior dimensions than the outgoing Protegé, the 3 offers only negligible differences in interior space. There's still enough room for taller drivers to get comfortable up front, and the rear seats are acceptably spacious for a car in this class. A tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel is always a nice feature to find, but we can't say the same about the rotary seat recline mechanism. Trunk space is up on sedan models, but the hatchback is still short on cargo space until you fold the rear seats. Interior nitpicks aside, the Mazda 3 addresses many of the shortcomings that kept the previous model stuck behind the competition. There's no longer a lack of power or refinement in the engine department, as both of the available four-cylinders provide ample thrust and low noise levels. The suspension setup is better than ever, and the interior still has a unique, upscale look that no other economy sedan can touch. Combine all these improvements with the stylish exterior and the new Mazda 3 looks as though it could finally shrug off its second-tier billing and start giving the Civic a run for its money. ----- Protegé replacement rises from an amalgam of ‘world parts' BY RAY HUTTON October 2003 We have all been so mesmerized by the changes of fortune at Nissan that the revival of Mazda has gone largely unnoticed. In 2001 Mazda revealed its Millennium Plan, an all-new model lineup that would give life to what—the Miata aside—had become a dull and boring range. Against all odds, the RX-8 continues Mazda's rotary adventure. The mid-size, V-6-powered Mazda 6 s made it onto our 10Best list for 2003. Now comes the Mazda 3, which replaces the 323 in Europe and Japan and the Protegé in the U.S. Here at Car and Driver, we like the Protegé, which won an economy-car comparo as recently as November 2002. And last May, we said the turbocharged 170-hp Mazdaspeed Protegé “rewards real drivers,” although it lost in its contest to the Dodge SRT-4 and Ford SVT Focus. That's interesting because the Mazda 3 is, in all essentials, a Focus—not the current model, but the all new small Ford that appears in Europe as the C-Max minivan and worldwide as a five-door hatchback in 2004. Mazda's new 3 is part of the Ford C1 family, along with the new Focus and the replacement for the Volvo S40/V40. Ford doesn't talk about platforms anymore; this is “global shared technology,” where each brand is able to pick and choose from a basket of Ford components and systems. But look at an unclothed Mazda 3 and examine its specs, and it's clear it shares the elements that make the current Focus such a good, fun-to-drive all-around car. The Mazda 3 will be offered as a four-door sedan and five-door hatch, but it is the latter that will first come to the U.S. Engine choices will be a 150-hp 2.0-liter and the 2.3-liter four-cylinder from the Mazda 6, upgraded to 170 horsepower. We had an early preview of the Mazda 3—a five-door with the 2.0-liter and five-speed manual—on a sinuous proving ground near Paris and found the car had most of the sharp precision of a Focus without feeling quite as stiff over the bumps. Although Ford's rivals are moving toward steering with electric power assistance, the C1 cars have conventional hydraulic assist fed by an electric pump. Ford engineers think this gives more natural steering feel. We agree. The five-door makes a case for itself as one of the new genre of sport wagons. Although it doesn't look it, the Mazda 3 is actually 1.3 inches taller than the current Focus and is spacious for its size as well as easily adaptable with folding rear seats. One downside to the car's shape is that the reverse-angle rearmost side windows leave a big pillar area that inhibits rear-quarter visibility. Otherwise, the styling, with its distinct shoulders and raised hoodline makes a connection with the handsome Mazda 6. The interior has managed to depart from the plain-vanilla norm of the cheaper Japanese cars. Areas that you feel and touch have soft materials and finishes. Bright-rimmed instruments have interesting lighting. Surprisingly, the aluminized plastic that forms the center panel of the Mazda 6 is not used here. A more sober piano-black finish enhances the quality appearance, but the rotary climate controls feel flimsy. The four-door sedan shares few of the five-door's skin parts, and its coupelike lines are a marked contrast to the more angular hatchback. The Mazda 3 and its Volvo equivalent made their debuts last month at the Frankfurt auto show, around which time the first version of the new Focus, the C-Max, went on sale in Europe. The C-Max—a compact minivan trying to be a sporty hatchback—is the best-driving vehicle of this type but isn't the most practical of minivans. Some mini-minivans have seven seats and arrangements for stowing two seats under the floor when not in use, but the C-Max has only five seats. Richard Parry-Jones, Ford's head of global product development and the architect of the sharing system that is designed to give economies of scale while maintaining product differentiation and brand integrity, sees no problem with a sporty minivan: “These vehicles may be bought for sensible, practical reasons, but why shouldn't they also be good to drive?” It's a fair point. ----- Home of the Three: Mazda follows a much-loved 6 and 8 with another impressive number By MATT DAVIS (08:30 Oct. 06, 2003) We don't go around jinxing good things, but most or all of Mazda’s sales goals it set at the launch of the Mazda 6 last year are being met or exceeded. This is good, because for years the “eccentric underdog” came up a tad short on product and performance. No more. Mazda’s share of the North American car market has jumped from 1.4 percent in 2002 to 1.8 percent today thanks to the “6 effect.” Would it be crazy to say that once: a) all Mazda 6 variations are on the American market; b) RX-8 horsepower and oil-burning furors calm, and; c) both the five-door and four-door 3 go on sale in the first week of December, market share could reach the 2.5 percent mark? Thanks to the the mixing of Ford's global brands, we’re getting more and better Mazdas, Fords and Volvos—with less waiting—around the world. Our first drive of the 3 reveals a car some Americans will choose over a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla—Mazda’s two practical target models. We say practical because in the emotive/styling sense—the impractical, if you will—the Mazda 3 has been influenced by some hot Latino blood straight out of Latium and Gaul. Hideki Suzuki, Mazda’s chief stylist in charge of the 3, admits, “We used the Civic and Corolla as examples of important global cars, but we used the Alfa Romeo 147 and Peugeot 307 as examples of beautiful execution within the C segment.” This shows particularly in the five-door when in profile. Mazda 3 is the first truly global, for-sale car to use the Ford's C1 platform. We also saw the final version of the C1-based latest Volvo S40 at Frankfurt. Meantime, the all-important second-generation Ford Focus will make its massive entrance on the C1 at the 2004 Geneva show. The basic underpinnings between all these cars is the same making it possible for Ford to build any one or all of them in any factory around the world. All powertrains and body panels are unique to each model, with the Mazda 3 being the sportiest stock setup of the lot. Engines for North America include a 148-hp version of the 2.0-liter and the 160-hp 2.3-liter four used in the Mazda 6 (the 2.0-liter in non-N.A. markets). We drove a four-door with the 2.3-liter and a five-door with the 2.0, both with the five-speed manual. By the end of 200 or so miles, we knew we’d take a five-door 2.3-liter S (i.e. Sport Appearance Package) with five-speed and 17-inch tires. The four-door, though it goes well, is a less exciting design than the very cool five-door; the S package and upgraded wheels make this practical hatch a segment leader in the looks department. With an H-point nearly two inches higher than on the Protegé it replaces, sightlines are extremely good. The interior is bigger in every dimension for both passengers and cargo. The only gaffe we noted inside is foot room for the rear passengers that is cut off at the heels by a required crossmember. On the other hand, this makes body rigidity 40 percent greater than on the Protegé. Steering and handling are a notch above any other standard model in this category. The 3 is a driver’s car, and will be scooped up by the aftermarket and general driving enthusiasts. Mazda engineers grin when they say this chassis can take “a lot more horsepower.” The multilink rear suspension configuration is adopted from the Mazda 6 as well—which in turn borrowed it from the Focus—and its firm damper settings and wide stance make for a relatively wallow-free drive. We would have liked greater available front suspension travel, as we bottomed out a few times in both cars in situations where we were not expecting anything of the sort. For Mazda, this is the most important car in every market in its product offensive. Globally, the compact segment is the single largest segment, with 2.4 million cars sold per year in North America alone. Mazda plans call for a three-door, wagon and convertible 3, and MazdaSpeed, MPS and all-wheel-drive versions available by the end of calendar year 2005. All of our 3s will be shipped from the company’s Hofu, Japan, factory not far from Hiroshima. The North American sales goal is 70,000 Mazda 3s annually. One-third of these will be five-doors, the other two-thirds will get a trunk; 30 percent will be fitted with the standard five-speed manual, 70 percent the optional four-speed automatic—both from the Mazda 6 bin. Prices have not been announced, but should be in line with Honda Civic. Think $13,000 to $21,000.