In Europe, the Mazda 3 has never really enjoyed a huge amount of success. Rated as worthy but not class leading, it has not won the praise that has been lavished on the Focus, Golf, Astra, or even the Megane, 308 and C4 if you were to ask the French. In the US, though, it is all very different, and they have consistently rated all variants of the 3 as the very best of the compact cars, rating it well ahead not just of domestic products such as the Caliber and Chevy Cobalt, but it has also taken the scalps of the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic and even the VW Rabbit (Golf). I’ve experienced some of its competitors in the US market, so was rather looking forward to testing what by all accounts is still a class leader, even though a new model is waiting in the wings.
Although the 5 door hatchback is sold in the US, it is the 4 door saloon that claims the lion’s share of the sales, and indeed my test car was the booted one, painted in a vibrant shade of bright red. It was an entry level car, fitted with the 4 cylinder 2.0 litre engine, which develops an impressive 148 bhp, and a 4 speed automatic transmission. In i Touring specification, there are few luxuries, but then with a base price of around $17,000, that’s hardly a surprise. The Mazda is based on the much praised Focus chassis, and combined with Mazda levels of build quality, you could argue that you are buying pedigree rather than frippery here, and to a large extent, that is true.
On the road, and the 2 litre engine is a lively performer, endowing the Mazda with a decent turn of speed and surprising levels of acceleration away from the lights and the traffic jams of the Southern Californian freeways. The transmission is smooth, but I did long for a fifth gear, which would certainly help to address one of the more obvious weaknesses, which is that the 3 gets a bit noisy at speed. The Mazda handles well, too. Not perhaps a surprise, given the excellence of the platform on which it is based. The steering is good, too, with just the right level of weighting and plenty of feel, and such a marked contrast to the Saab that I had driven earlier in the day before I collected this car. It really was a fun car to point at my favourite test road in the area, the Angeles Crest Highway, and this experience gave me a clue why its more potent brother, the MazdaSpeed MPS was so well received in the US.
Inside the 3, there is strong family resemblance with the larger 6 model. The dash comprises a single binnacle containing three heavily cowled dials, which are clear to read. The most unusual features are the strips of red-orange plastic that surround the stereo and air con controls. Otherwise this is a conventional, and restrained interior architecture, finished in moderate quality plastics. Better than the hard stuff that used to feature a few years ago, perhaps, but some way short of the perceived quality that can be found in cars like the Golf. The rest of the interior quality hits the spot, though. Fit and finish is good, and the seat coverings belied the 30,000 miles of rental car abuse that they had doubtless suffered. It’s a practical interior, with plenty of oddments space: a large glove box is complemented by a deep cubby between the seats, door bins, and the oh-so-essential cup holder slot which nestles alongside the centrally mounted pull-up handbrake. The cloth covered seats proved very comfortable, and it was easy to get a good driving position, from which controlling the car, including seeing out of it and being able to judge the extremities proved far easier than is (sadly) often the case these days.
The test car was one above the entry level, branded iTouring Value. For an extra $2000, you get 17″ alloys rather than 15″ steelies, front fog lights, lumbar adjuster for the driver’s seat, remote central locking, power operated mirrors, cruise control, air con (but not climate control, but the air con seemed well able to cope with the rather cold and soggy temperatures that predominated for much of the test period), 1 touch power windows and an upgraded 6 speaker stereo system. Not the stuff of real luxury, but sufficient to transform the car from rather basic to perfectly habitable. Automatic transmission is not standard, but as this was a rental car, of course it was fitted (sadly).
I was somewhat surprised to find that the 3 Sedan measures 174″, which makes it only 2″ shorter than the Montego that I used to own many years ago. There’s certainly far less space in the Mazda, but it is actually competitive with other cars in its class. There is ample room in the rear seats for 2 adults to sit, though they will not luxuriate in acres of free legroom, for sure. The regular shaped boot is not massive, either, but it is a sensible shape, and it can be extended by folding the asymmetrically split folding rear seats, should the need arise.
There’s not much wrong with the Mazda 3. Mazda must have thought so, too, as the new model that was launched at the Los Angeles Show in November 2008 is visually and mechanically little different from this one. Make it a little quieter, add a fifth gear to the transmission, and improve the quality of the interior plastics, and this really would make for an excellent small family car. I look forward to the opportunity to find out.