Mazda's new 3 is a compelling effort from the Japanese car maker. Neatly styled and well-built, it is just short of a hat-trick by a noisy and leisurely motor. We share more in this review.
In the past, Japanese models in the mid-range segment (eg. Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Mazda 323) would sell a lot better than its continental competitors. But in this day and age of high COEs, customers are expected to fork out a lot more for a car. And with European brands like Volkswagen offering well-specced models like the Jetta and Golf, the tables have turned.
In essence, the Mazda 3 is the latest incarnation of Mazda's famed mid-sized sedan, previously known as the 323. Branded as the Axela elsewhere, the 3 is in it's third generation and is also the third model in the Mazda lineup to built with the company's SkyActiv technology.
Take a quick look at the new Mazda 3 from the outside and you won't be blamed for mistaking it for the new Mazda 6. The styling and curves are almost identical, albeit in smaller proportions. The new car is 40mm broader and 20mm lower than the model it replaces. All this results in a really modern and good looking car, whether in hatchback or sedan form. Every detail, from the grille lines that incorporate with the headlamps, and the contoured fenders which cut a wide-body stance, has been well thought out. Kudos to the 'KODO' design team.
It gets better inside. Already impressive when the first Mazda 3 was launched here in 2004, the new model takes things to a whole new level. Well-built with a sophisticated design, the new 3's interior is only let down by the flat black colour combination. We would have preferred a mix of some lighter tones, perhaps a splash of beige or light grey to give it a fresher look. But no, all we got was black, black and more black. That said, the aluminum inserts and red stitching do help to liven things up a bit.
Across the interior cabin, good quality plastics and soft touch materials are used. Accompanied with a contemporary design, the Mazda 3 is a nice car to pilot from the inside. We mentioned earlier that the car is very well-equipped, here are some facts to prove that. Remember BMW's iDrive? The 3 has a similar Commander Control knob that operates the MZD Connect touchscreen system and 7.0-inch TFT LCD multimedia system. The system also incorporates a full audio entertainment, GPS navigation and a reverse camera. Our test car in Deluxe trim even had an Active Driving Display (Mazda speak for head-up display) and an electric sunroof.
So far, it looks like the Mazda 3 has got its competitors licked. Great design, solid equipment and a very sound build. But how does it drive?
Off the line, the 1.5-litre SkyActiv-G unit with 118 bhp and 150 Nm feels strained when pushed. Keep the accelerator down and it will build up adequate amounts of speed (as the Active Driving Display will readily tell you), but it won't be subtle about it. Engine noise is quite loud and is made more apparent by the 6-speed SkyActiv Drive gearbox - it's so seamless it almost feels like a CVT 'box. When mated to the engine, it results in a steady, monotonous engine drone. But the gearbox is indeed silky smooth, and it's rather quick to shift down too, enabling the car to cope with most of the driver's inputs. Be it overtaking or twisty road maneuvers, the 3 is happy to oblige (albeit with a bit of a din).
The 3 is a capable car in the corners too, thanks to more SkyActiv tech that Mazda engineers have invested into making the car more 'Jinba Ittai' (horse and rider as one). The tyres though, protest quite early when asked to perform round a tight corner. But the car does not waver and keeps to the given line with slight hints of understeer (especially if too much juice is given). Most owners won't drive the 3 the way we do, so the sharp steering and taut body control might go unnoticed, but not by us. The 3 is a very good drive, but we can't help but wish it had a creamier, more potent engine.
Throw in the i-Stop (start/stop) system and the i-Eloop regenerative braking system, and what you have is a mid-range sedan that is pretty much packed with everything a modern car should have. Why Mazda has chosen to fit a rather feeble engine is obvious. New COE categorization rules have caused great cars to be fitted with inappropriate engines. What we wouldn't give to try the 2.2 diesel with 380 Nm! Now that would be a hard car to beat on any level.