Five or six years ago, I parked my car outside the Earl's over on Broadway near Granville. As I fi shed my indestructible Nokia (remember when phones were just phones?) out of the glovebox, I sensed something weird.
There was a dark grey Mazda3 hatchback parked in front of me. Seems normal, but is that a dark grey Mazda3 hatchback parked behind me too? Quite the coincidence, but not that weird - wait, is that another dark grey Mazda3 hatchback parked in line? There's another one, across the street.
And then - you couldn't make this stuff up, folks - two more dark grey Mazda3 hatchbacks drove past, side-by-side. Clearthere was some sort of glitch in the Matrix that day.
But such was the popularity of the fi rst generation Mazda3, a stylish machine that drove very well and had reasonable carrying capacity. The Honda Civic still outsold it - Canadians being as fond of that car as we are of socialized medical insurance, hockey, and being polite in public yet very angry on call-in AM radio - but the Mazda3 was a close second in the sales race, and owners loved them.
There were exactly two problems with the car: the back seats were too cramped and the 2.3-litre engine in the GT model sucked down gas like a V-6. Then Mazda redesigned the car with slightly better driving dynamics, eventually improved the fuel economy and did not-too-much about those rear seats.
Sadly, they also decided to put a wildly grinning mug on their '3, and while I didn't mind the looks of it, clearly some of you did. The Mazda lost sales ground to the Corolla and Elantra.
So here's the new one, and I have to say, all is well again. Better than well. Seriously, we're about to be up to our eyeballs in these things.
Don't you hate mandatory front licence plates? Clearly most automotive designers do, as they mostly pretend they don't exist when penning a front grille.
Leaving aside the way that rectangle of white fl oats in space like a sheet of paper stuck on the grille, this is a great looking car with no funny business about it. If it looks like anything, it's an Alfa Romeo Giulietta with an air of reliability.
The shield-shaped grille draws back and over the stylized headlights, swooping into a curving style line that draws the eye along the fl ank of the car. The new Mazda3's hood is very long indeed, giving it the profi le of a larger car rather than some snub-nosed compact, and it all comes together well at the rear with a nicely integrated rear spoiler and not too many fussy details.
16-inch alloys came asstandard on my mid-level GS tester, with similarly sized steelies on the base model and 18-inch rims on the top-end GT. I have to say, if there's any complaint about the outside of this car, it's that the 16s do look a little swallowed up by all that sheetmetal.
The Mazda3 has always been slightly nicer on the inside than some others in the segment, and the new car continues the tradition with plenty of piano-black trim, a driver-focused cockpit, and very nicely stitched seats.
There's none of the futuristic fl air of a Focus here; you simply get a sense that the materials used were shaped in such a way as to disguise the fact that this is an entry level compact car for the commuter with an eye on their budget. Can we use the word "nice" here without it seeming like an epithet? We could also say that it's a bit BMW-y in here.
The steering wheel is great, perfectly set up for a nine-and-three hand position, and it tilts and telescopes on all models. Manual height adjustment for the driver's seat is also standard, though you have to move all the way up to a Luxury package on the GT to get variable lumbar support.
However, I found the '3s seats very comfortable, and having set them in my normal driving position, I was pleased to fi nd that the rear seats are now roomy enough to be class competitive.
As far as the on-board infotainment went, Mazda has seen fi t to bolt a sort of seven-inch iPad to their dashboard and pilfer the iDrive controller out of a BMW. This strategy works great - the touchscreen display is high resolution, intuitive and attractive, the controller handles functions easily, allowing you to keep your eyes on the road, and it's all standard on the midlevel GS model and up.
Two minor quibbles: I didn't love the small digital rev-counter, and the digital fuel meter proved as overly optimistic as those things always do.
Skyactiv technology, which is supposed to be printed in all caps for extra effect except my EDITOR won't let me, was only partially available on the previous generation Mazda3. Basically, you got the new engine with its injectors and lightweight rotating assembly, but you didn't quite get the full highcompression ratio available on the CX-5 and new Mazda6.
The reason that Mazda couldn't cram the fullstrength version of their powerplant under the hood of the old car is that there simply wasn't room. That new long hood is entirely functional as plenty of space is required for the Skyactiv's exhaust system.
This incredibly complicated knot of pipes snakes and twists around the catalytic converter, faintly resembling Robocop's duodenum. It's what hotrodders might recognize as a 4-2-1 header, a highfl ow design that allows exhaust gasses to get out of the way faster, reducing temperatures inside the combustion chamber.
Why is this good? It helps Mazda's engineers run this 2.0-litre fourcylinder at a Ferrari-ish 13:1 compression ratio on regular-grade gas, meaning that it's able to squeeze out 155 horsepower and 150 foot-pounds of torque, with a clean burn. It's worth noting that Ford is able to get even more power out of the same displacement (a little less torque though), but the Mazda is also making thrust with less fuel and beats the Focus by nearly a litre per 100 kilometres in the city.
Never mind all the engineering stuff. All you need know is that this car is a hoot to drive, with plenty of power for passing and a willing, revvy engine. The six-speed manual in my tester has a great feel to it, very direct, and if it's not quite as good as the MX-5, you can at least tell that the cars come from the same company. Given how good the six-speed automatic was in a similarly powered CX-5 I drove, it should be plenty fun in the Mazda3 too.
The steering doesn't quite have the same feel as the old car, but it's miles ahead of most of its competition. Paired with a nicely balanced chassis, the car has a zippy, nimble sense - but you were already expecting that.
It is worth mentioning again though: this is the segment leader for fun-todrive, and feels like it was built by a company who has continually placed a heavy emphasis on being a driver rather than a passenger. It's a sensible-looking thing, but you can still have quite good fun in it and, because it's not some huge horsepower Autobahnburner, you can do so without being too much of a miscreant.
And then there's the bit you perhaps weren't expecting. While most modern cars need to be slowly driven as if you were transporting crates of sweating dynamite in order to get anything like the stated fuel economy fi gures, the Mazda3 does not. "Light the fuse!" it cries, and away you go haring along your favourite curvy road, free from the penalty of having to pay for it at the pump. The larger-engined GT model may prove to be a little thirstier, but my 2.0-litre tester sipped like a hummingbird while it zipped like one too.
From $15,995, base model Mazda3s get a decent standard load-out including power door locks, mirrors and windows, as well as a few nice extras like Bluetooth handsfree, pushbutton start, and automaticoff headlights. You do have to pay extra ($1,600) for air-conditioning though, and I can't imagine the dealer is going to stock a car without it.
Moving up to the GS model ($19,695), where the bulk of sales will be, nets you the 16-inch alloys, backup camera, cruise control, touchscreen interface and a better audio system with six speakers.
Optional packages on my tester included the $500 convenience suite, adding heated seats, leatherwrapped control surfaces and rain-sensing wipers. It also had the $1,200 moonroof package which pairs a power moonroof (well, duh) with foglights for some reason. Who wants to look at the moon while driving in fog? Werewolves?
Anyway, at the top of the tree is the $25,855 GT with the larger 184 horsepower 2.5-litre engine, 18-inch alloys and all kinds of high-tech goodies like satellite navigation. You get an automatic transmission only here, as well as available packages for leather seating (Luxury, $1,500), and driver's aids like adaptive lighting and lane departure warning (Technology, $2,500). It is still possible to spend quite a lot of money on this car, and people do.
Fuel economy fi gures for the 2.0-litre with the six-speed automatic are set at 6.7/4.7 litres/100 kilometres city/highway. The 2.5-litre rates at 7.2/5.1 l/100 km. Both fi gures are quite close to what you actually get - drive very gently on the highway and you can sometimes even beat them.
Nippy handling; great styling; hugely improved interior with useful space as well as easy to use technology.
Pricey top model; no lumbar support; extra charges for heated seats and air-conditioning.
THE CHECKERED FLAG
Just as sensible a choice as anything else on the market while being better looking and better driving. Prepare to be surrounded by them.
TOYOTA COROLLA ($15,995)
The Corolla might just be the antithesis to the Mazda3, built to drive smoothly rather than sporty, selling on resale rather than racing pulses. Toyota also redesigned their compact for the 2014 model year, and it's improved. It's still not much fun to drive, but with a new available CVT, it does get very good fuel economy, and the rear legroom is massive. It also doesn't look dull anymore, and while it's no driver's car, it's smooth and stable on the highway.
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