By Bill McKinnon
The Sydney Morning Herald
Mazda's 3 matches or surpasses it rivals in performance, handling and comfort -- but is off the pace in refinement.
Good: Fresh, elegant design, inside and out. Outstanding fit and finish. Ample power and adequate torque of 2.0 four. Agile, enjoyable dynamics. Crash protection. Comfortable seats. Rear space. Driving position and dash layout.
Bad: Excessive noise, vibration and harshness. Basic equipment list on Neo. Abrupt clutch take-up, and super-responsive accelerator in lower gears, can inhibit smooth progress in city traffic. Some steering shake and torque steer. Front suspension thump.
Verdict: A buzz to drive -- in more ways than one.
Stars: 3 (out of 5).
Mazda's new 3 has entered the sales charts with a bullet, moving straight into third place in the jam-packed (23 model) small-car field in February.
Its result is particularly impressive given that, for the time being at least, there is no $19,990 baseline price on the 3.
Toyota's Corolla and the Holden Astra -- which occupy positions one and two respectively -- and many other players in the class move the majority of their stock at this price.
The new 3 replaces the 323, a badge that lasted nearly 20 years.
It's yet another piece in a reconstructed Mazda line-up -- which includes the 2, 6 and RX-8 -- that has restored the company's reputation as a stylish, innovative manufacturer and, in Australia, boosted sales to record levels.
The 3 is new from the wheels up. All variants are available in sedan or five-door hatch body styles.
The range opens with the Neo, priced at $21,490, followed by the Maxx, at $25,490. The Maxx Sport is $26,175.
A 104kW 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine/five-speed manual transmission drivetrain is fitted; a four-speed sequential auto adds $2080.
The hero model is the $29,990 SP23, which gets a higher herb count from a 115kW 2.3.
Mazda is rightly making much of the fact that the 3 is the first small car in the low- to mid-$20,000 price range with six airbags: front, side and curtain.
These are standard, together with anti-lock brakes, on all models except the base Neo (which has dual-stage front airbags), where the package costs an extra $1600.
The Neo's basic equipment list -- which is less generous than some $19,990 cars -- includes air-conditioning, CD player, remote central locking and front seatbelts with pre-tensioners and load limiters.
The Maxx adds 15-inch alloy wheels, power windows and mirrors and a six-CD stacker; the Maxx Sport has 16-inch alloys and a body kit.
The SP23 gets the boy-racer treatment, including 17-inch alloys, body kit, bigger brakes, automatic air-con and lairy interior trim with leather-wrapped steering wheel/gear lever knob.
A larger car than its predecessor, the 3 is a great design job. Inside and out, it looks fresh, contemporary and upmarket. It stands out in a class where some designs, especially sedans, are starting to look pretty dull and tired.
The 2.0's 104kW (at 6500rpm) and 181Nm (at 4500rpm) are slightly above class average numbers.
It delivers 80 percent of its torque from less than 2000rpm, and is geared for tractability, with fifth in the manual turning the engine over at nearly 3000rpm at the legal highway limit.
Around town and on the open road it is reasonably flexible and responsive. It drives the manual Neo sedan from rest to 100kmh in a quickish 9.6 seconds.
Refinement -- or, rather, the lack of it -- is a problem. Across the rev range, the 2.0 is less smooth than it should be.
The transition from mid-range to top end is like flicking a light switch. It is accompanied by excessive vibration and a racket to make you wince from 5000rpm to the 6500rpm redline.
Slightly heavier in action than most, the five-speed gearbox is quite precise. The clutch can be abrupt, a characteristic emphasised in the lower gears by a very responsive accelerator pedal.
Fuel consumption is average. The 2.0 runs fine on regular unleaded; its peak power and torque figures, however, are achieved with premium.
The 3's body is as tight as they come, and rides on a longer wheelbase than the 323.
In typical Mazda fashion, the suspension -- MacPherson struts front/new multilink rear -- is tuned for taut, sporty handling. The 3 is light and agile, with well-weighted, accurate electro-hydraulic power steering. Some rack shake is evident on choppy bends, and there's a bit of torque steer under hard acceleration.
Ride comfort is an improvement on that of the 323. It is still firm, but the suspension delivers good compliance and control. The base model's 195/65 Yokohamas aren't the stickiest tyres in the world, but grip is adequate and their tall sidewalls also assist in absorbing bumps.
Again, though, the 3 is off the pace in refinement. Especially on coarse-chip bitumen, the tyres generate a lot of noise, which pervades the cabin at highway speeds. The front suspension can also thump and thud on rough surfaces.
The brakes are powerful and progressive. Electronic force distribution and emergency full power assistance complement the anti-lock brakes.
In a frontal impact, the brake pedal retracts to minimise lower leg injury.
Even at base model Neo level, the 3's interior feels more expensive than its price suggests. This impression is confirmed by outstanding fit and finish quality.
The dash layout is clean and functional, with a few sporty Alfa-like touches such as recessed, individual instrument dials and circular air vents.
Three simple air-conditioning knobs and an equally user-friendly audio head unit are easily reached from the driver's seat.
There is also plenty of oddment storage, including a split-level covered bin between the front seats.
It is a snap for anyone to get comfortable behind the wheel, thanks to the height and reach adjustment, the driver's seat's reasonable travel and a ratchet-type height adjuster. Vision is clear around the car.
The driver's seat itself is comfortable and supportive, with substantial backrest bolstering. Like many Japanese seats, it is quite narrow.
Rear leg room is greater than in most rivals, and the seat is very comfortable by class standards, with a long cushion and plenty of space for your feet.
The sedan's large boot can be extended with the 60-40 split rear seat back; a space-saver spare is underneath.
The Mazda 3 gets a tick in most of the important boxes -- performance, handling, space, comfort, safety and quality, where it meets or exceeds current small car standards.
However its noise, vibration and harshness levels -- NVH in trade speak -- are too high, and sufficiently intrusive to become annoying on a day-to-day basis.
Only this problem prevents the 3 from being the pick of the field in the under-$25,000 small car segment.
Engine: 2.0-litre 16-valve fuel-injected four-cylinder.
Power: 104kW at 6500rpm (above average).
Performance: 0-100kmh in 9.6 seconds (quick).
Brakes: Discs (with ABS, EBD and emergency assist on Maxx and SP23; good).
Economy: 7.3 litres/100km highway; 10.2 city (average).
Prices: Recommended retail -- Neo $21,490; Maxx $25,490. Street price -- In demand, short supply. No deals yet.
Main options: Four-speed auto $2080; side/curtain airbags/ABS (Neo) $1600; power windows/mirrors (Neo) $700; cruise control $572.
Warranty: Three years/unlimited kilometres (above average).
Residual value: 58/61 percent after three years (323 Protege sedan/Astina hatch; average).
Safety rating: Not yet tested.
Alternatives (manual sedans):
Daewoo Lacetti 1.8 -- $19,490
Ford Focus CL 1.8 -- $20,660
Holden Astra City 1.8 -- $20,990
Honda Civic GLi 1.7 -- $22,950
Hyundai Elantra 2.0 -- $18,990
Mitsubishi Lancer ES 2.0 -- $19,990
Nissan Pulsar ST 1.8 -- $19,990
Subaru Impreza GX 2.0 -- $23,990
Toyota Corolla Ascent 1.8 -- $19,990