Home of the Three: Mazda follows a much-loved 6 and 8 with another impressive number
By MATT DAVIS/ AutoWeek
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 Mazda-Ford-Volvo mix (in which everyone is giving and taking freely enough), 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 designer 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 corporate C1 platform. (The not-for-U.S.-sale Ford Focus C-Max MPV, also launched at Frankfurt, is technically the first overall.) 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 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.
2004 MAZDA 3
ON SALE: December
BASE PRICE: $13,000 (est.)
POWERTRAIN: 2.0-liter, 148-hp, 135-lb-ft I4; fwd, five-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT: 3050 pounds (mfr.)
0-60 MPH: 8.5 seconds (est.)