MARK PHELAN: '04 Mazda3 rises 2 No. 1
It gets four stars among small sporty 5-doors
Photo's by Mazda
BY MARK PHELAN
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
Thanks to its beautiful shape, lovely interior, good handling and excellent value, the new 2004 Mazda3 five-door scoots to the head of the class among affordable sporty little hatchbacks.
The Mazda3 five-door (it's really a four-door hatchback, so let's just call it that from now on) is the latest move in Mazda's successful return to its roots of offering attractive and affordable sporty cars. The Euro-style Mazda6 midsize sedan was the first vehicle in Mazda's return to grace after years of offering undistinguished cars that tried to beat Honda and Toyota at building conservative cars that would not offend anyone.
Honda and Toyota own that game, though. Mazda sold 258,865 cars and trucks in the United States in 2003. Toyota sold more vehicles than that in the first two months of 2004, and Honda had topped Mazda's 2003 total by the end of March this year.
Against odds like that, Mazda has to play the long shots, building extraordinary cars that a few people will love rather than bland breadboxes.
The Mazda3 hatchback is anything but bland, with bulging fenders and swoopy body lines that can hold their own alongside any of the fashionable compacts that grace Europe's roads.
When Mazda is at its best, it's always been the most nearly European of the Japanese automakers, both with the exterior styling of its cars and its devotion to sporty handling.
The Mazda3 embodies all those virtues and matches its haute couture styling with an interior as modern and carefully designed as fine architecture. The electroluminescent gauges have an exceptionally attractive orange and violet light scheme, and the black plastic material along the doors and dash looks and feels good.
The seats are covered in well-fitted and attractive black fabric dotted with points of blue that complement the color of the gauges.
Front seat room was excellent. The rear seats would be cramped for adults on a long ride, but are acceptable for short trips. The hatch opened up to 17.1 cubic feet of storage space, more room than the Honda Civic Si, but less than the Volkswagen Golf GTi or Ford Focus ZX5. Passenger room is slightly more than the ZX5 and Si, but less than the GTi.
The Mazda's light weight and hatchback layout do combine to produce a higher level of interior road and wind noise than the GTi and Civic Si, but not enough to trouble me.
The four-door hatchback Mazda3 I tested had a $17,785 sticker price, and was extremely well equipped, its only option an $890 six-disc in-dash CD changer. Prices for the base Mazda3 sedan start at $13,680. All prices exclude destination charges.
The four-door hatchback features a 2.3-liter DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder engine that produces 160 horsepower at 6,500 r.p.m. That's less power than competitive models like the Acura RS-X and GTi, but it matches the output of the Civic Si and provides 24 more horsepower than the Focus ZX5 four-door hatchback. The Mazda3 hatchback is the least expensive of any of those cars.
Ford controls Mazda, and the Focus' engine comes from the same family as the Mazda3's, but the ZX5 offers a smaller version of the corporate four-cylinder powerplant despite costing $10 more than the Mazda.
The engine revs freely and smoothly, hitting 5,000 before you know it and without any objectionable noise or vibration.
The four-cylinder is a little weak on low-end torque, however, which means you have to run the engine up to high revs to accelerate quickly from a stop. It produces its maximum torque of 150 pound-feet at 4,500 r.p.m.
That requires working your way quickly through the five-speed manual transmission, which is a nice and precise gearbox that's slightly flawed by a somewhat rubbery feel as it engages each new gear. The clutch requires little effort and engages smoothly.
The car runs eagerly and smoothly at highway speeds, cornering with ease and responding precisely to steering inputs.
That pleasure of driving the Mazda3 hatchback combines with the car's striking looks and attractive price to make it my pick for the best value among small sporty four-door cars.
BEHIND THE WHEEL
2004 Mazda3 five-door
Compact front-wheel-drive five-door five-seat hatchback
FOUR STARS out of four
Reasons to buy: Looks, handling, value.
Shortcomings: Low-end torque, shifter feel, interior noise.
Vehicle type: Compact front-wheel-drive five-door five-seat hatchback
Base price: $16,895 (excluding destination charges)
As tested: $17,785
Standard equipment: Electronic power rack-and-pinion steering; front and rear stabilizer bars; adjustable driver's seat height and lumbar support; leather-wrapped steering wheel; power windows, locks and side mirrors; remote keyless illuminated entry; electroluminescent gauges; cargo management system; 60-40 split rear seat; AM-FM-CD six-speaker stereo; tilt-telescope steering wheel with audio and cruise control; center armrest with storage compartment; 17-inch tires and alloy wheels; halogen headlights and fog lights; side turn-signal repeater lights; intermittent front wipers; rear wiper and defroster.
Options: In-dash six-CD changer.
Specifications as tested
Engine: 2.3-liter 16-valve DOHC four-cylinder
Power: 160 horsepower at 6,500 r.p.m., 150 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 r.p.m.
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Fuel economy: 25 m.p.g. city/32 m.p.g. highway
Wheelbase: 103.9 inches
Length: 176.6 inches
Width: 69.1 inches
Height: 57.7 inches (with roof rails)
Curb weight: 2,826 pounds
Where assembled: Hiroshima, Japan
Comparative base prices
(Manual-transmission models, not including shipping charges)
Acura RSX ... $20,025
2005 Ford Focus
ZX5 SES ... $16,905
Honda Civic Si ... $19,070
Volkswagen GTi 1.8T ... $19,250