Five-door fun, Mazda style.
By Sam Mitani • Photos by Jeff Allen
Younger R&T readers probably don't remember when compact hatchbacks were cool. It was a nice, simple concept: an agile runabout with a convenient and spacious place to stow your belongings, all while giving the car's shape a sporty flavor. But in the late 1980s, these cars went the way of the dodo, all but disappearing from the earth. The reason for their demise? For one, people preferred their stuff hidden completely from view (like inside a trunk). Other reasons: memories of the AMC Gremlin and Ford Pinto, which all but forced hatchback-enthusiasts to go into hiding.
Despite their sad past, compact hatchbacks have recently stepped out of their proverbial grave, looking now to reclaim a share of the youth market. Joining the Volkswagen Golf, which has always been a player here, are trendy examples from Toyota, Honda and even Chevy and Ford. And the coolest of them all may be the latest one to join the fray, the all-new Mazda3. (The 3 is available as a notchback as well, but for our test, we opted for the 5-door 3s.)
With an overall length, width and height of 176.6 in., 69.1 and 57.7, the 3s is not a large car; it's a bit smaller than its predecessor, the Protegé5, a bit larger than a Honda Civic Si and about the same size as the Toyota Matrix. But once you step inside, you forget about its pint-sized dimensions. The interior has ample space to seat four adults comfortably, with plenty of head room for all passengers. Rear-seat passengers have good knee room, unless someone like basketballer Yao Ming sits in front you, and the rear compartment has enough space to stow a couple of large suitcases. And the best part of all this is that the 3s looks good inside and out.
Hatchbacks are stylish once again, thanks in part to the new Mazda's attractive design.
The face is aggressive yet elegant, highlighted by Mazda's signature pentagonal grille and large canted headlights, while its profile, though a bit boxy, looks stylish and active, thanks to an aggressive rear-end design. All 3s models come with the Sports Appearance Package. This includes a body-colored grille, side skirts, a subtle spoiler on the roof and flashy 17-in. wheels.
"The rear three-quarter view represents the uniqueness of this vehicle. It expresses stability and dynamism with the aggressive shape of the fender and the rear-end form. This form is only possible with Mazda's press technology," Hideki Suzuki, the chief designer of the 3, said.
Known as the Axela in other parts of the world, the 3s is equipped with a smooth-revving 2.3-liter dohc inline-4 that sends 160 bhp at 6500 rpm and 150 lb.-ft. of torque at 4500 to the front wheels (the 3i comes with a 2.0-liter inline-4). Equipped with variable valve timing, this powerplant's strong point is its midrange. It pulls heartily from 2500 all the way to its 6500-rpm redline, where most of your passing will be done. A solid-feeling manual gearbox brings out the most from this 4-banger, and while there's also a smooth-shifting 4-speed automatic with manual mode available, the 5-speed is the clear choice for enthusiasts. The well-defined gates and short-throw shifter make changing gears pleasurable, with the clutch, brake and throttle pedals spaced ideally for heel-and-toeing. That said, the car's acceleration could definitely benefit from more zip; it managed only an 8.0-second run to 60 mph and a quarter-mile time of 16.3. But its handling character makes up for the shortage of power.
At the track, we found moderate understeer; no surprise here because of the lackluster grip provided by the Goodyear Eagle M+S P205/50R-17s. However, on public roads, the handling balance was impressive. Granted, the 3s does feel a bit nose-heavy through sharp turns, but when driving at seven- to eight-tenths, the little Mazda is agile and reactive. Its suspension — MacPherson struts up front with four-point rubber mounting, and a multilink unit at rear, similar to the one used in the Mazda6 — does a commendable job of keeping the car stable despite some body roll through sharp turns. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering feels precise and quick. In fact, I think it's the best steering system in the segment. The 3s's 65.2-mph slalom time compares favorably with the Porsche 911 Targa's, for example, but its skidpad result of 0.84g was nothing to write home about. Then again, handling is all about "feel," and the 3s does feel good while cornering.
The car also feels good going straight. The rigidity of the chassis is apparent when going over bumps, and the cabin stays amazingly quiet, even at highway speeds. In fact, the noise/vibration/harshness level (NVH) is so low that you wonder if this car is really an entry-level compact and not a mid-priced sedan. Once you hear the sweet sound of the engine and feel the communicative nature of the chassis, you realize the new 3 is indeed a driver's car, that it's a Mazda.
The Mazda3i starts at $13,680, making it one of the best values in the marketplace. The 5-door 3s begins at $16,895. Mazda expects about 40 percent of the sales mix to be the hatchbacks, meaning that it'll soon be cool to be seen driving around in 3- and 5-door cars, and people like me can finally come out of hiding.