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Car reviews - Mazda - Mazda3 - Neo 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Balanced chassis, cabin comfort and design, value, safety, mechanical refinement, performance, economy, versatility
Room for improvement
Piecemeal styling, some (though much reduced) road noise, cruise control optional, lack of standard safety kit

6 May 2009

ALLEGEDLY, there is a saying among some Toyota people in Japan that sales would double if its cars looked more like Mazda’s.

Whether that says more about Toyota styling than Mazda design is debatable, but there is no doubt that Mazda’s incredible sales surge over the past half-decade is almost completely attributable to the looks of the first-generation Mazda3.

Indeed, as we approach the second decade of the 21st century, it is pretty clear that – in Australia at least – this model has been the success story of the 2000s in the same way that the 1990s belonged to the Hyundai Excel and the 1980s was the Ford Laser’s.

Now, 165,000 BK-series Mazda3s later, we have the BL-series, wearing an all-new body that is significantly stronger and stiffer than before, as well as a redesigned interior, while the mechanical bits have been mildly though meaningfully massaged.

Mazda reckons that the base Neo will be the biggest seller overall, so here it is, in five-door hatch guise, sporting a six-speed manual gearbox and the $500 front-side and two-row curtain airbag pack option, to bump the price up to $22,490.

A quick look at the spec sheet supports our feeling that this car simply does not feel like an entry-level model.

Dual front airbags are standard, along with four-wheel disc brakes, electronic stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and emergency brake assist, active front head restraints, intrusion-mitigating brake and clutch pedals, five lap/sash seatbelts and five headrests.

Neo buyers will also find air-conditioning, power windows all round, remote central locking, electric mirrors, a CD/radio player with MP3/WMA and AUX connectivity, two power outlets, a centre console, a comprehensive trip computer, split/fold rear seats, tilt/telescopic power steering and variable intermittent wipers.

Cruise control and those front-side/curtain airbags combo are the only important omissions at the Neo’s $21,990 price point, but at least both are available (at extra cost of course).

Do you like the smiley face (very Peugeot-esque, but more smartly executed we think), aggressive front wheel arches (we feel these are Mazda’s version of bellbottom trousers), tail-lights that protrude like a blister that’s ready to burst, or slightly wedgier profile than before?

Yes, they’re new features, but they appear to be slapped on the old car’s basic shape like different bits on Mr Potato Head. We reckon Mazda’s design timidity will lead to this looking dated faster than yesterday’s stock market results once the new-generation crop of small cars emerge towards the end of next year.

The changes wrought inside bring a somewhat more successful dashboard design evolution compared to the elegantly symmetrical item in the previous model, with its more tactile surfaces and Honda Civic-esque multi-layered theme.

Noteworthy additions include the rubberised plastic fascia capping, and the slick black console finish that is contrasted by metallic-look trim for selected switches and ring surrounds in the upper half of the dash, as well as the whole lower half of the centre console.

The effect is grown-up for a small car, aided by the twin binnacle design for the speedo and tacho (previously there were three, with the latter housing a large fuel gauge and the now-AWOL engine temperature dial), and standard info screen up near the base of the windscreen.

It is shame then that Mazda did not extend the white trip computer font for the audio channel display, which is in the same brash and dated pixelated red as the newly computerised fuel readout and odometer grouping nestling between the analogue dials. Throw in the electric blue LED-like audio volume indicator and you could be looking at a Las Vegas skyline, although mercifully it does fall short of being garish.

Barring the disappointingly thick A-pillars that create blind spots through some corners, and reduced side glass area, everything inside the Mazda3 is better from a functionality point of view.

For starters, the front seats are delightfully accommodating even though they lack lumbar adjustment, with ample lower-back support and a cushion that cups you into place.

The driver now no longer has to reach across to the left as much to change gears, since the lever is closer by a few crucial extra millimetres. This is real progress.

A rubberised handle for the steering column adjuster is a nice touch, and the thin-rimmed wheel itself is pleasant to behold. The glovebox continues to astound with its considerable depth, the centre console bin is still large enough to store real stuff, an outside temperature gauge is a plus point and both sunvisors sport a covered vanity mirror.

On the subject of mirrors, the exterior ones are large and useful in helping to judge reverse parking situations, and benefit from a smartly designed control button.

We also like the trip computer switches on the right side of the steering-wheel spoke. With a bit of practice they are easy to use. They make sense.

As with the latest Mazda6, there is a lot of repressively black plastic trim inside the Neo. Closer scrutiny reveals it to be of many varying and at-times interesting textures (the door inserts are made of the sort of soft cloth that one might wish replaced the coarse-though-attractive seat trim, for instance), and it all fits together beautifully.

Moving to the back, the door apertures are not quite large enough, and the doors don’t swing open as much as you might hope, so getting in and out of there is a chore for long-legged people.

However, kids are likely to give the fully retracting rear windows a big thumbs-up, and many will appreciate the standard fitment of overhead grab handles.

But the 600ml bottle holder in each door is the lone storage facility on offer, if you discount the loose-fitting and shallow-ish left front seat map pocket. Not even the centre armrest has one – just a twin cupholder recess shaped in a figure-eight.

The rear seats are nicely reclined and comfortable, except for the middle pew.

Mazda now fits an electric hatch release button below the central badge, and it opens to reveal a low loading lip and a fairly deep boot floor (thanks to the space-saver spare wheel living underneath).

Obviously, the seats split-fold to increase cargo room, but the rear seat cushion does not tilt forward, so the area is not level with the rear. A little disappointing.

On the other hand, the parcel shelf is a nice large one that does its job of covering the back from prying eyes, the rear backrests house child-seat latches, there are a couple of boot-floor load hooks to secure loose objects, plus a pair of shopping bag hooks at the trailing edge of the parcel shelf’s housing ledge.

But has the dreaded road drone – most obvious to passengers sitting in the back of the old Mazda3, making it that car’s Achilles’ heel – returned?

The answer depends on whether you are used to the old car’s road roar racket (then, no, nowhere near as much) or if you expect class-leading levels of quietness and refinement (yes, we’re afraid, there is still quite a bit of rumble permeating the peace).

Most of this is heard at the back, but it really is much, much quieter than before.

A Mazda engineer admitted that the new-generation low-resistance tyres, combined with a sporty suspension tune, means that hitting the right road noise compromise is difficult. In the old ‘3’ it may have been a deal breaker for those with sensitive ears, but now it simply is something you probably won’t be conscious of unless you listen out for it.

More annoying for us was the intermittent squeak emitting from somewhere around the B-pillar. If we had to live with this car it would probably send us around the bend.

Speaking of bends, is the Mazda3 a sportier drive than the segment champion – Ford’s closely related Focus?

No. The same Mazda insider revealed that appeasing American tastes were paramount during the development of this generation model, so changes to the 3’s electro-hydraulic rack-and-pinion steering system have resulted in a more linear but lighter off-centre feel.

Since we are not America, we’d like more weight as you turn the wheel please. And, while you’re at it Mazda, a tad more feedback would not go astray either.

Yet the ‘3’ is streets ahead of most of its small-car competition for feel and response, while the lighter helm certainly helps with one-handed twirling at parking speeds.

There is good news to be garnered, too, in the way the Mazda carves through all sorts of corners with poise and finesse, whether they are tighter than a vampire’s clique or as open as an AA meeting.

Better still, even in base Neo spec, the 3’s eager handling agility has high limits due to this car’s excellent levels of body control. Those 195/65R15 91V 15-inch Bridgestone tyres (on dodgy looking hubcaps, it must be said) aren’t too bad at all.

If you set it up to rip through a series of quick S-bends, the grippy little Mazda can be placed exactly where you want it, with little lean or body roll, aided by a wide and well-planted track, for excellent roadholding capabilities.

In dry conditions, we tipped it into several corners in third and even fourth gears at speed, lifting off half way through, and the ‘3’ remained flat and poised, with only a small amount of lightening from the rear end.

Rough roads did not unsettle it, either, with the taut yet absorbent suspension coping extremely well with all manner of uneven surfaces, so you can put ride comfort down as another Mazda3 highlight.

Mazda says it has made only minor changes to the 108kW 2.0-litre twin-cam four-cylinder petrol engine, yet its smooth and strong performance constantly surprised us over our test period.

Initial acceleration is lively to the point of chirping the front wheels, and it revs more effortlessly than we remember it to in previous 3s, while there is a deep and accessible provision of torque in the low to middle rev ranges, for easy overtaking manoeuvres.

Six forward speeds replace the occasionally notchy but more favourably weighted five-speed manual unit. Yes, the extra spread of ratios helps keep engine noise and fuel consumption down (at 100km/h in sixth the tachometer reads 2600rpm, and we averaged a very credible 8.3 litres per 100km), and these really are enough to justify the transmission swap, but the six-speed manual’s lever action is too light for our tastes … just like the steering.

We took the Mazda on a fast trip along loose gravel and marvelled at how steady and controlled it felt, especially when we jumped on the anchors. The standard electronic driving aids further provide a blanket of security that, along with the beefed-up body and four-square multi-link suspension arrangement, make the ‘3’ a formidable driving machine for the money.

And money indeed is the bottom line in the small-car class where the Mazda3 Neo has carved more than a bit of a niche for itself.

At $22,490, it eclipses all of the opposition for the combination of affordability, security, comfort, reliability, resale value, quality, specification level and driving enjoyment.

If the Mazda is not actually number one in every one of those departments, it is certainly near the top ‘3’ (pardon the pun), making the Neo Safety Pack model our small-car choice at this price level.

We reckon Mazda will have no trouble selling every one it lands into Australia.

Can’t help wondering, though, if sales would instantly double if the ‘3’ wore a Toyota badge. Perhaps the next Corolla should take a leaf out of Mazda’s book.

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