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Car reviews - Mazda - Mazda3 - sedan/hatch range

Our Opinion

We like
The most complete small car for the money, period. Improved safety, refinement, comfort, safety, strength, efficiency and value
Room for improvement
Steering a tad light in feel and feedback, still some road noise intrusion, poor rear vision, samey styling

8 Apr 2009

“FOOTBALL, meat pies, kangaroos and Mazda3s!”

With apologies to Holden’s classic 1970s advertising jingle, Australian new-car buyers have taken to the Japanese small car with a vigour that has simply not abated since launch here in January 2004.

These days, the Mazda3 is as much a part of the middle Australia motoring landscape as knackered old Hyundai Excels, sneaky speed cameras and peak-hour traffic jams.

So what’s been up with the Mazda3’s appeal until now?

We think it has been a coming together of circumstances, ranging from Mazda rediscovering its design mojo, to shifting consumer tastes away from larger vehicles. Skyrocketing fuel costs, keen pricing and an even keener chassis probably sealed the deal on many a Mazda3 sale.

Little wonder, then, that the second-generation version – like the Volkswagen Golf clientele that Mazda so desperately wants to woo the world over – sticks to the old 3’s styling cues like its life depends on it.

This might be a massive disappointment for some, but in the flesh the latest Mazda3 does have some interesting design details to set it apart from the old car. You might think the redesigned air intake looks like a silly grin, but it has functionality benefits that directly affect the owner.

Likewise, the pronounced front wheelarches and clean surface tension instantly date the previous Mazda3 when compared side-by-side. On the other hand, this is a fussy design.

Step inside and the cabin architecture feels grown up, from the subdued yet nicely contrasting trim swathing the doors, dash and seats, to the vast expanse of the sweeping, soft-feel fascia up front.

It is here, we believe, that Mazda will make many conquest sales, because the ‘3’ mixes the futuristic element of the Honda Civic’s dashboard with the elegant simplicity of the Honda Accord’s.

So, like the exterior styling, the interior’s design is nothing we haven’t really seen before, but it is professionally executed.

An example is the instrumentation binnacle, clustered ahead of the driver so the super-clear and unashamedly sporty speedo and tacho combination is the dominating theme. All very Alfa 105-esque, and all very confidently presented.

Mazda clearly spent lots of time perfecting the usability of all the controls, because every switch, button or stalk is easy to operate.

Special mention goes to the smart and simple trip computer interface, as well as the satellite navigation (standard on the Maxx Sport and SP25) that can be programmed on the move, and is utterly intuitive to do so. It is a pity that only the driver has the ability to control it, mind you …

There is ample room for four adults and a fifth, slim person in the middle rear seat. The front buckets seem a little flat and unyielding yet prove to be just the opposite over an extended period, backed up for the driver by a variety of adjustment options and a steering column that tilts as well as telescopes.

Mazda says it improved enormously the 3’s air-conditioning and heating properties, and we had no cause to complain about the car’s ventilation abilities. Kids and canines are also likely to appreciate rear windows that retract all the way down.

It isn’t all champagne and canapés back there though, because the window line is higher and so harder for the driver to see out of when reversing.

Plus – as every different Mazda3 we tried revealed – there is still work to be done on road noise intrusion.

Yes, the new car is comprehensively quieter and more refined than the raucous old one, but competitors like the latest Golf have raised the bar very high this time, and the Mazda is now about average.

“We had to find a balance between refinement and sporty handling,” said one Mazda insider, “and so we went for the sportier option.”

Other interior gripes include a fair amount of wind rustling from somewhere near the rear wheelarch when cruising at 100km/h, and some hatch-related ‘whooshy’ sounds emanating from out back.

While we’re there, an even more massive boot and hatch (featuring a space-saver spare wheel underneath the floor) than before await to take in your everyday flotsam and jetsam.

Jetting about in the new Mazda3 is pretty much an enlightening experience with one or two minor exceptions.

Disappointments first: the overwhelming majority of buyers will have not a bad word to say about the Mazda’s light, safe and responsive steering abilities, but we say “more feel please!” in the just-off-centre phase of turning the (attractive and tactile) wheel.

Driving the Bridgestone-tyred Neo hard through a series of twisting roads, we found it a little harder than expected to feel exactly where the car was, and so had to make constant steering corrections as we over-applied force trying to achieve a smooth and linear turning arc. The fatter Toyo tyres found on the Maxx Sport and SP25 felt better planted up front.

Jump in and experience the tactile weightiness of a Ford Focus’ helm (or, to a lesser extent, a Golf’s) if you want to know what we mean, although the Mazda3 is ahead of the rest of the pack here since most small cars (perhaps Holden Astra and Skoda Octavia excluded) at this end of the market are numbingly light.

Still, then, the Mazda is near the top of its class for handling and roadholding, traversing the many and varied country roads we pounded the car along with poise and absolute control, as well as an outstandingly supple ride.

We found it difficult to unsettle the super-planted rear end – and rarely felt the standard ESC stability control kicking in – while the brakes seemed well-up to the speed and punishment dished out.

No complaints about the good old 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine’s refinement or power delivery, especially when mated to the satisfyingly slick six-speed manual gearbox.

Mazda should also be commended for going to a five-speed auto trannie (that seems well attuned to the Mazda3’s power characteristics), particularly as key rivals like the Corolla, Focus, Astra and Impreza persevere with a four-speeder. It’s got a sequential shifter too.

We averaged low 8.0L/100km readouts over the variable-speed rural-road runs in the manual, and around half a litre more in the auto, so good economy to match the strong performance on offer is yet another feather in the Mazda3’s cap.

Unfortunately we missed out on driving the SP25 manual, but the auto version – complete with paddle shifts on the steering wheel – seemed amply powerful, responsive and refined. With the optional leather upholstery and standard GPS and Bluetooth connectivity, it felt like the proper little luxury tourer.

After a day of driving various examples of the new Mazda3 around the great driving roads of Albury and surrounds, we had to keep reminding ourselves that this car can be had for as little as $21,990 plus on-roads.

Why? Because – with incremental improvements in virtually every single area – the 2009 Mazda3 represents the most complete small car experience for the money.

And although they look and feel completely different to each other, we think the Mazda3 offers the same net feel-good result as the Golf, even though the latter is in a different league for refinement (and, when similarly equipped, price).

We predict Australians are going to keep on loving their Mazda3s for a few years yet.

Which is ironic really, because – like the GM-owned and devised Holden cars of yesteryear – we hear that this little Japanese number was actually conceived to have far more mass appeal this time around ... to Americans:

“O! say can you see, By the dawn's new Mazda3!”

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