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First drive: Sharp new Mazda3 heads upmarket

The Mazda marque: The Three lobs with styling that makes it both instantly recognisable as a Mazda, and at the same time is a little Euro-esque.

Mazda 323 replacement delivers improved refinement, style and dynamics

18 Sep 2003


THE hotly-awaited Mazda3 small car has hit European showrooms following a blaze of Frankfurt motor show debut fanfare - and will go on sale Down Under in January after its local premiere at next month’s Sydney motor show.

To be available here in two models, with the choice of 2.0 and 2.3-litre four-cylinder engines and two transmissions, the fourth all-new Mazda in just 18 months follows the Mazda2 light car, hot-selling Mazda6 mid-sizer and four-door RX-8 rotary.

The Mazda3 moves significantly upstream from where the popular 323 nameplate will leave off when it bows out after almost 27 years in December.

Expected to be available from about $22,400 in 2.0-litre manual form, Mazda3 sedan and hatch – instead of the 323’s long-running Astina – will compete directly with Holden’s European-built Astra on price.

The current 1.8-litre 323 has been available at a bargain-basement $19,990 for some time – the same sticker price at which Toyota’s top-selling Corolla and the Nissan Pulsar start.

Frankfurt also hosted the debuts of all-new versions of Astra and Volkswagen Golf, both of which will go on sale in Australia later next year. A redesigned Ford Focus – underpinned by the same new C1 platform as Mazda3 (and the more expensive Volvo S40, for that matter) – is also due on sale locally by late 2004.

Although Renault’s distinctive new Megane range should beat the 3 to market by one month, the Mazda will be at the pointy end of next year’s small car new model rush.

"Hopefully we’ll have the same run as we had with Mazda6, with six to nine months of newness before the others come along," said Mazda Australia chief Malcolm Gough. "But the (small car) market will take at least 12 months to settle." The 323 will go out with a bang, Mazda expecting to shift about 20,000 in its final year – playing a large part in total sales of an expected record 53,000 Mazdas in 2003 – bringing the nameplate’s total sales to about 220,000 since it went on sale in March, 1977.

Expect to pay around Corolla Sportivo money for the fully-loaded 2.3-litre range-topper – about $30,000

While he expects the more expensive Mazda3 to redefine its light and small car line-up by giving the Mazda2 more pricing room in which to sell, Mr Gough admits the 3 may also cannibalise some 6 sales because it is physically bigger than the old car and more expensive.

Either way, he hopes to find between 1500 and 1800 Mazda3 owners per month when supply frees up from the car’s sole Japanese factory after a few months.

While almost matching its $19,990 predecessor’s sales performance, those figures are at least 500 short of Astra’s current monthly sales rate, and at least 1000 short of Corolla, which has significant fleet sales.

Mazda Australia remains cautious about issuing full local specifications until its mid-January launch, but it is believed all Mazda3s will come standard with big-ticket items like air-conditioning and twin front airbags.

At least two 2.0-litre iterations are expected, both including seatbelt pretensioners and load limiters, but top-end features like stability control, satellite navigation and rain-sensing wipers will not be fitted to Australian models.

But the likes of climate control, ABS (with Brake Assist and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution), 17-inch wheels, sports bodykit including deeper bumpers with front foglights and a rear wing, and front side and full-length side curtain airbags should be standard on the sole 2.3 variant and optional on 2.0-litre models.

Expect to pay around Corolla Sportivo money for the fully-loaded 2.3-litre range-topper – about $30,000.

Every market in the world will get both Mazda3 body styles, with the coupe-shaped four-door aimed at the strong US sedan market and the five-door aimed at hatch-crazy European nations.

Costing a total of between 50 and 60 billion yen, Mazda3 development began three years ago and, according to program manager Akira Tanioka, was aimed squarely at the established European competition.

"This was very challenging for us but robust planning had three focuses: design and packaging, driving dynamics and quality and craftsmanship," he said. "We wanted to increase the performance threshold to European levels." Beginning life on a longer wheelbase and wider track platform that also has 40 per cent greater bending rigidity than 323, Mazda3’s new bodyshell features include a 60/40 front/rear weight bias, reinforced crash plates around the wheelarch/firewall area to replace crash boxes, B-pillar technology from fellow Ford subsidiary Volvo and a cross-car beam under the dash. The result is a four-star European NCAP crash rating.

Stiffer bodyshell aside, new safety features include Volvo-sourced airbag technology, including full side curtain airbags, the Iso-Fix child restraint system and a larger brake booster and rotors.

Other mechanical improvements comprise electro-hydraulic power steering, a lower steering gear position for more linear toe changes, hydraulic bushings at the front suspension arm mounts normally only found in European C and D-cars and Focus-style independent rear suspension reinforcement. But there is no full-size spare wheel.

Mazda3 designer Hideki Suzuki has delivered two unique body styles aimed to be sportier than both Mazda3 and Mazda6 but not as wild as RX-8, both cars featuring a stylised five-point Mazda grille, short overhangs, proper door handles and transparent lens lighting.

While sedan and hatch share the same clean, simple but sporty interiors, every body panel is different – right down to grilles, with a twin-slat body-coloured item on the sedan and a black cheese grater-style grille for the hatch.

The two engines offered with Australian Mazda3s include the Mazda6’s new variable valve timing-equipped 2.3-litre four-cylinder, for which Mazda Australia will quote maximum output at 115kW (with 203Nm of torque at 6500rpm) due to Australia’s low-grade fuel. The same engine in Mazda6 produces 122kW on premium unleaded fuel – and with dual exhausts.

Similarly, Australia’s other engine – a 2.0-litre version of the new 2.3 – will claim slightly lower output than in European markets at 104kW, with 181Nm of torque at 4500rpm.

Strangely, while every other petrol engine in the international range gets VVT, the 2.0 misses out. But at 104kW Mazda3 still betters the 100kW offered by the lighter Corolla’s 1.8-litre VVT engine.

Both engines will be available with either a five-speed manual or optional sequential-shift four-speed auto.


MAZDA says its new global small car is “everything we’ve learned”, combining the best attributes from both the Mazda2 light hatch and the mid-sized Mazda6, both of which set new benchmarks in their respective segments.

Mazda is smart enough to realise its new 3 will not attract the many blinkered European brand slaves but, given its new, higher pricetag to replace the bargain-basement 323’s sticker, it knows Mazda3 needs to be as good as benchmark Euro hatches like Astra, Golf, Megane and Focus to succeed.

A solid day’s driving on French A and B-roads at the world launch is not enough to make a definitive call on how Mazda3 stacks up against them – that will have to wait until the all-new Astra and Golf appear in the second half of next year.

But it is clear Mazda3 realises big gains over its 323 predecessor in terms of styling, refinement and dynamics.

It also represents a solid Japanese alternative to the Euro crew – even if it does not immediately stand out as a ground-breaking new Mazda product like the 2 and the 6 did.

First up, Mazda3 lobs with styling that makes it both instantly recognisable as a Mazda, and at the same time is a little Euro-esque.

"Golf and Astra have established global (small car) standards and have become so popular they're boring … no longer exciting ... so we wanted to appeal to those people with a completely different character to Golf and Corolla," said Mazda3 designer Hideki Suzuki.

"Most car buyers have a show-off mentality so we needed to tickle this with styling that should always appeal, no matter how many times you see it," said Suzuki-san, who gets annoyed when people liken the hatch's rear end with the Alfa 147 because Mazda4 was signed off before it appeared. But he admits he is a big Alfa fan and that he tried to inject this into the 3.

Claimed to strike the best possible balance between exterior style and interior space, Mazda3 liberates a little extra interior space, including an extra 20mm of front shoulder room, for example.

The clean, high quality and well laid-out interior that’s shared between hatch and sedan models contains a number of impressive surprises, such as a big, 12-litre glovebox that, like the grabhandles, is mounted on soft dampers, providing a decidedly luxury feel.

From behind the leather-wrapped, three-spoke steering wheel (that is now adjustable for both height and reach), the new dash appears both sporty and functional, following a neat rotary dial theme reminiscent of that found in both the 2 and the 6.

The new chassis exudes a definite solidity that would feel at home in a German-badged small car

It comprises deep-set, chrome-ringed and black-faced instruments (including a central 220km/h speedo, with a tacho on the left and warning light cluster on the right), featuring RX-8-like indirect blue lighting and an interesting red LED strip that illuminates across the centre console when audio or climate settings are adjusted.

Overall, from the nicely shaped sports seats trimmed in a neat contrasting woven material matched to the door inserts, the Mazda3 dashboard is classy to look at, logical to use and is fitted and finished very nicely indeed. After a brief look at the all-new Astra and Golf interiors at Frankfurt, Suzuki-san believes the Mazda3 interior compares well in terms of craftsmanship.

We tend to agree, with the only negatives being the Alfa-style louvred air vents at either end of the dash not matching with the twin rectangular ones that reside inboard. The nicely finished perforated dash material looks classy too, but feels hard and cheap to touch. While we’re complaining, Mazda3 eschews an integrated keyfob for a bulky, outdated two-piece remote key, and the plastic engine cover is flimsy and poor-fitting.

Otherwise, the slightly more spacious, more stylish interior works well.

The rear seating positions offer plenty of legroom compared to other small cars (although the hatch offers a bunch more headroom than the coupe-like sedan, although it allows more exhaust noise to enter out back) and all doors close with a convincing, Euro-style thud.

Dynamically, the 3 is also right on the pace. The new chassis exudes a definite solidity that would feel at home in a German-badged small car, and the suspension – at least in the cars we drove, which apparently weren’t totally indicative of series production specification – has a definite Euro-firmness to it.

The 2.3 feels a little firmer than the 2.0-litre, but neither could be described as harsh, striking a good balance between handling response and ride comfort. Only on super-coarse chip road surfaces did the ride deteriorate to anything you could describe as uncomfortable, accompanied by a pronounced tyre roar. A rebound knock from the front left corner of our car also turned out to be a faulty damper, which was replaced overnight and the car continued faultlessly the next day.

The steering, too, is meaty and extremely well weighted either side of centre, and also offers excellent straight-line feel and precision.

Overall, the level of both response and feedback are impressive for the class, with only a hint of torque steer evident under hard acceleration in the two lower gears. There is a tiny amount of kickback over bumps at the very edge of adhesion, and the electro-hydraulic steering rack’s overall gearing is not what you’d call quick.

Mazda3’s performance isn’t quite as convincing. While the entry level 2.0-litre auto will be the Mazda3 volume seller in Australia, there was not one present at the world launch to drive because it won’t be nearly as popular there. We have no doubt the four-speed sequential auto - with an unnecessarily stepped, Lexus-style gate between Park and Drive that makes quick three-point turns more difficult – works almost as well with the 2.0-litre as it did with the 2.3, but overall the 2.0-litre manual Mazda3 did not feel inspiring.

Despite being pitched at European buyers accustomed to strong bottom-end throttle response, Mazda3 program manager Akira Tanioka admits the new 2.0-litre – essentially a smaller capacity family member of the new 2.3-litre that powers Mazda6 – does its best work up top and that its lack of variable valve timing is due to cost.

Both engines get a variable length intake manifold, but in isolation the 2.0-litre seemed lacking in tractability at low revs and simply did not feel as driveable as we remember some other 2.0-litre small cars being.

Likewise, the 2.3 also produced best results above 3000rpm, and both engines revved freely – if a little loudly – beyond their 6500rpm redlines to a cutout around 7300rpm.

The 2.3 offers the extra dimension of a variable valve timing surge from around 5000rpm, but still falls well short of the performance offered by, say, the Corolla Sportivo’s 140kW Celica engine.

We’ll reserve final judgment until we drive both Mazda3 engines on home soil – in the company of their rivals, if necessary – but first impressions of Mazda3 performance are nothing to write home about.

Which brings us to weight. On average, ranging between 1175 and 1265kg, Mazda3 models weigh-in at about 50kg heavier than their 323 predecessors (which varied from 1125kg to 1217kg) - quite acceptable given their greater size, refinement and safety of the 40 per cent stiffer chassis. Indeed, the marginal extra performance offered by the larger 2.0-litre engine would seem to cancel this out.

But a comparison between Mazda3 and its rivals shows that on average the Mazda is about 120kg heavier than Corolla, which will no doubt come with more weight and safety when it is renewed in a couple of years – as will Mazda3’s European competition, which is close to line-ball now. The current Corolla range weighs between 1053 and 1224kg, while Astra ranges between 1140 and 1210kg.

So it seems that, for now, Mazda3 is at a decided disadvantage over its major Japanese rival, the Corolla, and while Mazda3 now delivers European-style chassis integrity, dynamics, styling, craftsmanship and safety, it also comes with Euro-style weight. Throw in a European price tag, and Mazda3 will need all the breathing space it can muster before a new Astra and new Golf arrive.

Maybe our expectations were too high. Maybe it’s a case of Mazda3 doing everything well but nothing outstanding, because there’s no question Mazda3 represents a solid design and engineering effort – one that easily matches the best in the small car class in terms of dynamics, refinement and style.

But we can’t help thinking that, with the 3, Mazda has backed a notch or two off the pace that made the 2, 6 and RX-8 so special.

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