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First Oz drive: Mazda3 ups the stakes

Ready to go: The Mazda SP23 trades in the old car's 2.0-litre engine for a 115kW 2.3.

Mazda’s new small car is bigger, better and more expensive

Mazda logo15 Jan 2004

IN just 18 months Mazda has completed a startling makeover of its model line-up.

Venerable nameplates like 626, 121 and now 323 are gone - replaced by 6, 2 and in the case of the company’s big-selling small car, 3.

It's definitely a productive time for the brand from Hiroshima, considering the RX-8 has also appeared during that period.

The 3 goes on sale this weekend, undoubtedly improving quality, competence and prestige compared to the last of the 323s, but also the price.

No more $19,990 with air, the range kicks off with the $21,490 Neo, escalating through the Maxx at $25,490, the spruced up Maxx Sport at $26,175 and the flagship of the line, the $29,990 SP23.

This pricing covers off the very different looking five-door hatchback and sedan, and you can add a reasonably hefty $2080 for the four-speed "Activematic" transmission with semi-manual shift mode.

Baseline standard equipment includes air-conditioning, dual airbags, CD player, remote central locking and lap-sash seatbelts and headrests all-round.

The Maxx ups the airbag count to six, adds ABS brakes with EBD and Brake Assist, alloy wheels, power windows and mirrors, a six-disc in-dash CD player and steering wheel-mounted audio controls.

The Maxx Sport aims at a slightly younger, enthusiast audience and adds foglights, side skirts, rear spoiler and larger 16x6.5-inch alloy wheels.

The range-topping SP23 trades in the 104kW/181Nm MZR four-cylinder 2.0-litre engine the other 3s employ for the 2.3-litre engine already seen in this country in the 6. Power and torque drop slightly to 115kW/203Nm compared to that application because this time around the engine is tuned to run on standard unleaded fuel.

The sports model also includes its own bodykit with unique grille and front and rear bumpers, larger 17x7-inch alloy wheels, climate control air-conditioning, leather steering wheel and gearknob, and outside temperature readout. It is also the only model in the range to get individual external badging.

A substantial miss in equipment terms is cruise control, which will be a dealer-fit accessory. The Neo also gets a couple of upgrade packs – the safety pack that adds front side and curtain airbags and ABS brakes for $1600, and a power pack worth $700 that includes power windows and mirrors.

Mazda Australia claims there is $2000 added value in 3 compared to 323 and that the new car will be substantially cheaper to service. But the fact remains it does not offer a sub-$20,000 price leader model, something others have tried to do without and failed.

Nevertheless, Mazda expects to sell around 20,000 3s this year, matching the figures for the run-out 323.

"We don’t see ourselves as a $19,990 car," said Mazda Australia managing director Malcolm Gough. "Don’t forget that 80 per cent of 323 sales aren’t at $19,990, they are at $21,000 plus.

"We don’t think we need to put out a price at $19,990 and then ask people to stump up another two grand for air-conditioning." Having said all that though, Mazda still managed to find $1000 to lop off the base car between first floating the pricing at the Sydney motor show last October and launch time, as exchange rates continue to improve.

That should make Mr Gough and his dealers more confident in the battle against competitors as tough and varied as the mass-selling Toyota Corolla, Holden Astra and Nissan Pulsar, as well as niche offerings like the VW Golf and Renault Megane.

So why that confidence? Well, there’s no doubt the 3 is a substantive leap forward from the last 323, a car that emerged during one of Mazda’s periodic bouts of conservatism and cost-cutting.

Underpinned by the C1 Technologies platform that will also serve parent Ford’s next generation Focus - as well as the newly revealed Volvo S40/V50 and a number of other vehicles - the 3 gets a MacPherson strut front suspension paired at the rear with a version of the sophsiticated multi-link "Control Blade" suspension.

The car also rides on a longer wheelbase than its predecessor and is actually larger in every dimension. Mazda claims a 40 per cent improvement in bending rigidity and there are bigger, thicker brakes and a new electro-hydraulic steering system.

Unsurprisingly, 3 has also gained some kerb weight, which seems to vary between about 30kg and 60kg depending on the model.

To push the extra kilos along, the engines both provide significant power and torque boosts over the 1.8 and 2.0 they replace. That has resulted in better acceleration times – the SP23 manual gets to 100km/h in a very acceptable 8.3 seconds - although fuel consumption has climbed slightly.

Being members of the new MZR family, both engines are double-overhead camshaft 16-valve units, although the 2.3 is alone in offering S-VT, Mazda’s variable valve timing system.

PRICING:
Mazda3 Neo $21,490
Mazda3 Neo (a) $23,570
Mazda3 Maxx $25,490
Mazda3 Maxx (a) $27,570
Mazda3 Maxx Sport $26,175
Mazda3 Maxx Sport (a) $28,255
Mazda3 SP23 $29,990
Mazda3 SP23 (a) $32,070 Options:
Neo safety pack $1600
Neo power pack $700

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

THE Mazda3 family won’t be missed in a crowd, the hatch in particular an interesting styling exercise which will polarise opinion.

There are influences from other new generation Mazda models like the RX-8 as well as hints of the Peugeot 307 and even the Chrysler PT Cruiser, thanks to those pronounced bonnet creases and prominent grille – particularly in the SP model.

The sedan is more conservative but also quite striking in the way the cabin is placed so far to the rear in a semi-coupe style. In fact, the two cars do not share a single exterior body panel.

There should be less division when it comes to the all-new interior. Three separate meters greet the driver, all housed under a deep binnacle with the rest of the important controls laid out nearby in the centre console.

The driver nestles into a big, firm seat with ratchet-type height adjustment and grasps a steering wheel that is nicely sized and adjustable both vertically and horizontal.

Back seat passengers should be able to make themselevs comfortable too, thanks to wide-opening doors and a level of interior space more familiar to medium cars just a few years ago.

There’s plenty of useable storage space as well, with a 413-litre boot in the sedan and 300 litres in the hatch, growing to 636 litres with the rear seats folded flat.

It’s not all sweetness and light inside the cabin. In fact, it just seems too dark in terms of trim and materials, evoking a European rather than a Japanese car. There were severe reflection problems with both outer meters in the instrument panels of the cars we drove.

And so to the driving. Unsurprisingly, the 3 delivers a quality experience. The Neo we sampled first up was not quite indicative because it was fitted with optional alloy wheels, but the fundamentals appear right with a flexible, free-revving engine allied to a tight but positive manual gearbox and meaty clutch.

The ride was firm-ish without being uncomfortable. No jolting or crashing was noticeable, with big undulations and road corruptions dealt with efficiently and precisely. By contrast, the smaller more plentiful imperfections were perhaps a little too perceptible.

The whole show becomes that degree more serious in the SP23. Immediately you notice the heavier steering, the firmer and flatter ride and the higher handling and grip limits. If the old SP20 was some show and not a lot of go, the new car tilts the balance more towards performance.

Don’t get us wrong, it will not take on a BMW M3, but the SP23 does impress with its willingness to push on to impressively high limits. Combine that with the bigger engine’s increased response and an automatic gearbox that is happy to shift quickly in manual mode – not all do – and you're driving a very pleasant little beasty.

And yet … at the end of the day, slamming the door of the 3 for the last time (a lightweight, unconvincing "boing" rather than a solid "thunk" by the way), there seemed to be something missing in the experience.

Maybe our expectations have been raised too high by 6, 2 and – especially – RX-8. Perhaps the whole zoom-zoom thing has burrowed deeper into our psyche than we realised. You see, while 3 literally moved us, emotionally we were standing still.

There’s no obvious reason for this, as there is no doubt 3 is an admirable achievement that comfortably outshines its predecessor.

But is that enough? There’s some tough competition out there in the small car field and many more coming soon – new Astra, Golf and Focus to name three.

Perhaps we are being overly critical here. After all, the Astra gained an initially mooted reception before being widely hailed as the best small car going once the current generation hit Australian shores in the late 1990s.

Certainly, there will be no shortage of competition this year to fully test the 3 and find out if it is just a good thing, or great.

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