– Japanese reliability
– Sharp styling details
– Good handling
– Weak standard engine
– Limited rear seat room
– Some cost-cutting evident
Mazda has successfully managed to spruce up their automotive range so well in recent years that they can be considered the company to beat. But while other markets get all kinds of new sports car offerings from Mazda, the Emirates market makes do with 4-cylinder 6 models and the base 3 model. Oh well.
The all-new Mazda 3 debuted here for the 2004 model year, in only a single sedan body style, with the single weakest engine from the Mazda stable. According to the official dealer website, we have to be satisfied with a 1.6-litre with only 103 hp, trailing the likes of the Corolla and Civic over here, while other countries get 2.0-litre and 2.3-litre versions. The new model is much more appealing than the old 323, but the power deficit is unfortunate. We know someone who owns an automatic 1.6, and borrowed it for this road test.
Without getting too far into design theories and the fulfillment of the ‘zoom-zoom’ marketing tagline, the car that started Mazda’s styling ball rolling for the 21st century was the 6. Setting the tone with sleek headlights, a trim body and unique, detailed multi-element tail lights, the 6 is the biggest influence on the 3. The new compact Mazda takes the major styling cues and carries them over with minimal change. Mazda tried hard to get a sporty look into a non-sporty shell. Tall cars look like squashed people-carriers. Squashed people carriers do not have visual appeal to the buying public, hence the expected angular headlamps, racy grille, sculpted hood and ample bulges. At the back, Mazda has tried to do something with what would otherwise be a bulbous rear end. Surely enough, it is curved and has sharp LED-looking tail lights with clear lenses. But the thing that will strike most people is the fact that it all just looks so “different” due to the car’s size. Much larger than the 323 that it replaces, the 3 stretches to longer overall length. The top models get a grille in body coloured plastic, and a subtle body kit with 16-inch rims. The lower bare-bones spec 3 models get 15-inch wheels.
A sign of a dreadfully dull car is that its interior is just as anonymous as its exterior. With the yawn-inducing 323 serving up a worthy but thoroughly generic interior, it’s high time that Mazda treat us with an appealing cabin. Swing the uniquely hinged doors wide open and have a look at this cockpit. What lies in front of you is a dash that’s not only fit for a performance car, but one that doesn’t skimp on the details. Though you get the same thick, chunky three-spoke steering wheel and shifter as used on the 6, the rest is far more tasteful and stylish. The three deep gauges immediately hook your eyes, the speedometer being central, with revs and stats on the side podiums. Aluminum ringed, they black out when the power’s not on, and glow a lurid red when you’re on the move. Circular air vents on the far corners of the cabin are a classic. Another neat feature is the centre stack console, which features a simple-to-use climate control layout. The big surprise is the stereo system, whose thin horizontal stretch and optional single-disc CD player are truly neat details. Press the appropriate button, twist the central knob and seriously thumping sound can be had. Looking more high-tech than needed, it can be a bit confusing to figure out what’s going on, but you get the hang of it easily, with the vital info being displayed on the thin, red LCD display. Additional features on higher models include keyless entry, fog lamps and power windows, among other things.
The stylish dash, though coated in soft-feel plastic spray, is unpadded and shiny, and the plush carpets feel cheap. Fake leather-grain material is used liberally on all plastic surfaces. What is a visually killer cabin is brought down to life by Mazda’s cost-cutting. But it’s solid and it will hold up, and that’s what really matters in the end.
The seats themselves are a big bonus to the 3. They have decent lower and side bolsters, providing good support. While carrying five won’t be a problem, stick a six-foot tall driver or passenger, and expect knees of rear passengers to touch the front seatback. Where legroom may come up short, shoulder and headroom are above average, thanks to the tall and wide dimensions. Open the rear and you’re faced with a decently sized trunk that appears a little on the shallow side.
The strength of the car’s body is evident, and the 3 gets extra plates welded across key points in the car’s subframe as well as beefed up lower arms on the rear suspension.
The car has a generally sportier ride than a Corolla, though a 1.8-litre Corolla can easily overtake the 3. As the sports-themed brand targeted at younger audiences, the 3 is a natural at entertaining drivers, but only around curves when it comes to the 1.6-litre model. The suspension has been tuned for a slightly stiffer ride but what is delivered in return is crisp, and accurate responsiveness steering that transmits what’s happening on the road below. The wide tyres that come with the 16-inch rims easily hug the road, and can put a grin on your face on twisty roads. At low speeds the 3’s wheel is light for easy maneuverability, but lacks the electric power steering system of the Civic, opting for a conventional power steering system instead. The manual is lively for fast driving, but most will be satisfied with the automatic, which actually has manual shifting capability–one of the high points of the 3. Braking performance is okay, but ABS is optional.
In conclusion, the 3 is a little more than just another run-of-the-mill compact with the weak engine. If you are shopping for a lower model Corolla or Civic, then definitely give this car a serious look. If you enjoy corners, then this is the car for you. But if you want more power, look elsewhere.