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Mazda 3 2003 Range Road Test

Tue, 23 Sep 2003

Mazda is good at good looking cars: MX5, MX6, Xedos 6, RX7, 323 F-Type, Xedos 9, Mazda 6, RX8. They get it right, instead of the weird, lumpy cobbled-together looks we sometimes see from other Japanese car makers. Which makes it very frustrating that the new Mazda 3 is so hard to photograph.

It’s almost impossible to take a picture that accurately portrays the look of the car in the metal.

The Focus C-Max was the first car on Ford’s new multi car platform. The Mazda 3 is the second. The new Volvo S40 will be third and the new Focus itself will be second last to the new Volvo V50 estate.

Even though the Focus will be built in Germany, the Volvos in Belgium and the Mazda 3 in Japan, their platforms share “40% commonality of parts”. They’re tough, they’re stiff, they resist side impacts well and they carry proper fully independent suspension with multi links, compact coil springs and ‘control blade’ radius arms at the rear. Apparently this system frees the rear dampers to damp more effectively than they could with a spring around them.

Engines will be a 1.4, 1.6 and 2.0 litre petrol, plus 1.6 common rail diesels with 90 or 110PS. The Americans also get a 2.3 litre with the same 150PS power output of the UK 2.0, but a bit more torque. The only UK automatic will be a four speeder attached to the 1.6. But when the car arrives in the UK in January we’ll only get the 1.6, 1.6 auto and 2.0 litre for the time being. The 1.4 and the diesels will come later in the Spring. Bodies are either a handsome 5-door hatchback or a stunning 4-door saloon.

As well as looking great outside, the Mazda 3 is nice inside, with bags of head and legroom front and back. The dash is pleasant to behold, with easy to operate controls. The optional satnav is DVD, so carries much more information than a CD based system. The radio has a single CD player. The airconditioned glove box is huge, and cleverly split with storage in the drop-down lid. The doorpockets are deep with bottle/can holders built in. There’s a combined can/bottle holder or oddments bin next to the handbrake lever. And, as on the new Toyota Avensis, the armrest cubby between the seats is split level. So there’s somewhere for everything.

The steering wheel adjusts up and down or in and out. The driver’s seat has height adjustment. And, very sensibly, just like the RX8, the driver’s seat rake adjustment is by wheel so you can get it just right, while the passenger gets a seduction seat which can be instantly reclined.

Turn the key and the engine note of the 1.6 is a bit weak, but at 100PS the power output is standard muscle for the size. Power steering on the 1.6 is simple hydraulic and there’s plenty of steering wheel ‘feel’. The car handles neatly, sacrificing the ultimate in sharpness for good ride quality. It’s no sports car and doesn’t pretend to be. But it’s a damn good compromise.

With 50% more power, the 150PS 2.0 litre is obviously quite a bit quicker. But to get that magical 150PS figure, Mazda opted for electro hydraulic power steering which absorbs less engine power and that robs the steering of some of the feel of the 1.6’s. But it’s still a good, very competent car, with enough power for most people and a sensible compromise between ride and handling.

The surprise of the range is the 1.6 automatic. Sometimes you get into a car and it immediately feels exactly right. This was one of those cars. The first thing I spotted was the manual control for the autobox: forward to change down; back to change up: exactly as is should be but isn’t with Tiptronic systems. Like indicator stalks on the right, its intuitive, so you don’t have to think before you change gear, And the box itself is a delight, changing up or down beautifully smoothly. That allows you to concentrate on braking, lining up and turning into your corners perfectly and gives you a very satisfying drive. Though the figures imply this is the performance dunce of the trio, out on the road it’s the best driver’s car.

The only dislikes I had were minor ones, like the slatted grille and clear rear light lenses on posher versions. But they are very minor quibbles. If the new Volvo S40 and the new Ford Focus match the promise of the Mazda 3, then Ford won’t have to worry too much about the new Golf and Astra.

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