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Mazda 3 2004 Road Test

Mon, 09 Feb 2004

Mazda 3 test now includes 1.4, 1.6, 1.6 automatic, 2.0 and 1.6 16v diesel.

Mazda is good at good looking cars:

MX5, MX6, Xedos 6, RX7, 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 hatchback is so hard to photograph. It’s almost impossible to take a snap that accurately portrays the look of the car in the metal.

The Focus C-Max was the first car on Ford’s new C1 multi car platform. The Mazda 3 is the second. The new Volvo S40 will be third, the new Volvo V5 estate will be fourth and the new Focus itself will be last.

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 are a chain-cam 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 is a four speeder attached to the 1.6. But first landings are the 1.4, 1.6 and 2.0 litre. The auto and the diesels come later in the Spring. Bodies are either a smooth 5-door hatchback or a stunning and much more rigid 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 air-conditioned glovebox 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 instantly reclined.

Turn the key and the engine note of the 1.6 at first sounds a bit weak, but at 105PS the power output is standard muscle for the size. Clutch bite was a bit high and the 105 lb ft torque needed 4,000 rpm to make itself apparent. However, this engine is incredibly smooth. Even though the car is geared at about 20mph per 1,000rpm, cruising at 100, which meant 5,000rpm, was pleasant, quiet and fuss-free. 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. The saloon is better than the hatch. It’s no sports car and doesn’t pretend to be. But it’s a damn good compromise.

With 50% more power, the 150PS is obviously quite a bit quicker and with 135Nm is a lot more flexible. 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. It’s actually quite disconcerting because you cannot feel what the front wheels are doing at all, and that can lead you to ‘over-steer’. 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 a better driver’s car than the 2.0 litre.

The diesel arrives in the showrooms in March, with shiploads actually for sale landing here in May. You can have a hatchback in S trim for £13,350, or either a hatchback or 4-door saloon in TS trim for £14,800. The hatch and saloon are entirely different bodies with not a single panel or door shared between them. And while the adventurous styling of the hatch is a bit of an acquired taste for some, the saloon is undeniably stunning looking from any angle.

The first diesel engine we tried, in the hatchback, was a bit of an anti-climax. It might not have been properly run in. But despite cruising at a very economical 34mph per 1,000rpm in 5th it didn’t feel anything special. A bit smoother, but certainly not as grunty as even an old VAG TDI 110. Of course, it isn’t supposed to be a performance engine. Just 1,560cc means the torque figure of 177lb ft isn’t a lot in the face of modern 1.9 and 2.0 litre diesels. But that’s missing the point, and the while point is economy. 56.5mpg on the combined cycle is excellent for a car of this size and should be achievable by anyone doing a fair bit of mileage.

However, a slightly looser example, in the stiffer, better handling saloon body gave a much better case for itself. This one cruised quietly at 100mph (3,250rpm), revved more smoothly and appeared to have more grunt on the hills. Mazda even seems to have re-programmed its electro hydraulic power steering (also encountered in 2.0 litre petrol engined Mazda 3s) to give a lot more feedback, almost on a par with the Focus C-Max which shares the same rack. Grip and handling are fine. The only fly in the ointment was a slightly puddingy gearchange, especially between 2nd and 3rd.

On, then, to the 1.4, the last and least powerfuil Mazda 3 I had driven. It just so happened that I got to it at a place where Mazda had laid on almost a 40 kilometre special stage through villages and pineforests near Marseilles. The PR team had already established a maximum speed of 172kph (108mph), confirmed by a French Autoroute speed trap and a 9o Euro fine. So I didn’t need to check that. What I did find was that the lack of power brings the basic chassis alive. That car gripped, handled and braked as well as any other mid size hatchback, including the current Focus. It good, viceless fun and means that anyone buying it for its lower insurance group will not be short-changed on enjoyment.

The only dislikes were minor ones, like the slatted grille and clear rear light lenses on posher versions. But they are very minor quibbles. For impressions of the Volvo V40 on the same floorpan, see the separate test. But with the Mazda 3, Volvo S40 and new Focus in its armoury, Ford has plenty to fight off the threats of the Golf Mk V and new Astra.

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