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Mazda 3 RHD 2004 Road Test

Sat, 17 Jan 2004

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 is so hard to photograph.

The saloon simply looks good. But it’s almost impossible to take a snap of the hatchback that accurately portrays its looks 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 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 on the settings of the car we tried it robbed the steering of some of the feel of the 1.6’s. It was actually quite disconcerting because neither of us could feel what the front wheels were doing at all, and that could lead us to ‘over-steer’. It may well be that this can be re-set to give more feel via the car's cockpit OBD2 port because the the Ford C-Max I drove also had electro hydraulic steering which did give good feedback. And the Mazda is 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 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.

Mazda 3 2003 Pre-Test

Mazda 3 2003 Range Road Test

Mazda 3 2004 Road Test

Mazda 3 2006 Facelift Road Test

Mazda 3 2004-2008 1.6 auto Used Car Test

Read more

 

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