Live large in the new Mazda3 Grand Touring


by By TOM VOELK / Special to

Posted on May 28, 2009 at 9:58 AM

Updated Friday, Oct 23 at 3:06 PM

Video: Driving Northwest: Live large in the new Mazda3

Not everyone likes large cars, but there are very few small premium vehicles in the United States.  BMW 1-Series, Volvo S40, Audi A3 make up the short list because last I heard, Cadillac has stopped pumping out the Cimarron. 

Mazda, the folks that brought you the MX-5 Miata and that kid on TV who must be rich collecting royalties for whispering "Zoom-Zoom" has something for you to ponder: the new 2010 Mazda3.  Most buyers will cross shop Civic, Cobalt, Corolla, Sentra, Elantra and Focus but the 3 seems to have higher aspirations than that.  It can be ordered up with all sorts of luxury touches.  For a nominal fee of course.

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Drive small.  Live large.

My tester is a high-end Grand Touring s model with the Moonroof/Bose Sound package.  Throw in Sirius Satellite Radio and the total comes to $23,995 with destination.   This may seem expensive considering a loaded Honda Civic with navigation stickers for $24,325.  To get navi and an automatic tranny like the Honda, a Mazda3 window sticker zoom zooms up to $25,500.  But that price includes automatic rain sensing wipers, adaptive HID headlamps, keyless ignition, Bose sound and power driver's seat with 3 memory settings.  If you want these things, you'll have to shop at a Mazda store.  I haven't even gotten to the horsepower yet.

I have now gotten to the horsepower.

Grand Touring s models get a slick 6-speed manual or optional 5-speed automatic.  Delivering power to the front wheels is a thoroughly modern 167 horse 2.5-liter 4 cylinder.   When shopping for a Mazda3 it's important to know the powertrains.  The big engine is designated by an "s" and gets dual exhaust tips.  Base Mazda3s with an "i" suffix roll with a smaller 2.0-b liter 148 horse engine.  Its manual gear box is a 5-speed, not a 6 like my tester.  FYI, Civic's engine makes 140 ponies (unless you opt for the 197 HP Si).   For those who are curious their weights are about the same.

Zero to 60 sprints happen in 7.7 seconds, according to my Dynolicious equipped iPhone (an app I find to be very accurate).  What numbers fail to communicate is that the thrust always seems to be on tap with no weak points in the powerband.  This means fewer white knuckles when slicing through dense urban traffic.  Always a good thing.  It helps that the manual shifter has a smooth accurate throw with a " just so" clutch take up.

Grading on a curve.

In its class Mazda3 is #1 when carving corners.  Ride quality is firm and sporty without being overly jarring.  The leather-wrapped wheel has just the right heft and on-center feel is buttoned down.  Is this a set up the Corolla crowd can love?  Probably not.  Those seeking the comfort of the Toyota (and its cushiony equal the Hyundai Elantra) will find the Mazda suspension too stiff.  Sportsters will find Corolla numb and mushy.  That's why there are test drives.

In contrast to the luxury features that can be installed, road noise in the 3 is on the higher side.  Electronic stability and traction control is along for the ride with Grand Touring 3s but is not standard across the board.  Do your homework if this is important to you.  All models get excellent anti-lock brakes.

Fuel economy at an EPA average of 25 MPG (21 city/29 highway) is lower than the competition by as much as 5 MPG.  Mazda3 uses regular unleaded fuel. 

Mazda3, I choose you!

Mazda3 can put a grin on a driver's face.  If not, it comes with one of its own.  A bit controversial, the front end looks like a happy Pokemon but sadly it won't fit into a Pokeball for parking.  If you love the car but can't stand all the cheer up front, consider Black or Graphite Mica paintm, which camouflages the smiley face somewhat.  The sheetmetal uses mild cues from Mazda's Nagare concept. ( )

It echos some of the swoopy lines but not the ripples the show car wears.  I think the designers were wise to not make waves (pun intended).

Jet fighter cockpit without leaving the ground

In the cabin Mazda uses high quality materials, giving this car a more upscale feel.  The instrument panel is soft touch material with a few bands of aluminum-like trim placed here and there.  Gauge lighting glows blue and red.  Small blue LED lights scattered about bathe the whole cabin in a subtle cobalt hue at night.  Twist the sound system volume knob and there's a little light show around the dial.  Dual automatic climate control, Bluetooth handsfree and an arm swallowing glove box are pluses.  I'd like to loose the ignition's key release button and gain an integrated iPod interface (apparently a dealer installed accessory).  

Pressing the 3 into carpool duty?  Two average sized adults should be fine in the back. Three will be snug.  There's a decent amount of foot and legroom here for the two outboard folks.  Too bad there's not a map pocket on the back of the driver's chair. 

Other sniggly gripes?  Automatic headlights can be triggered by Seattle's dark cloudy days.  That dims the gauges to a point where they're hard to read.   It would be nice if the two displays that live in the upper instrument panel matched. One is red, the other blue.  Order the nav system and one of them gets replaced with a full color unit that's on the small side.  Mazda does that to make it more affordable.

Performance that's practical 

Need to max out cargo room?  The 3 is available in a 5-door hatchback version.  The sedan is off to a good start with space-saving scissor hinges. Its cargo opening is a hair on the narrow side.  Overall, size is average in class at 5 warehouse packs of bath tissue- the same as a BMW 3 Series.  Because the rear seatbacks split and fold I was able to stash my kid's bike in the trunk.

How important is this car to Mazda?  The 3 is their biggest seller by far, making up a third of their volume.  Considering how good this car is, it may push that figure higher.  Buyers looking for an engaging ride will flock to this car and it serves two kinds of buyers. Stay light on the option boxes and there's a deal to be had here.  Starting at $15,700 it can be very affordable.  Conversely, load up on the gadgets and there's luxury car features for $25,500.  There's a big smile on the Mazda3's face for a reason.  Leave the 3 off your test drive list and there could be a frown on yours.