Mazda3 hatchback defined by quality looks and feel

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

We don’t understand why Mazda sells only on average about 100,000 units a year of its Mazda3 sedan and five-door hatchback in North America.

Granted, that’s not an insignificant number. Few nameplates reach six-figure sales. But when the Mazda3 is compared to its top two competitors, the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla, it’s a modest number. Both the Civic and Corolla approach and sometimes exceed 300,000 almost every year.

We simply can’t figure out how a car as good as the Mazda can trail the Honda and Toyota nameplates by 200,000 sales annually.

We came away from a week in a 2008 Mazda3 five-door with new-found admiration for this little car. It simply doesn’t get any better than a well-outfitted Mazda3 hatch for 20 grand. The Mazda3 compares favorably to both of its rivals. For our money, all three should be running neck-and-neck every year.

But that’s not our concern. We’ll leave it to the Mazda brain-trust to sort that out.

Our concern today is to explain why we think the Mazda3 is the equal to any mainstream compact car sold in America even in the fifth year of its current generation.

We can sum it up in a sentence. The Mazda3 has pleasing good looks, and great build quality, upscale interior materials, two energetic 4-cylinder engine choices and sports-sedan-like handling starting at $14,490 for the 3i-Sport sedan with manual transmission.

While the base has the requisite standard features for the segment including disc brakes, stereo with CD player, rear defroster and air conditioning, the remainder of the lineup comes with an impressive assortment of stuff starting at $16,850 (including destination charges) such as 16-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, cruise control, keyless entry, upgraded stereo, four-wheel disc brakes and power windows and mirrors.

The very useable five-door hatchback model starts at $18,530.

Those prices may be slightly higher than the comparable Civic and Corolla, but when you figure the standard stuff things equal out.

Sit behind the wheel for a few minutes and then hit the highway for a few more, and suddenly you find the Mazda has such a quality look and feel that spending a few dollars more — if that is indeed the case —makes perfect sense.

The interior is remarkably pleasing and that’s important because the driver is a captive audience. He has to look at the dashboard and live in the driver’s seat. And if the interior is impeccably styled, seams neatly fit, plastics have a pleasing quality and switchgear is easy to operate and feels good to the touch, then all is right with the world, regardless of price. The Mazda3 has the right stuff — let’s call it refinement — to lift the spirits of its owner every time he or she slides behind the wheel.

Now for the nuts and bolts - the car comes in two body styles with two engine choices. Both engines — a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder making 148 horsepower and a 2.3-liter making
156 horsepower — trump the competition. For instance, the all-new 2009 Toyota Corolla has a 132-horsepower engine as standard equipment. The Civic is standard across its lineup with a 1.8-liter making 140 horsepower, and the new Ford Focus makes do with a 2.0-liter 140-horsepower engine.

The smaller Mazda engine comes in the base levels of the sedan, 3i Sport and 3i Touring. All other sedan models — the 3s Sport, 3s Touring and 3s Grand Touring — and all five-door hatch models come with the bigger engine.

Both engines are energetic in the right places — stop and go city traffic and at highway speeds where some extra muscle is needed to merge and pass.

Admittedly we were enamored of the 156-horsepower variant in the hatch mated to a five speed automatic. It’s a good match especially when factoring in a 2008 gas mileage rating off 22 mpg city and 29 on the highway using regular unleaded gas. If fuel economy is foremost in your life, then the smaller engine may be a better choice rated at 23 mpg city and 31 mpg out on the highway. You won’t be disappointed in either choice.

And if you want to wring the most performance out of either engine, a five-speed manual transmission is available.

Very smile-inducing was the Mazda’s proclivity for cornering at high speeds with little body roll, a great impression of a sports sedan. Communicative steering gives the car a point and shoot quality.

The suspension is obviously tuned toward performance. The feeling you get from behind the wheel is that it is capable even when pushing it; it’s responsive and quick; and as soon as you push the throttle you’re put at ease as you feel that you’re in total control.

Ride quality is excellent for a car of its size and none of our occasional passengers ever had an issue with the car’s ride comfort from either the front passenger side or those riding it the back. The back seat is comfortable for two adults, but remember this is a compact and some negotiation with the front-seat passengers may be necessary to gain adequate knee room.
The dashboard is attractive and well thought out. Gauges are clear and easy to read day or night.

The audio controls are not as intuitive as we’d like, however, with the volume knob in the middle of the radio controls and the pre-sets stationed off to the right side. But once you get used to the unusual setup operation becomes second nature.

Cargo room behind the seats is generous and we were able — just barely — to squeeze in two sets of golf clubs.  But if more cargo room is essential — in this case to better accommodate the clubs — the rear seats easily fold for the kind of space not available in a typical sports sedan with the same attributes as the Mazda3 hatch.

Our biggest complaint with the Mazda3 — and there weren’t many — is with safety. While most makers of compact cars in 2008 include a lot of standard safety features, Mazda hasn’t kept pace. For instance, four-wheel disc brakes are standard across the lineup, but other safety including antilock brakes and side curtain airbags are optional on the lower trim levels bundled as a $395 package.

If opting for a lower trim level to save cash, don’t scrimp on safety. Buy the package. In fact, insist on the package. The Mazda3 is rated “poor” on side-impact crashes without the bags.

Our 3s Touring hatchback model came loaded with safety including stability control, traction control and tire pressure monitoring as standard equipment for a base price of $19,970 including destination charge.

Other standard stuff included a 60-month, 60,000-mile powertrain warranty, 17-inch alloy wheels, a rear liftgate spoiler and leather-wrapped steering wheel.

The only options were a six-CD changer, Sirius satellite radio and a power moonroof bringing the bottom line to $21,290.

The Mazda3, whether in sedan or hatchback form, is one of the most refined and fun to drive family compact models on the market. This is not your typical compact. We recommend you put it on your shopping list.


Base price, $18,520; as drive, $21,290

Engine: 2.3-liter 4-cylinder

Horsepower: 156 @ 6,500 rpm

Torque: 150 foot-pounds @ 4,500 rpm

Transmission: 5-speed automatic

Drive: front wheel

Seating: 2/3

Wheelbase: 103.9 inches

Length: 177.6 inches

Curb weight: 2,959 pounds

Turning circle: 34.1 feet
Luggage capacity: 11.5 cubic feet

Fuel capacity: 14.4 gallons (regular)

EPA mileage: 29 highway, 22 city

0-60: 8.4 seconds (Edmund's)

Also consider: Toyota Corolla, Toyota Matrix, Honda Civic, Pontiac Vibe

The Good

• Energetic 4-cylinder engines

• Refined in interior 

• Sports sedan handling

The Bad

• Gas mileage could be better

The Ugly

• Essential safety features are still optional on some models