Third time’s even more charming
Vancouver – I’ve always thought highly of the Mazda3, a car that could easily handle city traffic and then, when the road opened up, turn into a capable curve-carver with its delightful response and handling. And now, with the all-new 2014 model, it gets even better.
While the last-gen 3 incorporated most of Mazda’s fuel-saving SkyActiv technologies, this new one is now based completely on them, including its optimized engines, lightweight construction, and available on the 2.5-litre model, a “smart” alternator and capacitor system that reduces parasitic drag. It’s all clean-sheet engineering, as the platform that used to be shared with Ford is no more.
Disclosure: Travel, accommodations, meals, and a pre-set drive route were provided to the author by the automaker.
While the hatchback is the better-looking to my eye, with a rump that resembles a downsized CX-5, the sedan also wears its design well, with a grille that incorporates into the front face and swings up into the headlights, a long nose, and clean, smooth body lines. Overall, it looks a lot like a smaller version of the Mazda6.
Two engines are available, both of them four-cylinders: a 2.0-litre that makes 155 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque, and a 2.5-litre producing 184 horses and 185 lb-ft of torque. The 2.0-litre is used in the GX and GS trim lines. It starts with a six-speed manual transmission, which is the way I drove it, and can be optioned to a six-speed automatic. The 2.5-litre is exclusive to the GT trim and comes only with the automatic, but on this model it includes paddle shifters.
That 2.0-litre is carried over from the 2013 model, but it now uses a longer exhaust header, which couldn’t be added to the old 3 because it wouldn’t fit alongside the other components. The new 3 is designed for it, and it coaxes more mid-range torque out of the engine.
Pricing on the GX sedan starts at $15,995, but that doesn’t include air conditioning, so realistically, the Mazda3 starts at $17,595, which is the price of the GX with refrigeration. The GS sedan runs from $19,695 to $22,595, while the GT goes from $25,855 to $29,855. Hatchback trim lines are $1,000 more than their sedan siblings.
The cabins are better-looking, with good-quality materials and excellent fit-and-finish. In the GT, you get a large central tachometer that houses a smaller digital speedometer display, while the 2.0-litre GS gives you a more conventional layout of large speedo and smaller tach to the side (which seems a little odd, given that it’s the one that can be ordered with a stick shift).
The redesign also gives a bit more legroom to rear-seat passengers, somewhat solving the cramped quarters that could be problematic in the old model. The front seat did touch my knees when it was pushed all the way back, but there’s a lot of room under the front seat for rear-seat passengers to tuck their tootsies away.
Trumps in tech
The other big news is a suite of higher-tend technologies, most of them reserved for the GT trim. The GX is fairly basic, although you do get Bluetooth, USB input, four-wheel disc brakes, dual exhaust, and a pushbutton ignition. The GS includes Mazda’s new display screen, which sits like a small iPad on top of the dash and handles the infotainment and communication functions through a console-mounted dial that’s very easy to use and is intuitive enough that you don’t have to look down to use it. When the car isn’t moving, you can operate the screen by touch as well, or at any time by voice commands. If you want navigation on the GS, you can purchase an SD card at the dealer for $425 that loads the system into the screen.
Navigation is standard on the GT, as are bi-xenon headlamps, proximity key, and a Bose audio system. But it can also be outfitted with a newly-introduced Technology Package that adds blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, automatic high-beam headlights, adaptive headlights, satellite radio, and Smart City Brake Support, which will warn if you’re about to smack the car in front at speeds between 4 and 30 km/h. If you ignore it, the car will brake to a stop.
There’s also a head-up display, which uses a small plastic screen that pops up from the dash in front of the driver. It’s a neat touch on a mainstream car, although unlike displays that show up on the windshield, I found myself glancing down at it, rather than through it as I would on one that displays on the front glass.
I drove the morning shift in the GT. It’s quick off the line and acceleration is strong when you need passing power on the highway, but it’s also very quiet, with none of the howling that four-cylinders can sometimes display under full throttle. The transmission shifts very smoothly and is a good fit to it.
Unfortunately, our drive route was primarily through suburban areas, and so I didn’t get a chance to really open up the car (the next group of writers to arrive got the Sea-to-Sky Highway, dammit), but on the few twisties I was able to find, the 3 displayed the tossable nature that it’s always had. The electric steering is light but isn’t over-boosted, and it feels organic, with good feedback.
In the afternoon, I switched to the 2.0-litre. It doesn’t have the power of the 2.5-litre, of course, but it was still strong enough, and that mid-range torque gave it enough power to merge smoothly from highway off-ramps and get around slower drivers. I didn’t get to drive it with the automatic, so I don’t know how well it works with that, but the stick shift and clutch are Mazda’s signature-smooth variety: sporty, but not so much so that it was an effort to move with the stop-and-go traffic through Vancouver.
The Mazda3 has always played near the top of Canada’s sales charts, usually within at least the top four in passenger car sales. With this makeover, I won’t be surprised to see it move even closer to the top: the company has taken a good car, and made it better.