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Expert Reviews 1 of 6
By Jim Flammang
December 19, 2003
Vehicle Overview Mazda’s replacements for the departed Proteg� sedan and Proteg�5 hatchback went on sale in December 2003. Evolved from the company’s Sportif show car, the new Mazda3 four-door sedan and five-door hatchback are larger and more powerful than their Proteg� predecessors. They’re also roomier inside and more than 100 pounds heavier.
Built on the same platform as the next-generation Volvo S40 and the European version of the Ford Focus, the front-wheel-drive Mazda3 has entirely different styling. A 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine goes into the Mazda3 i sedan. Both body styles are available in Mazda3 s form with a new 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine.
Mazda says the suspension tuning, linear brake performance and direct steering feel were “honed and calibrated” by engineers who gained experience on the Mazda6 sedan and RX-8 sports car. Comparatively upright in profile, the Japanese automaker says the Mazda3 is one of the longest, widest and tallest vehicles in its segment. Therefore, Mazda claims it has abundant front and rear shoulder room and ample knee clearance. A Sports Appearance Package that includes a body-colored grille, sport bumpers, side skirts, spoilers and fog lamps will be offered.
Exterior Mazda notes that the Mazda3’s styling is “meant to express movement combined with muscular solidity and stability,” following the lead of the RX-8, Mazda6 and Mazda2, which is marketed overseas. The Mazda3 hatchback, in particular, bears a close resemblance to the departed Proteg�.
Built with a wide track and on a relatively long, 103.9-inch wheelbase for its size, the Mazda3 features short overhangs. Steel wheels hold 15-inch tires on the Mazda3 i sedan; the Mazda3 s sedan gets 16-inch alloy wheels, and the Mazda3 s hatchback rolls on 17-inch rubber. The automaker says the front and rear fenders are “aggressively flared.” The wagonlike hatchback has a six-window “greenhouse” that includes a small triangular rear quarter window on each side. Sedan versions get a short, high rear deck.
Mazda’s signature shield-shaped five-point grille contains horizontal slats and a large logo in the center. Character lines on the hatchback extend over the hood to give it a more contoured appearance than the sedan, which gets subtler hood lines. A rear roof-mounted radio antenna and integrated wraparound headlights and taillamps are installed. The sedan is considered the more elegant of the two body styles, while the hatchback is deemed more rugged in appearance.
Interior Five people fit inside the Mazda3. The hip point of its seats is more than an inch higher than that in the Proteg�, and the steering column tilts and telescopes. The instruments sit in a trio of round recessed nacelles. A ratchet-type mechanism permits seat adjustment, with the cushion and seatback moving up and down together.
A dual-bottom center console storage box contains an upper tray with space for a cellular phone and a lower box that can hold 13 CDs. Two cupholders sit beneath a flip-back lid. Placing the rear-suspension coil springs beneath the floor increases the hatchback’s rear storage space and permits greater trunk width in the sedan. The double-link hinges don’t intrude into the sedan’s trunk space. A navigation system is optional.
Under the Hood Two four-cylinder engines will be offered in Mazda3 models sold in North America. A 2.0-liter engine develops 148 horsepower (144 hp in Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle [PZEV] form) in the Mazda3 i sedan. Both Mazda3 s body styles use a 2.3-liter four-cylinder that pumps out 160 hp. A five-speed-manual gearbox is standard, and a four-speed Sport automatic transmission is available on all models.
Safety All-disc antilock brakes and side-impact and side curtain-type airbags are included in an option group.
Driving Impressions Mazda claims that all of its models exhibit sporty behavior, and the new Mazda3 is no exception. Steering is confident, and the easy-to-drive Mazda3 handles more adeptly than most of its rivals.
Performance with the larger engine falls short of some sporty compacts, but it’s sufficiently strong and will satisfy most drivers. The automatic transmission delivers quick and smooth responses. The engine is generally quiet but emits a fair amount of blare when pushed.
With an easy-shifting manual gearbox, even the smaller-engined Mazda3 i feels more spirited than an upper model with the automatic. A well-behaved clutch helps.
The front seats are well shaped, but the seatbacks are on the hard side. Rear legroom is limited, but toe space is good. Headroom in the front is plentiful but only average near the rear doors; it’s meager in the center rear position. Visibility is good in all directions.
The gauges sit in three deep nacelles. The instruments are difficult to see on dark days but are lit nicely at night. Unconventional needle positions on the speedometer and tachometer also impede readability.