If the hatchback is returning to America, we should all thank the 2011 Mazda3.
While other carmakers were wringing their hands over Americans' finicky tastes and resentment of five-door small cars, Mazda kept building its great little hatchback. Many others offered only sedan versions of their small cars.
The Mazda3, which underwent a redesign for the 2010 model year, is one of the best of these little cars. It combines just the right combination of zoom and room — making it a car for all purposes.
For the 2011 model year, there aren't many changes. Mazda added a few bits, such as rain-sensing wipers, automatic on-off headlights (something every car should have), Bi-Xenon headlights with automatic leveling, adaptive front lighting and LED rear taillamps.
But mostly, the 2011 Mazda3 hatchback — commonly known as a five-door for people averse to saying the word "hatchback" — keeps all of its character from the redesign.
Powered by a 2.4-liter dual overhead cam four-cylinder engine, the Mazda3 hatchback has plenty of power. The engine creates 167 horsepower and 168 pound-feet of torque, which is more than enough pep to help this front-wheel drive 3,000-pound car cut through corners and cruise along on the highway. Acceleration also feels quick.
The car's relatively short wheelbase — 103.9 inches — helps provide that sporty feeling on city streets, allowing a driver to cut through tight corners, as well as fit into tight spaces.
One inherent problem with hatchbacks is the noise level. Because the cabin is so open, lots of road noise tends to seep in. The Mazda3 does get a little noisy on the highway, but its ride is extremely comfortable, and you can always cancel out the noise with the 10-speaker Bose stereo system, which includes USB connectivity.
More importantly, the Mazda3 feels like a sports car. The electric power assist rack-and-pinion steering is taut and the independent suspension helps keep the car's body nice and level through corners.
Upgrades to the interior have helped give the Mazda3 a much more sophisticated look. They include a new instrument panel and a new layout. An information display is mounted high on the center of the dash to provide navigation and audio information easily, with minimum distraction from the road. Many secondary controls can be operated from the steering wheel. All of them are features that focus on driving, which is what drivers should focus on as well.
The Mazda3 hatchback is just comfortable. It feels like a cockpit and makes you drive.
Lots of inside space
There are two key features the Mazda3 offers that sedans just cannot.
The first is the luxury of space.
By definition, compact cars are small. But for many people, that's all the space they need or want. A bigger car just doesn't fit their lifestyle, but on occasion, they need to haul things around or load up something that a sedan can't accommodate.
American consumers in general have had a long tradition of overbuying. They look at a vehicle and think of the most extreme thing they may do and then make their decision based on that. Sure, they may never have to really load up their vehicle during a blizzard, but, if, by some chance, they do, they might need a giant SUV with four-wheel drive.
But most of us will rarely fill up even the 42.8 cubic feet in the Mazda3 hatchback when the second row is folded flat. That space feels nearly endless on most occasions. The Mazda3 can handle a weekend's worth of errands and still have room to cart the family around as well. Additionally, the wide opening hatch makes it much easier to load; a sedan's truck can limit some things from being loaded at all. If you've ever bought something that had to be put on the second row seat because there was no other way to carry it, you could have used a hatchback.
All this space creates a much more comfortable second row. Traditional compact sedans tend to have a sloping roof that gobbles up head room and makes the second row feel like a cave. There's less than 1 inch difference in head room between the front and back rows, meaning everyone can travel comfortably.
Nice exterior lines
The exterior design doesn't change for the 2011 model year, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. The car looks pretty nice. The Mazda3 still has sharp lines all across its body; Mazda creates a family look with its steep windshield, big grille and curvy headlamps.
Designing a hatchback is much like designing a minivan — there are only so many changes you can make without sacrificing the utility of the vehicle. Mazda still manages to create a sharply designed exterior with a user-friendly interior.
And that's the point of any hatchback: providing the best of both worlds. The Mazda3 hatchback remains one of the best in that world and, fortunately, more buyers are starting to discover that exact same thing.
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