Mazda’s larger, more powerful replacements for the departed Protege sedan and Protege5 hatchback went on sale in the 2004 model year. Built on the same platform as the Volvo S40, the compact, front-wheel-drive Mazda3 displayed entirely different styling. A 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine goes into the Mazda3 i sedan, while the Mazda3 s sedan and hatchback hold a more powerful 2.3-liter four-cylinder. Competitors include the Honda Civic and Volkswagen Jetta.
The Mazda3 received minor modifications for the 2007 model year. The front bumper was redesigned and fitted with square fog lamps, and the 16- and 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels also got a new look. The audio system has a standard auxiliary audio input for MP3 players. Both the sedan and hatchback have rear armrests with cupholders, and the i sedan has zebra-striped wood-finish dash trim. For 2008, s Sport models have standard side-impact and side curtain airbags.
Comparatively upright in profile, the Mazda3 is built with a wide track and a relatively long (103.9-inch) wheelbase for its size. A Sport Package that includes sport bumpers, side skirts, 17-inch alloy wheels and fog lamps is available on s sedans and standard on s hatchbacks.
Steel wheels hold 15-inch tires on the Mazda3 i sedan; the Mazda3 s sedan gets 16-inch alloy wheels, while the Mazda3 s hatchback rolls on 17-inch rubber. The wagonlike hatchback has small triangular rear quarter windows. Sedans get a short but high rear deck.
Up to five people can fit inside the Mazda3. The steering column tilts and telescopes, and the instruments sit in a trio of round, recessed nacelles. A ratchet-type mechanism permits seat adjustment, allowing the cushion and seatback to move up and down together. Placing the rear-suspension coil springs beneath the floor increases the hatchback’s rear storage space.
The s Grand Touring model includes heated leather seats, automatic headlights, automatic rain-sensing wipers and a trip computer. A moonroof, a custom-tuned Bose audio system and Sirius Satellite Radio are optional.
The 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the Mazda3 i has variable valve timing and develops 148 horsepower (144 hp in PZEV form). The Mazda3 s uses a 2.3-liter four-cylinder that pumps out 156 hp. A five-speed manual gearbox is standard, and a four-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift provision is optional for the Mazda3 i. The 2.3-liter engine can mate with a five-speed automatic.
Side-impact and side curtain airbags are optional. All-disc antilock brakes with brake assist are standard on s models and optional on i models. Traction control and an electronic stability system are available on s models.
The easy-to-drive Mazda3 handles more adeptly than most rivals. The automatic transmission delivers quick, smooth responses. Performance with the larger engine falls short of some sporty compacts, but it will satisfy most drivers. That engine is generally quiet, but it emits a fair amount of blare when pushed. With an easy-shifting manual gearbox and a well-behaved clutch, even the Mazda3 i with the smaller engine feels more spirited than an upper-level model with the automatic.
Although the front seats are nicely shaped, their seatbacks are on the hard side. Rear legroom is limited, but foot space is good. Headroom is average in the rear but meager in the center position. Visibility is good. The Mazda3 instruments are difficult to see on dark days but are lit nicely at night.