Mazda3 S Touring
Mazda3 S Touring Stick/Sedan
22 city, 29 highway as tested
|Why we’d buy it
Great cornering, nice and quick, easily managed, nicely sized
|Why we wouldn’t
Controls go for gee-factor, not usability; gas mileage; busy ride
|review by David Zatz|
The Mazda3 burst onto the streets to the pleasure of low-budget performance addicts and automotive journalists, who had long wanted a foreign sport compact that could beat the Dodge Neon. The prior version actually had better acceleration and more power, but the current one retains impressive performance both in a straight line and around turns.
Driving the Mazda3 hard is certainly rewarding; it hugs the road and accelerates quickly when pushed, with the S model doing 0-60 in a 1995-Neon-matching 8.0 seconds; the engine roars appropriately and with a more racy sound than the long-gone Dodge. The front tires sometimes have a hard time getting traction, but the Mazda3 generally stays under control; and the stability control kicks in when needed, which can be fairly often, when taking hard turns or zooming onto the freeway. The brakes are predictable and strong, the engine has good power from the start all the way up through redline, and the suspension takes sharp corners without significant body roll. Taking the Mazda3 to its limits is an adreline experience which explains much of the praise it’s gotten in the press.
On the downside, the tactile ride that provides all those cues on the road surface and traction also make for a rather busy ride; nasty bumps are easily cushioned, without any noise or subsonic rumble, but you do feel every feature of the road. Likewise, the thrilling sound of the engine is eventually accompanied by a good amount of wind noise. When one is unable to press the Mazda3, it is not as nice a ride as many competitors, which isn’t surprising but must be noted.
The steering is tight and precise at speed, heavy and hard to push around at low speed, though it provides variable assist. On the highway, the steering is a bit on the overly sensitive side, requiring more attention than it should but perhaps contributing to the sporty feel.
The engine provided good power off the line, and steadily grew in power up to redline, accompanied by appropriate revvy noises; on the highway, downshifting one or two gears was needed for good response. Idling is very smooth, thanks partly to the balance shafts on the 2.3.
Gas mileage on the Mazda3 is more in proportion to speed than size; the I starts at 24 city, 32 highway (take away 1 mpg from both for the automatic), while the S is rated at 22 city, 29 highway with either manual or automatic, poor by the standards of a few years ago but with today’s heavier, safer, quieter cars, not unusual; indeed, the far less potent Honda Civic gets mileage similar to the I, with less horsepower and torque.
The dashboard has a good deal of gadgetry; the gauges light up blue when you get in, and when you turn the key the blue dissipates while the bright orange-red numbers appear. It’s a cool feature, but we’d give it up to get a speedometer that doesn't put all the legal speeds tightly into a tiny part of the band, so the scale can go up to 140 mph (despite the fact that the car itself is limited to 117 mph) without even using a full half of its space. The tachometer, likewise, has a decent amount of past-the-redline space, but isn’t quite as cramped. A “headlamps” light is used for no apparent reason; and we thought that was just a GM-and-GM-partners habit.
The stereo is an odd three-knob affair which, and let’s just get it over with now, makes absolutely no sense in terms of controls. There's no consistency to speak of, it's not easy to figure out, it's not easy to use, and there's no reason for doing it that way. When you turn it on, shut it off, or move a dial, LED lights blink on and off in a directional pattern, which is fun to look at but also distracting and useless. That said, the stereo also has excellent sound, with good fidelity and strong directional resolution (that is, good stereo). Our test car had Sirius Satellite Radio as a $430 option (it also had a power moonroof as a $890 option). Audio controls are also on the steering wheel. The climate control is the usual three-knob affair, with poorly marked dials and a moderately cheap feel.
One lighting feature we did like was related to the wheel-mounted cruise control; when the cruise control is turned on the CRUISE light glows amber, and when a speed is locked in, it glows green. That’s the next best thing to separate CRUISE and SET lights.
From the inside, visibility is par for the course; the headlights are well focused and bright, and the gauge lighting can be turned to "full bright" while the rest of the backlighting is adjusted. The door controls are not backlit and the climate control legends are even harder to read at night; and during the day, the sun visors are both too small and not flexible enough, requiring too much effort to yank out of their retainer, and lacking extenders.
The interior is, other than the fancy lighting, fairly dull; the gauges are set in the usual deep pods with dull silver surrounds, and our car had the usual black interior with dull silver trim here and there to relief the monotony. An attractive light tan interior with wood trimmed panels does quite a bit to liven up the Mazda3, but our test car was the dull black.
The rear seats were reasonable spacious, though hardly generous; trunk space is surprisingly good though the trunk opening might not be able to handle larger items. Interior storage was moderately good; in addition to the glove compartment, there were small storage bins here and there, map pockets on the doors and covered cupholders in the center console, along with a small covered center storage bin that was set too far back for easy access.
The base Mazda3 i starts at $14,530, a good price for a basic economy car with a sporty look and feel; it has a 148 horsepower engine with 135 lb-ft of torque, a softer suspension than the S (which might be easier to live with on a day to day basis), and fewer options (no air conditioning, among other things). A four-speed automatic is available on the i, a five-speed on the S; both come standard with a five-speed stickshift, sharing gear ratios.
The S starts at $18,070, and includes a 156 horsepower engine with 150 lb-ft of torque, the increase coming largely from greater displacement (2.3 liters vs. 2.0). The larger engine uses dual balance shafts to keep it smooth, and it idles very smoothly indeed. Standard S features on our Touring four-door, which cost around $19,000 before options ($20,340 after options), included air conditioning, stability control, variable-assist power steering, seventeen inch alloy wheels, fog lights, intermittent wipers, six-speaker CD audio with steering-wheel controls, cruise, power windows and locks, tilt/telescope steering, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, stability control, traction control, tire pressure monitor, and antitheft system. Safety features included anti-whiplash front seats, side airbags (curtains and seat-based), and extra turn signals in the fenders. Overall, that’s a very well equipped vehicle for the price.
When all is said and done, the Mazda3 S Touring was a fun ride when pushed to its limits, and was very capable around turns and competent in the straights; a quick downshift brought immediate gratification. The down-side was that the car demanded constant attention, the non-primary controls were non-ergonomic and sometimes absurd, and the interior was plain aside from some gadgety tricks. As a daily driver, the Mazda3 only really works well if your daily drive involves a lot of fast driving. On the other hand, it provides a lot of sports-car experience for a low price, but we miss the balance of the Neon, which if it didn't have stability control, still packed in a lot of performance without being as hard on the gas or as demanding in situations when the driving is, frankly, dull.
Again, despite the less capable engine, the Suzuki SX4 actually seemed like a lot more fun, a lot more of the time. The suspension was less communicative of road trivia, the road and wind noise was lower, the price was similar, and the car just felt like a lot more fun when thrown into a curve; admittedly, the Suzuki had a nasty acceleration lag, and was considerably slower in sprints. But once one gets beyond a certain level of competence, unless engaged in competition, fun is really the key. And yet, the Mazda provided so much, at such a reasonable price, that the attention it’s getting is really justified. It really is “today’s GTI” and the performance bargain of the age.