- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

No doubt buoyed by the buzz surrounding its neck-snapping, 263-horsepower Mazaspeed3, North American sales of the entire compact Mazda3 lineup increased 27.4 percent to a record 120,791 during 2007.

That may not sound like much to the Japanese Big 2 - they know who they are - but it’s pretty impressive for a car that will celebrate its fifth anniversary this spring with only relative minor upgrades over the years.

With that success story in mind, I decided the time had come to take a second look at the vehicle in which I had spent a relatively brief time during its introduction back in 2003.

The Mazda3 is available in two body styles, four-door sedan and five-door hatchback. Mazda3i models are powered by two-liter, four-cylinder engines (148 horsepower, 135 pound-feet of torque) and the Mazda3s models get their grunt from 2.3-liter four-cylinder engines (156 horsepower, 150 pound-feet of torque).

Base prices range from $13,895 to $21,145. The rowdy Mazdaspeed3 starts at $22,340 for a four-door sedan.

The test vehicle was a four-door sedan known officially as the Mazda3s touring sedan. For the base price of $18,385, it came with a five-speed manual transmission, all of the expected comfort and convenience features and a full complement of safety features, many of which are optional on other Mazda3 models.

Before ever stepping inside the car, I couldn’t help but notice that its jaunty design has managed to remain fresh and sporty with nothing more than new wheels, a body-color grille, revised front bumper and fog lights to differentiate its 2007-model-year freshening from earlier models.

Inside, it was obvious that new gauges, new materials and new trim have added an upscale touch to what is essentially an entry-level car.

So far, so good. But what about the Zoom Zoom, that engaging sportiness which, according to Mazda, gives the ‘3’ a leg up on the competition? Has it been ratcheted up to, say, Zoom Zoom Zoom?

Not really. The 2008 Mazda3 seemed pretty much as I had remembered it. I know the chassis was stiffened and the engine was given a little more pulling power in that 2007 upgrade, but I didn”t really sense a new level of power and control as I put the sedan through its paces.

What I did get, however, was a renewed appreciation for just how lively and competent the Mazda3 has always been, and how it can add enjoyment to every-day driving without abandoning its fundamental econocar roots.

It is not lightning fast, but it is fast enough. It is not big, but it is roomy enough for up to four normal-size adults and its 11.4-cubic-foot trunk will swallow as much luggage as some mid-size automobiles.

Because it is driven by the front wheels, the Mazda3 cannot have all the moves of a full-fledged sports sedan.

However, thanks to the four-wheel independent suspension, rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel disc brakes, it offers an excellent combination of ride comfort and responsiveness.

I know most Americans have succumbed to the ease of automatic transmissions, but this car is really at its most enjoyable when the driver is in charge of the gear changes.

That’s because Mazda’s easy-shifting, five-speed manual transmission is well matched to the engine’s power band, making it a simple matter for the driver to extract the most the powerplant has to offer.

The same cannot be said for the move into reverse, however. More often than not, I found myself wrestling with the lever before I could back up.

Buyers who prefer the five-speed automatic transmission will be glad to know that the EPA rates cars with either transmission at 22 miles per gallon of regular fuel in the city and 29 on the highway. I averaged 27 mpg in a week of mostly suburban and highway driving.

One area in which some Mazda3 models lag behind the competition is in the level of standard safety equipment.

The lowest-priced, small-engine models come with standard belts and front airbags, side impact beams, child-safety rear-door locks, collapsible steering wheel and brake pedal, whiplash-reducing headrests and tire-pressure monitors.

However, seat-mounted side airbags, side curtains, and anti-lock brakes with brake-force distribution and emergency brake assist are options.

Stability control and traction control aren’t even available on all but the Mazda3s touring and grand touring models.

All of those safety features were standard in the Mazda3 that I drove, as were air conditioning, cruise control, steering-wheel mounted audio controls, a six-speaker sound system and power windows and door locks.

An odd option package, sunroof and in-dash six-disc CD player, added $890 to the price and satellite radio added another $430. Factor in the $595 delivery fee and the total came to $20,340.

All in all, the folks at Mazda continue to offer an enjoyable alternative for people seeking practical, reasonably priced transportation.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide