- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2004

An automobile transformation, especially when the predecessor is well designed and engineered, is a rare occurrence.

As often as not, a new model is simply a plumped-up version of last year’s version, with fresh sheet metal and maybe a bump in horsepower, or a five-speed automatic transmission instead of a four, or maybe an upgraded interior. Sometimes, cars touted as “all new” are anything but.

That is manifestly not the case with the 2004 Mazda 3, which is an all-new car on a new platform, and except for being roughly the same size, is totally unlike the 2003 Mazda Protege, its immediate progenitor.

The Protege, and especially the Protege 5, a four-door hatchback model, was a fine example of a compact car, with enough virtues to win plaudits from the critics. It even won comparison tests for cars in its class from leading enthusiast publications.

You’d think that would be enough to carry the day. But Protege sales slipped badly in 2003. Fortunately for Mazda, the new 3 was in the works.

In concept, the 3 is similar to the Protege. It’s a compact that comes as either a conventional four-door sedan or a four-door hatchback. There are two versions: The 3 s, with a 160-horsepower, 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine, and the base 3 i, which is powered by a smaller 2.0-liter four with 143 horsepower. The latter is available only in the four-door.

Unless you have a thing about hatchbacks, the 3 s with the hatch is far preferable to the notchback sedan. The latter has just over 11 cubic feet of trunk space, where the hatchback has more than 17, which expands to 31 cubic feet with the back seat folded.

The 160-horsepower engine shares its basics with the four-cylinder on the larger Mazda 6 models. It’s made of lightweight aluminum and uses an internal timing chain, which requires no periodic maintenance. The test car was a 3 s hatchback, and it amounts to a complete transformation from its predecessor, the Protege 5. It is bigger, faster, more powerful, and handles better. But it’s also heavier, less fuel-efficient and more expensive.

That’s likely to produce a debate among Mazda aficionados. The old Protege 5 had a lightness of being to go with its good looks. Though it wasn’t particularly quick off the line, it made up for that with nimble handling, good braking, a decent ride and a low price.

The new 3 s, on the other hand, has a completely different all-around feel — more like that of a quality near-luxury car than a sporting compact. It is built off the same platform as the Volvo S40, which costs almost twice as much. That’s because Ford Motor Co. owns Volvo and partly owns Mazda. The Ford Focus also comes off the same platform, but it has an entirely different personality.

On the road, the feel of the 3 s is tight, almost heavy. There’s the sort of tactile, quality feel you get in a Volvo or even a Mercedes-Benz, and it tracks solidly down the highway, with nary a twitch. The sensation is enhanced by a classy interior design, with a beautifully integrated instrument panel, that is a cut above what is usually found in this price class. It includes backlit instruments, like those on some luxury cars.

Even with the test car’s four-speed automatic transmission, the 3 s has rapid pickup — a tick over eight seconds to 60 mph. Once on the road, it’s a good idea to use the cruise control because the engine is so eager it’s hard to hold it to the posted speed limit.

The tested 3 s had a base sticker price of $17,505. That included disc brakes, 17-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, cruise control, a six-speaker audio system with redundant steering-wheel controls, power windows, motorized mirrors, remote locking with an antitheft engine immobilizer, a rear spoiler, and a leather-covered steering wheel.

As with most cars these days, the 3 s has an abundance of storage space and cup holders. Also noteworthy is a huge glove compartment that can hold a 2-liter beverage bottle or as many as 16 CD cases. Mazda claims it even will hold a laptop computer, although the size is not specified.

With options that included antilock brakes, side air bags and side-curtain air bags, the four-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode, and a motorized sun roof, the suggested delivered price was $20,005. Not included among the options were the available leather upholstery ($590) and a navigation system ($1,750).

But that was fine. The quality cloth covers front bucket seats that are comfortable and supportive, with a multitude of manual adjustments that included lumbar supports. The steering wheel both telescopes and tilts, so almost anyone can find a comfortable driving position. Out back, the seats are nearly as comfortable, and can accommodate a couple of people up to 6 feet tall.

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