- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 29, 2005

Economy doesn’t have to mean cheesy. In its 3, Mazda combines impressive dash with a touch of class to arrive at an entry-level car that delivers a surprising degree of performance in a package that is more up-market than its $17,000 price tag suggests. This is a segment overflowing with competent competitors, but even so, the Mazda3 manages to stand out.

Whether based on its look-at-me exterior styling, engine choices (among the best in class) or value, Mazda3 elbows its way into the top tier of economy cars.

Available as either a four-door sedan or a five-door hatchback, Mazda3 covers the traditional econo-car bases. Mazda has added some new trim packages for 2006, bringing the total to five for the sedan: base, base Touring, S, S Touring and S Grand Touring.

The hatchback is dressed up as an S, S Touring or S Grand Touring. The base sedan is just that, base. It does have a few sought-after features such as four-wheel disc brakes, an audio system with CD player and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel. Moving up to the base Touring model adds air conditioning and an upgraded audio system. Other niceties such as power windows and height-adjustable driver’s seat must either be added as options or included as standard equipment in one of the S packages, which also include a leather-wrapped steering wheel/shift knob and steering wheel-mounted redundant audio controls. All five-door versions have 17-inch alloy wheels, intermittent rear wiper, rear spoiler and cargo cover as standard features.

At $14,270, the base sedan is a bargain. It’s a tough slog without air conditioning, though, and to get that and a few other frills on the base Touring adds another $2,280 to the bottom line. Stepping up to the sedan S cranks the price up to $17,440 — still quite reasonable for this segment. The S Grand Touring in either the sedan or hatchback with leather seating and xenon headlights raises the ante to $19,725. Finally the sporty hatchback S retails for $17,930. Adding side-impact and side curtain air bags adds another $245 to the bottom line on all Mazda3s.

Both the sedan S editions and all hatchbacks get a more powerful engine than the base sedan. While a 150-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder motivates it, the S models are upgraded to a 160-horsepower 2.3-liter. Both stack up well within the economy segment. The smaller four-banger has a 14 horsepower advantage over the base engine found in Ford’s Focus and 20 more ponies than Toyota Corolla’s base four. Although the 2.3-liter isn’t a class leader in terms of horsepower, it only gives up five horsepower to the 2.5-liter four-cylinder in Nissan’s Sentra and two horsepower to the 2.4-liter powering Mitsubishi’s Lancer. Unless the $900 four-speed driver-shiftable automatic transmission option is specified, a very slick five-speed manual transfers engine output to the front wheels in the base sedans. The S versions get a five-speed automatic ($950) as the transmission upgrade.

Both power plants deliver spirited performance and neither is a liability at the gas station. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the smaller engine and manual tranny package at 28 miles per gallon in town and 35 on the highway. Moving up to the larger engine knocks three miles off each of those numbers. Pairing the automatic with either engine reduces the five-speed mileage by only a couple mpg.

Mazda has skewed handling more toward the sporty end of the spectrum. Although the ride is pleasant enough, the independent suspension is tight and remarkably neutral. Mazda3 is nearly unflappable through twists and turns. There is no slop in the steering and navigational changes are achieved with minimal steering-wheel input. Braking is strong with an anti-lock system standard on S models.

The Mazda3 cockpit is a real surprise at this price point. Both design and execution exceed expectations for the entry-level segment. Giving the impression that a single hand created the interior styling, all elements flow together, establishing a cohesive appearance. Simple and clean, the lines of the dashboard flow into the front doors. Three large, recessed gauges fill the area directly behind the steering wheel.

Chrome-colored accents highlight the vents and center gauges. The easy-to-use audio controls dominate the center of the instrument panel with the three large knobs for the climate control stacked beneath them. The center stack transitions smoothly into the center console that hosts two substantial cupholders and a cubby beneath the center armrest.

As is to be expected, rear-seat legroom is stingy at best, but better than most of its peers. The front seats are firm and comfortable, supplying sufficient support for longer jaunts. A 60/40 split back seat folds down for additional cargo room. The fit and finish in the hatchback tested for this evaluation was top-notch. All interior pieces fit snugly.

For all intents and purposes, the day of the econo-box buzz bomb is behind us. Entry-level automobile owners no longer have to make do with some stripped-down, underpowered clownmobile. As a segment, compact economy cars have consistently improved over the past decade and Mazda has been instrumental in redefining the segment.

The only real clues that the Mazda3 is entry level are its price tag and size. Neither camouflage nor smoke and mirrors are at play here.

The Mazda3 is simply what happens when solid engineering, creative styling and careful construction converge. It gives entry-level a good name.

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