Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Let me say this right at the top: hands down, the Mazda 3 is the best car you can get for the money. That said, I’ll now defend the statement

At first glance the Mazda 3 looks like a 100-yard dash runner hunched down waiting for the starter’s gun. The car looks very stable and somewhat muscular, in a non-threatening way. Overall, the car is short with very little body overhang past the wheels, yet tall and slender.

Styling cues from the Mazda 6 and RX8 are evident, but the Mazda 3 is its own car for sure, although the platform is shared by the new Volvo S40 and European version of the Ford Focus.

Two body styles are offered on this, the replacement vehicle for the Protege (itself a fine car): a four-door sedan and five-door Sports Sedan, or hatchback, for those unafraid to use the term. For my money there are very few vehicles as versatile as a hatchback.

Getting in, the interior is roomy and very comfortable looking, even spacious, thanks in part to the “tumble home” angle of 20 degrees (that’s the angle of the side windows from vertical. The less the angle the more shoulder room.) Materials are of quite high quality for a car in this price class and there are tasteful details everywhere.

Radio and cruise-control buttons are on the steering wheel, a nice touch. The glove box lid and grab handles are damped, something not seen often in the low-price field. Fit and finish inside and out is first-rate.

The dash layout is very reminiscent of the RX8, with triple gauges in front of the driver and red-on-blue illumination. Comfy seats, clever cup holders and a two-level storage system in the center arm rest complement the cabin’s layout, as do the rear seats, which offer respectable leg room.

Nothing is lost in translation when it comes to the drivetrain. The base engine is a 2-liter, 148 horsepower four-cylinder that puts out ample torque (135 foot-pounds) to give the car lots of pep. A 2.3-liter 160-horsepower engine is optional on the base cars. It makes the Mazda 3 a downright stoplight dragster for the commuter-set.

Both engines are smooth, quiet and free of vibration, in part because of their all-aluminum construction.

As for transmissions, a nice five-speed manual with reinforced synchronizers is standard. The company went to great lengths to straighten the bends in, and Teflon coat the insides of, the shift cables, so shifting is glassy-smooth.

For those wanting an automatic transmission, Mazda is the only company so far to offer its optional automatics with Sport Shift at no extra charge.

The 3’s front suspension utilizes input isolation mounts, liquid-filled bushings and the steering rack (electro-hydraulically power assisted) is set low on the subframes for precise handling and control. Rear multilinks with rigid hub bearings combine with four-wheel disc brakes (another segment leader) to make a great handling car.

It’s a safe car as well, with reinforced rear seats that prevent “luggage intrusion,” a nasty phenomenon that occurs in high-speed crashes, and a steering wheel that collapses horizontally to limit chest injury. All the usual safety items are there as well, giving the Mazda 3 a five-star safety rating, the highest NHTSA score.

There’s a lot of stuff the buyer gets for the surprisingly low package price of $13,680 for the base 3i sedan. The 3S goes for $16,405 and the 5-Door for $16,895. Destination charges are $520.

Driving the 3 is where all this stuff turns to fun. It’s a blast to drive, much more than you can say for its competitors, all of whom are good cars but rather boring in actual use.

The Mazda 3 truly has the “soul of a sports car,” as the company likes to point out. It feels, handles, brakes and rides like much more car than its price would suggest.

As I said at the beginning: Hands down, it’s the best overall machine for the money.

Those who don’t include the Mazda 3 in their list of potential purchases in this class are going to miss out.

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