|The smiley grille is the new face of the Mazda3!|
He’s serious. Just look at the Nissan cube’s bulldog nose or Chevrolet’s Transformers-derived Camaro. And what about Kia, which is literally selling its Soul?
Up until recently, manufacturers were all too happy to exploit the retro theme. Now, here they are, undertaking a revolution in automotive anthropomorphism!
This is no joke, folks…
Major cosmetic surgery
Despite such an extensive makeover, the designers of the Mazda3 were able to keep its popular silhouette unchanged. You can easily recognize the lines of the old model, which made quite a splash when it replaced the venerable Protegé in 2003. This racy, almost European look continues to set the beloved Mazda apart from its top rivals, particularly the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.
Of course, it all starts up front with that broad new smile. Sure, the eccentric styling took many fans by surprise when the first few samples of this new generation rolled off the assembly lines, but they’ve since gotten used to it and, today, they smile back anytime they come across one.
The marketing gurus at Mazda claim that the new design language of the 3 will eventually be applied to the entire product lineup. The new MX-5 and RX-8 have already received the treatment, although the results are not quite as smoothly executed. After all, no design truly is universal.
The Mazda3 family still comes in two specific body styles: a four-door sedan for conservative buyers and a five-door hatchback called Sport that uses a sleek profile to win over young customers.
|The new 2.5-litre engine produces more torque and power than its predecessor.|
Each model is available in three trim levels, namely GX, GS and GT. The first one is motivated by the same 148-horsepower, 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine as the original Mazda3, while the other two benefit from the Mazda6’s 2.5-litre unit, which produces a healthy 167 horsepower. That’s 11 extra ponies compared with the old 2.3-litre four-pot.
|The pleasantly-firm suspension with larger stabilizer bars gives the impression that the car rides on rails.|
Even better, this new engine generates more torque at similar revs than its predecessor -- 168 lb-ft vs. 150. The gain is particularly appreciated in rush-hour traffic when you’re reduced to low-speed, stop-and-go driving in 2nd or even 1st gear.
The six-speed manual gearbox of the 2010 Mazda3 (sedan or hatchback) is arguably one of the most pleasant to manipulate. The gears are nicely spaced and the precise shifter actually feels like a computer joystick. In dense traffic, what else could you ask for?
Of course, the little Mazda3 Sport is equally fun to drive on the tight, winding roads of the countryside. The clutch is smooth with just enough stroke. Meanwhile, the pleasantly-firm suspension with larger stabilizer bars gives the impression that the car rides on rails -- or sort of.
The rigid chassis, sharp steering and powerful, four-wheel disc brakes also make for genuinely-sporty driving dynamics, something very few compacts can brag about. Comfortably seated in the prominently-contoured bucket seats of the GT model, I never wanted to get out!
Obviously, since the majority of drivers prefer automatic transmissions, Mazda is offering a 5-speed unit featuring a "Sport" mode (that’s quite an overstatement). At $1,200, the autobox will likely satisfy these owners.
An extra $3,100 for the GT!
Still, it’s hard to justify the gap of $3,100 which separates the mid-level GS model from the high-end GT. After all, on the surface, the 17-inch alloy wheels of the latter appear to be the only difference between the two.
However, the GT adds stability and traction control as standard equipment, whereas the GS requires you to pay an additional $1,495 (Comfort Package). Also standard on the top-of-the-line model are bi-xenon headlights which make nighttime driving so much safer.
|The new dashboard with circular shapes and stretched lines creates an impression of movement and airiness.|
As for other upgrades, they’re basically limited to accessories like dual-zone climate control, a six-CD changer, sport fabric for the seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Inside, you’ll find a new dashboard whose combination of prominent circular shapes and stretched lines creates an impression of movement and airiness. That’s a relief from the overabundance of black plastics.
Anyway, the upper section of the dashboard now features a narrow Climate/Audio display under a sweeping pod. That’s also where Mazda puts the optional navigation system that’s part of the GT-E Package. The GPS is accurate but the screen is not very large. Fortunately, it sits near the base of the windshield, thereby eliminating the usual distractions for the driver, who can keep a closer eye on the road.
The center stack is stylish and symmetrically laid out. However, the various controls and buttons all look and feel pretty similar, making them hard to differentiate using only your fingertips.
On the plus side, material selection is impressive considering the price range and it’s all finished with German-like attention to detail.
|The handy cargo area transforms in a flash and accommodates large items.|
Pleasant fit and comfort
Like the Mazda3 sedan, the 3 Sport boasts a 60-40 split-folding rear seat that provides greater cargo versatility. Needless to say the rear liftgate of the hatchback is much more accommodating than the conventional trunk lid; the opening is tall and wide so you’re not constantly swearing while loading big items inside the car.
That being said, some flaws of the previous model have not been addressed upon developing the 2010 Mazda3 Sport. Above all, rearward visibility remains poor due to the delta-shaped beltline, wide D-pillars and ultra-narrow rear window. Moreover, rear-seat legroom and headroom has not been improved at all. That’s the price you have to pay for a racy-looking bodywork with a low roofline. The taller you are, the more contorted you’ll have to be to access the hind quarters.
The strange thing is that few rivals fare better in this regard… and that most buyers simply don’t mind. Therefore, expect the Mazda3 to remain one of the best-selling cars in Canada for years to come.