By way of illustration, the Mazda3 stands in contrast to the approach Chevrolet took with the Cobalt, which made its debut a year after the Mazda3, in 2005. From the start, it didn't measure up to the Mazda, Ford Focus or several others. Naturally it still trails Mazda now, and is well behind the models that have been introduced or redesigned since. It's a little too easy to take potshots at GM these days, but some signs are too clear to miss. Is it a surprise that Ford and its Mazda cousin are in better — if not good — shape?
Two Strikes Against
The two strikes against the 2009 Mazda3 are its crash tests and its gas mileage. With the crash tests, the problem isn't the results, it's the lack thereof. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has never subjected a Mazda3 with side-impact airbags to a side crash test. The airbags are now standard, but all we know is that the car's score without them is Poor. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration likewise hasn't side-crashed an airbag-equipped Mazda3.
As for mileage, the Mazda3's doesn't look bad at a glance, especially if you're accustomed to large cars, but it's relatively low for its class. The smaller engine, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, gets an estimated 32 mpg on the highway with a five-speed manual, and the optional 2.3-liter (the only engine available in the hatchback) rates 22/29 mpg with the manual. In comparison, the Honda Civic hits 36 mpg, and the Toyota Corolla, Cobalt and Focus manage 35 mpg. The new XFE version of the Cobalt hits 37 mpg, and even the Volkswagen Rabbit, which is 1 mpg worse in city driving, gets 30 mpg on the highway.
On the upside, the current generation's reliability has been above average to well above average, and it's one of the most fun cars in the compact class. Fun is hard to define, but it usually involves good handling, which the 3 has in droves. It goes beyond that, though. I've always found the Focus stunning in its roadholding and poise, but in my opinion the fun factor has eluded all but the discontinued SVT model. The Mazda3 has that...well, zoom-zoom thing going for it.
Also notable is the electro-hydraulic steering, which is an interesting half-step between conventional hydraulic power steering and the proliferating electric power assist: It has an electric power-steering pump that runs intermittently, so there isn't a parasitic load on the engine at all times, as happens with a conventional belt-driven pump. The full electric type is even more efficient, but most applications don't capture the natural action and feedback of hydraulic. Frankly, some are terrible (Cobalt). The Mazda3 gives you less of an efficiency advantage but doesn't sacrifice performance. If not for a little whirring when you turn the wheel at low speeds, you wouldn't know anything's different. It always seemed a reasonable tradeoff for a car with this one's personality, though differences of more than 1 or 2 mpg are a bigger problem now than they were a couple years ago. This steering approach will return in the 2010 Mazda3, which is predicted to get virtually the same mileage as this generation.
What you get for your diminished mileage is respectable but not exceptional acceleration. Though the 2.3-liter four-cylinder (to be replaced in the 2010 by a 2.5-liter) is pretty robust, the Mazda3 is among the heavier compact cars out there, in both hatchback and sedan forms. The optional automatic transmission's five speeds aren't enough to make the larger engine super quick or efficient. The smaller engine's optional automatic is a four-speed, which remains relatively common in this class.
My car had the standard five-speed manual transmission, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The stick is within reach and is a decent height. The clutch pedal is livable from day to day without being too soft. I certainly wouldn't mind having a sixth gear, but the engine has enough torque at low rpm to allow a standing-start launch without too much clutch slippage. Overall, for an engine of its size, the 2.3-liter's power delivery is pretty even. You have to rev the Civic's wee four-banger to higher rpm to get a move-on, but the payoff is way better mileage.
The Mazda3's cabin is another aspect that shines, especially for a car in its fifth year on the market without an update. Again, the Cobalt didn't compare in 2005, so it still doesn't, and I rate my Mazda3 Grand Touring's interior above that of comparably priced Corollas, Focuses, Hyundai Elantras and Nissan Sentras, even though they've been updated more recently. The Civic is in the ballpark, but nothing beats the Rabbit. Perhaps it's the Mazda3's liberal use of piano-black trim, especially on the Sport, Touring, Grand Touring and Mazdaspeed trim levels. Gloss is bad on most surfaces, but this lacquer look is rich. Where other models cling to their fake metal trim, the Mazda3 manages to look high-quality using plastic.
The interior isn't perfect, though. The center storage console could be larger, and its armrest could be farther forward for people who sit closer to the steering wheel. I find the gauges well-illuminated and legible, but they don't have the high-quality look occasionally found in modestly priced cars. The optional electronics are outdated, too. The Bose stereo performs well, but its display doesn't have enough characters to show text effectively, and the optional pop-up navigation system is all but obsolete in terms of its interface and controls.
I drove the car from Chicago to Detroit and back, and I was pleased with the leather-seat comfort, but the optional heaters only turn on and off. Most seat heaters give you at least a low and high setting, if not more. Otherwise, front and rear headroom is generous. Front legroom is on the small side, but at 6 feet tall I found it workable; on the interstate trip, I wished I could move the seat back more, and if it weren't for the clutch pedal I would have been happy to sit farther back all the time. Backseat legroom is quite good for the class, but you won't mistake the Mazda3 for a midsize car.
At 11.5 cubic feet, the sedan's trunk is rather small, but the hatchback ups it to 17.1 cu. ft. behind the backseat and 43.8 cu. ft. when it's folded down. There's a rigid cargo cover to keep the goods out of sight, as well as an underfloor cargo management system. Actually it's little more than a couple shallow bins under the cargo floor, but it's designed with notches to support the raised cover, and any extra space is welcome. The cover can be flipped, too, providing a water- and stain-resistant surface in lieu of the carpet.
Mazda3 in the Market
I can't tell you how many times I've returned test cars thinking, "This model's due for an update." That was the last thing on my mind when I handed over the Mazda3. That means the 2010 model is poised to leapfrog everything else on the market, which is the only way to do it. The Corolla was just redesigned about a year ago, and I'd take a 2009 Mazda3 over it in a heartbeat. Careful, Toyota. This is how it starts.
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