2010 Mazda Mazda3s Grand Touring 5-Door Review
By Chris Haak
Mazda has been on something of a product roll lately, showing the apparent ability to wrap nicely-styled interiors in bodies that pay tribute to the RX-8 sports car. Such a feat is even more impressive considering that some of those vehicles paying tribute are crossovers and midsize sedans. This brings us to the new-for-2010 Mazda3, whose task is to build on the success of the well-regarded previous generation, while adding style, comfort, and power. The Mazda3 isn’t the compact car class sales leader, but often times is at the head of the class in comparison tests.
The Mazda3 captures much of the RX-8’s styling essence (in particular with the shape of the front fenders), while adding more styling flourishes such as the upswept swage line that starts behind the front fender and blends into the rear door. Of course, Mazda also saw fit to add the same smile-like grille opening to the 3 that it’s affixed to Mazda’s more recent refreshes, such as the MX-5 Miata and RX-8. (Somehow, the Mazda6 midsize sedan received the pronounced fender bulges of the RX-8, but missed the happy face treatment). The 17 inch alloy wheels with 205/50 tires might not sound large quantitatively, but since the car is fairly small, they do a nice job of filling the wheel openings and looking adequately sporty.
To my eye, the 3’s shape is much more interesting in this new generation than it had been before. The old Mazda3 was an attractive, if fairly conservative, exterior design. Neat touches such as swept-back headlamps, LED taillamps that aren’t on the same plane as the surrounding bodywork, pronounced fender bulges, and a roofline that manages to make a five-door hatch significantly sportier-looking than its four-door sedan sibling all work for me. Comparing the style of the Mazda3 to the Toyota Corolla, Chevy Cobalt, Ford Focus, Nissan Sentra, or Hyundai Elantra is hardly even a fair fight. The Honda Civic – at least in its coupe form – comes close to the 3’s good looks, but still is showing its age a bit. Some will disagree with me, but the 2010 Mazda3’s styling works. To me, being seen in some of the cars in its class, I felt like I was driving an economy car because I couldn’t afford a bigger/better car. In the Mazda3, I had no such neurosis.
Helping my shallow self-image as I drove the Mazda3, in addition to the aforementioned high style of its exterior, is easily the best interior in the compact segment. Hands down, no contest. I’ve been clamoring for years for a manufacturer to put so-called premium features into all of their cars, and to let the buyers decide if they are willing to pay extra for them or not. The result is a fairly pricey compact car (final MSRP including destination is $24,760), but also one equipped better than many luxury cars of five years ago. Heck, it’s equipped better than some luxury cars of 2008. Nowhere in its class can you combine features like Bose stereo, power moonroof, xenon HID headlamps, in-dash LCD navigation, trip computer, leather seats/steering wheel/shift knob, rain sensing wipers, Bluetooth cell phone connectivity, and Sirius satellite radio. On top of the feature list, everything is amazingly well-integrated in a cockpit that does a good job of combining both form and function. Sure, there are swaths of hard plastic here and there, but for the most part, those areas are found in spots that you don’t come in frequent contact with. The door panels, armrests, and – most impressively – the majority of the dashboard – are all either soft-touch plastic or covered in padded leather-like vinyl.
The top-model Mazda3s like my test vehicle have pushbutton keyless start, which is another nice-to-have feature not found in many of its competitors, but the plastic plug on the steering column where the key opening would go was really obvious and fairly poorly done. Most controls are easy to use, with the exception of the navigation system, which has a screen that features perhaps a quarter of the real estate typically allotted to the display (it was roughly 2 inches by 4 inches) and is set at the base of the windshield. This keeps the map display closer to the driver’s line of sight with the road, but also doesn’t allow for much detail on the map. It’s also not touch screen or dial-operated, and instead uses controls on the right-hand spoke of the three-spoke steering wheel exclusively, including for data entry. It wasn’t hard to use once I got used to it, but input was definitely more cumbersome than in most systems. At least the tiny display had high resolution – allowing it to fit more information onto the small screen – and was bright.
Once the 2.5 liter four cylinder was idling and ready to go, the shift action is nowhere close to the short, direct linkage that the Miata features. Instead, the throws are long and felt somewhat rubbery. The car doesn’t like to go into first gear without moving the gearshift very slowly, including holding it against the entry point for first gear for a few seconds while the internals synchronized themselves. The clutch’s engagement point also took some getting used to, with a relatively high takeup point. I got used to it after some time driving the car, but a beginner would have more of an issue knowing when to let go of the brake and jab the accelerator when pulling away from a stop and going uphill. At least the ratios were fairly intelligently defined, though sixth gear could stand to be a little higher for better highway mileage. The car droned a bit at highway speeds, so a taller sixth gear would have helped that as well.
The Mazda3 doesn’t really feel so much like a small car on the road – and truth be told, it is bigger than the previous model and far bigger than the Protege5 from whence it sprung. The upside of that not-a-small-car sensation is that the driver feels safer and the car is more comfortable than the stereotypical tin can compact car, but the downside is that its upsized 2.5-liter four cylinder could use a few more horsepower to go beyond an “adequate” classification. More power would probably cost more mileage, though, and the car’s EPA rating of 21 city/29 highway isn’t really anything to brag about (I observed about 25 mpg). The manual transmission certainly helps performance a bit, but doesn’t help economy, with the optional five-speed automatic rated at 22 city/29 highway. Relative to its competitors, its 21/29 figures exactly match the Civic Si’s numbers with its 2.0 liter four cylinder, but the Civic’s engine produces more power. The 3’s standard 2.0 liter engine is rated at 24/33 with the automatic and 25/33 with the five-speed manual. The Civic’s standard 1.8 liter engine is rated at 25/36 with the five-speed automatic and 26/34 with the five-speed manual.
I give the Mazda3 top marks for both its steering and its ride/handling compromise. I prefer a more firm suspension as a general rule, and only complain when a car transmits every pebble into the passenger compartment. The 3 fell a few degrees softer than that harsh benchmark, which is a good thing. I doubt that most consumers would find the 3 to be too stiffly suspended, but it was firm enough to allow the car’s handling to more or less match its sporty looks. Unlike the clutch’s engagement point, which takes some getting used to, the brakes require no acclimation period and have a fairly firm pedal considering that the car isn’t a rally car and isn’t blessed with a set of Brembos. Steering was linear, accurate, and light. In fact, the 3’s steering may have been its best feature, and one of the few not harmed by the fact that it’s electrically powered. Remembering how poorly the EPS in the Toyota Corolla communicated to me, the 3’s system reminded me much more of BMW’s efforts than Toyota’s, and that’s great news for a Mazda3 buyer.
While not without fault, and acknowledging that you’re being asked to pay extra for some of the comfort and convenience features included in my test car, I’m prepared to anoint the Mazda3 as the best member of the compact car class that I’ve driven, and the only members of that class I haven’t spent significant seat time in are the Focus and Civic. Compared to a Nissan Sentra, for instance, the 3 just crushes it on nearly every aspect that I’d look for – styling, interior design/materials, features, performance, and refinement. And the 3 isn’t available with a CVT, thankfully. I’d advise any buyers who have large older cars and don’t want to sacrifice their car’s luxury features but don’t need the extra space or fuel consumption to give the 3 some serious consideration. Meanwhile, I expect that the Mazda3 is just the first entry in what will become a fast-growing segment of near-luxury compact cars, and for that Mazda deserves kudos.
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