|Photos by Ulysses Ang|
Admittedly, when the curtains were pulled off the all-new Mazda3, the reception was a bit lackluster. Given the first-generation 3 collected numerous accolades and was for a time, the Philippines’s best-selling compact car, expectations for the new model was stratospherically high. Plus, since its arrival was a full two years (and a facelift) behind schedule, everyone was expecting to be blown away. Rumors circulated about the possibility of having a 2.0-liter hatchback, a manual transmission option, and even the arrival of the mythical Mazdaspeed3.
Alas, when the covers fell, there sat the all-new Mazda3—still shapely and smiling, if a tad familiar. Despite all the rumors, Mazda played it safe: the all-new 3 is available in the same basic choice of configurations as the previous model was: two 1.6-liter variants and a top-of-the-line 2.0-liter, all equipped with an automatic transmission. And despite being marginally wider, longer, and lighter than its predecessor, the 3’s platform is largely carried over. Plus, when the pricing was announced: P 1,299,000 for the 2.0-liter sedan, a collective gasp could be heard. But despite all the criticisms leveled at the 3, you can't pass judgement until you've tried it. You have to spend some seat time in it. It may be expensive and all, but it could very well be worthy of your hard-earned cash.
And after a week’s worth of drive time, there’s only one conclusion you can reach with the all-new Mazda3: the magic is there. This is still the driver’s compact car, bar none. Worth every cent? You betcha.
Mazda engineers knew they struck gold with the first-generation 3’s platform, so why fix if it isn't broken? Sitting on a set of independent MacPherson Struts and Multi-links, the new 3 is agile, communicative, and invigorating to drive whatever the road, whatever the condition. It turns into corners with katana-like precision—carving through bends with almost no roll. Show the 3 an S-bend, and it will eat it for breakfast. This is the closest thing any Japanese carmaker has come to matching the yardstick of all front-driven cars: the Mini. Yes, it's that good. What's more, the rest of the drivetrain elements: from the nicely weighted and no-nonsense steering to the nicely modulated and responsive brakes and even the grippy 17-inch Toyo tires all work in unison to deliver an unparalleled driving experience. In fact, if you have to be overly critical, the only weakness to the 3 is its firm ride. There are clear improvements done to reduce NVH, but the jiggly ride remains a facet to the Mazda3 ownership experience.
Another perceptible weakness to the 3 is its choice of engine: a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder unit carried over from the previous generation model with outputs remaining the same: 145 horsepower and 182 Nm of torque. The power is still there, but considering its newer rivals can extract the same outputs from a smaller engine, and you’ve got a recipe for “trolling” (internet speak for inflammatory, useless or extraneous comments in an online discussion). That said, you can’t dismiss this powerplant. Granted it isn't as punchy as other engines, but whenever you need the boost (overtaking, and the like) it never fails to deliver. You can hat tip this newfound responsiveness to the 3’s new 5-speed automatic. It's just as smooth as the engine and pairs very well with it. Mazda has even incorporated steering wheel shifters (paddles for up shifts, buttons for downshifts) in case you need extra control. However, despite the extra gearing, the 3 needs to rev comparatively higher (past 2,000 rpm) before shifting which means the benefits to fuel economy remain marginal: 8.13 km/l. There's no available cruise control too.
The Mazda3’s on-road athleticism is only matched by its sporty styling both on the outside and inside. It wears the Mazda design DNA on its sleeve (and bulbous fenders). Despite being launched as early as two years ago in other markets (facelifted this year), the 3 remains a fresh and sporty face in the sea of compact car ubiquity. From the outside, it looks like a miniaturized Mazda6—down to “cycle” fenders, turbine-like split-spoke alloys, and cleared-off tail lamps. And since the design formula is concentrated on a smaller body, the 3 actually looks even more aggressive than its larger sibling, especially in Velocity Red.
Inside, the story's the same as the 3 feels pretty much like a smaller version of the 6. Everything from the layout, choice of materials, even creature comforts all mirror the executive sedan. The all-black motif is unabashedly sporty with just the right spattering of aluminum to keep things interesting. Not surprisingly, because of the 3's high price tag, it's fitted to the roof with toys and features: leather seats, moon roof, dual-zone climate control, 6 speakers, 6 airbags, ABS, and even traction control. As kitted as it is, the 3's age is starting to betray itself by lacking a proper USB input for an iPod (there's just an aux) as well as the lack of a built-in Bluetooth hands-free. Another thing that betrays the 3's age is the tight interior. Despite a longer wheelbase compared to its rivals, the 3 doesn't seem to maximize available space. As a result, it feels claustrophobic and lacks much needed knee room, especially for the rear occupants.
Nonetheless, the 3 remains every bit a driver's car with an ergonomically sound interior. All the controls are within excellent reach, and the gauges though, not sitting upright like the previous generation, remain highly legible with large numerals. The multi-information as well as audio/climate displays have been moved closer to eye-level while the most-used controls such as audio volume, temperature adjustments, and the like have been given larger rotary knobs. That said, the sheer number of buttons on the center console is even more daunting than before.
In the end, it's clear that the Mazda3 isn't the perfect compact car out there. However, you get the feeling that Mazda wasn't aiming to deliver a compact car to appease everyone. More than anything, Mazda stuck to their guns--delivering a fun-to-drive, enthusiast-centric car that's every bit as magical as the original one. Indeed, the Mazda3 and its engineers are ballsy for retaining their focus when they could have just gone through an easier route. If all car makers were to do a car based solely on their founding principles rather than what the accountants say, most likely, they'll end up with a Mazda3.