Road Test

2011 Mazda 3

Hatchback Mazda3 GT combines sportiness, style and versatility and pulls off all three

2011 Mazda3

Canadians have had a love affair with their small Mazdas that stretches back to the 1980s. The Mazda3, introduced in 2003, has been a huge success, as was the Protégé before it.

Heavily redone for the 2010 model year, it has become one of the most popular vehicles in the country, of any size and price. For the first nine months of 2010 it was the best-seller, overtaken only in the last quarter by perennial favorite Honda Civic.

The compact class counts for one in every four cars sold in this country · 25%! That is an amazing penetration and a class filled with some very accomplished vehicles.

At any given time there are at least a dozen cars slugging it out for a piece of this pie and it is about to get even more difficult for Canadians shopping in this class to make a decision with the pending arrival of entirely new versions of the Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Volkswagen Jetta, an all-new Chevrolet called the Cruze and an updated version of the Toyota Corolla.

That list includes just about every major player in the automotive industry from America, Europe, Japan and South Korea · talk about a war!

It·s hard to think of the Mazda as the old player in the game, having been heavily redone for 2010, but that shouldn't matter as Canadian consumers have a strong affinity for this vehicle and obviously being the newest kid on the block isn't all that important · the Civic is in its sixth year and the Corolla is of a similar vintage.

It doesn·t take long to see why the Mazda3 is such a hit.

My test vehicle was a Sport GT · a five-door hatchback with the highest trim level. The ·3· also comes in conventional four-door sedan guise. The GT has a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine paired with a five-speed automatic transmission. Lesser trim levels get a smaller (2.0-litre) engine.

Pricing for the five-door Mazda3 GT starts at $17,495. Mine hit $25,425 thanks to every conceivable option and feature. It had dual-zone automatic climate control, power windows, locks and mirrors, electronic stability and traction control, ABS, remote keyless entry, tilt/telescope steering, wireless connectivity, 17-inch alloy wheels, moon roof, heated seats, leather upholstery and an eight-way power adjustable driver·s seat.

This is a very well-equipped small car, but what adds to the attraction is a combination of stand-apart looks, utility and performance. From the gaping, forward-sloping, five-point Mazda mouth to the LED taillights and dual chrome exhaust outlets, this car stands apart in a class where a style is not exactly a hallmark.

It is also fairly rare in that five-door hatchbacks are unusual here in North America. The resulting ability to carry five people or very large items sets it apart from a pack where a conventional trunk is normal. Doing it with both style and versatility is even more rare.

The instrument cluster features a pair of instruments for primary info like vehicle and engine speed with secondary information on a sweeping panel set further back. There are redundant audio controls on the steering wheel of all models while the GT gets a unique wheel bristling with additional controls.

The seats are totally redesigned and side bolsters raised 20-mm for added support. The backs are a little too narrow for those of us of greater girth.

Lighting is superior. The combination of blue and red lighting with white indicators for the instrument panel is highly legible under all conditions. When you unlock the driver·s door. The main ceiling fixture, foot lights below the instrument panel and lights within the door handles fade in to welcome you. As the driver sits down, the instruments, centre information display, audio and air conditioning systems all light up in turn. Touch the audio or HVAC controls and the lighting level rises.

A special shout-out to the HID headlight system standard on this trim level · unusual in this class and clearly superior to others. If you haven·t experienced High Intensity Discharge headlights and often drive at night in poorly-lit situations head down to your local Mazda store and ask for a test drive · after dark. It really is the way to go.

The 167-horsepower engine does a great job of motivation. It is large enough in terms of displacement to produce a hefty 168 lb-ft of torque, allowing it to accelerate effortlessly from rest, climb hills and pass with ease.

The transmission has been well matched, with seamless shifts and the right ratios for most tasks. There is a general sense of surplus power · a you don·t have to use full throttle for most purposes.

This trim level comes with 17-inch alloy wheels and 50-series tires. While the small sidewalls do not provide much of a cushion, the ride is better than you would expect. Plus, my test vehicle was equipped with an excellent set of winter tires that, combined with the electronic traction control, provided great grip when things got slippery.

The combination of a stiff chassis, distinctly sporty suspension and beefy engine ensures the Mazda3 provides the expected Zoom-Zoom. At other times it goes about the job of providing comfortable and secure travel without breaking the bank.

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