Canadians love Mazda. The company’s market share here is almost twice that of what it is in the U.S. and other major markets. In particular, Canada loves the Mazda3 and as a result that car accounts for almost half of all Mazdas sold in this country.
Canadian journalists also have high regard for Mazda. AJAC members recently voted the 2014 Mazda3 sedan Best In Class in the under $21,000 category and the new Mazda3 Sport, Best In Class in the small sedan over $21,000 category.
When the overall ballots are tabulated by KPMG and announced at the Toronto Auto Show in February the Mazda3 stands a good chance of being named overall 2014 Canadian Car of the Year.
Why all this praise? Because Mazda builds vehicles with character and with with some attitude, from styling to performance.
It takes the stance that affordable cars don’t have to be dull. It feels there are plenty of cars out there for people looking for reliable, everyday transportation, cars that blend in. Mazda develops vehicles for people who need reliability and affordability – but who also enjoy driving.
Automotive journalists are enthusiasts, for the most part. Those of us who drive hundreds of new vehicles every year look forward to and recognize vehicles that put a smile on your face. And believe it or not that doesn't limit the field to 500 horsepower and six-figure price tags. It's even more fun to find such cars with reasonable price tags. Mazda builds such vehicles.
There was some concern that when Mazda was cast astray by Ford it would falter. Before it sold off most of its shares in Mazda to raise capital and avoid the embarassment of bankruptcy suffered by its Detroit siblings, Ford had provided that monstrous bank of development funds that allowed Mazda to pursue new products with impunity.
With that rich daddy gone, would the little Hiroshima-based car company be able to retain its edge?
The Mazda3 proves that the answer is a resounding, "Yes."
Concentrating on basics and details, Mazda developed its SkyActiv approach to a whole range of technologies, to which it applied that label. It redefined how gasoline and diesel engines and both manual and automatic transmissions work.
SkyActiv also involves the architecture and even production systems. This complete rethink and a resulting new modular platform resulted first in the new CX-5 CUV, followed by a new Mazda6, which incidentally was voted AJAC’s Best New Family Car over $30,000 for 2014.
Next out of the box, and hugely significant to Mazda as it is sold in more than 120 countries, is the 2014 Mazda3 in sedan and Sport (hatchback) guise. The two body styles are important because our neighbours to the south have not yet cottoned on to the fact hatchbacks are better. They still prefer sedans and are a very large market.
The outgoing Mazda3 was based on a Ford platform. The 2014 version is new from road to roof, blessed with the full suite of the company’s new technologies and traditional emphasis on driver involvement.
The new “3” exudes Mazda’s KODO or “Soul Of Motion” design language. The gaping mouth of the outgoing model has been closed and now looks more like a smile. Everything from there back is new and the base of the windshield sits further back, helping to emphasize the rakish appearance.
The new car is lower and leaner than the old and the wheelbase has grown 75-mm. The Sport is actually 127-mm shorter than the sedan. Both come in GX, GS and GT trim levels.
The standard engine in the GX and GS trim levels is a 155-horsepower, 2.0-litre four-cylinder with a choice of six-speed manual or automatic transmissions.
The GT gets a 2.5-litre four that produced 185 horsepower and for now, is only available with the automatic. Compared to the same basic engines in the outgoing model, these new ones, boasting Skyactiv intake, exhaust and combustion tricks, produce 10-15% more power while weighing less and squeezing more distance from each drop of fuel.
A 2.2-litre diesel and a hybrid are available elsewhere and due here, next year.
On the inside, Mazda didn't ignore the current trend toward more infotainment. There is a colour screen sticking up from the instrument panel. Depending on your point of view it looks like an after-thought or a tablet you placed there yourself.
The big, crisp, clear screen displays everything from audio and navigation to a backup camera view and it fronts an intuitive operating system controlled by a console-mounted joystick.
On the road
I spent some quality time with a Mazda3 Sport, accumulating more than 1,000 km at the wheel through three provinces and a similar number of weeks. While my drive took place after AJAC’s annual Car Of The Year testing, it reaffirmed my votes in the small car under and over categories.
You feel the difference as soon as you get in and start the engine. The all-new instrument cluster lights up and at first glance there seems to be no speedometer – engine speed takes priority over road speed.
The big dial right in front of you is the tach. Then you see a small digital speedometer tucked into the lower right corner portion of the tachometer.
You also detect something different the first time you turn the steering wheel. The response is instantaneous and direct, you find yourself turning more quickly than expected – no delay, no waiting for things to catch up to your input.
The steering is the personification of Mazda’s approach to building vehicles – driver involvement and feedback. Zoom Zoom indeed.
Spend any time with this car and it becomes obvious the development team spent more time on steering nuances and suspension settings than on cup holders. The thick steering wheel is ultra communicative and slightly stiffer than those of the mainstream competition but the Mazda retains a pleasant, albeit firm ride.
The GT version has shift paddles on the back side of the steering wheel and a “sport” setting that uses sensors to monitor your driving style and control the transmission accordingly. Push it a little and the transmission holds gears a little longer and downshifts more readily.
Complaints are minimal. The back seat is not the roomiest in the class and the heads-up display is, in my opinion, a chintzy-looking piece of plastic rather than a projection onto the windshield. It does serve the useful purpose of displaying speed or other information where you can read it without taking your eyes too far off the road.
This is easily the best yet Mazda3 yet and a shining light for the future of the company.
It's no surprise that earlier versions of the Mazda3 gained a large following in Canada. And it will be no surprise that the 2014 helps expand that popularity.