Orange may be the new black and craft beer the new champagne, but in automotive circles it was the 2004 introduction of the Mazda 3 that ushered in a new standard-bearer among small cars.
The entry-level Mazda unseated the Volkswagen Jetta as the media darling, proclaimed the motoring press, by bringing dollops of style, fussy assembly quality and fun-to-drive verve that allowed this flyweight to punch well above its econobox class.
To underline its impact on the auto journo ranks, the 2004 Mazda3 was voted both Best New Economy Car and Canadian Car of the Year by members of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).
Leave it to Canadians to rally around a winner when they see one. The diminutive 3 became a hot seller and gratifyingly so – if you value a willing engine and athletic chassis as constant traveling companions.
The Mazda3 has consistently ranked as the third- or fourth-best-selling car in Canada, behind only the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra and Toyota Corolla.
Features and functions
Thanks to Mazda’s previous partnership with Ford, the 3 borrowed heavily from the European Focus and C-Max microvan as part of the Ford C1 family. The front-drive platform was 40% stiffer than the outgoing Protegé’s, and used the Mazda 6’s sophisticated multilink suspension design at the rear, imbuing the 3 with some essential “zoom-zoom” characteristics.
Like the Protegé, the 3 came in two body styles: a four-door sedan and an offbeat five-door hatch that took its cues from such European pop cars as the Peugeot 307 and Alfa Romeo 147.
To retain a more natural steering feel, Mazda stuck to a conventional hydraulic pump rather than an electric motor for assistance. The rack-and-pinion steering system was accurate and quick at 2.8 turns lock-to-lock, and disc brakes retarded all four wheels.
The 3’s wheelbase – already among the longest in its class – was stretched almost 3 cm, while width and track dimensions also grew by more than 5 cm to improve stability.
Inside, the driver was greeted with a pleasant cockpit and premium finishes that belied the car’s budget pricing. The bigger exterior dimensions resulted in a roomier interior than even the spacious Protegé, save for rear footroom, which was compromised by an extra structural beam.
The base powerplant was an all-aluminum DOHC 2.0-litre four cylinder, good for 148 horsepower and 135 lb-ft of torque. The optional engine, lifted from the Mazda 6, was a DOHC 2.3-litre four with sequential valve timing and variable intake runners, rated at 160 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of thrust.
Both engines were mated to a standard five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic transmission with a manumatic function.
The 3 changed little over the ensuing years, other than differing trim and options packages. The 2.0-litre engine gained variable valve timing in 2006, and the automatic transmission added an extra gear, but only with the 2.3-litre engine.
In response to critics looking for more oomph, the Mazdaspeed hatchback arrived for ‘07. Its claim to fame was its turbocharged DOHC 2.3-litre direct-injection four-cylinder from the Mazdaspeed 6, making 263 frenetic horsepower drivig through the front wheels, reined in by a sport suspension and 18-inch tires.
For its second-generation 3 in 2010, Mazda buyers could again choose between a four-door sedan and five-door hatchback, this time styled by Dutch-born Laurens van den Acker, who incorporated a demented Joker-like grin in the front fascia.
The 2010 models reprised their AJAC class domination taking Best New Small Car honours in both the over- and under-$21K categories.
The second-generation 3 retained the same C1 architecture, but beefed it up with more high-strength steel. The strut front and multilink rear suspensions returned, but with recalibrated springs, dampers and anti-roll bars, as well as a more stoutly mounted steering rack.
The wheelbase and width remained the same, although the car gained 7 cm in overall length.
The driver and front passenger kept their roomy but firm seats, facing a curvaceous instrument panel that looked up-to-the-minute cool rendered in carbon black. Rear-seat room remained cramped for anyone over six feet tall, and the trunk was smaller than the class average. At least the split seatbacks folded down to extend cargo capacity.
Base models used the same 148-horsepower, 2.0-litre four-cylinder carried over from the old car, paired with either a five-speed stick or new five-speed automatic. The upgrade was a 167-horsepower DOHC 2.5-L four borrowed from the new Mazda 6, mated with a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic.
The resurrected Mazdaspeed 3 kept its 263-horsepower 2.3-L turbocharged four-cylinder Mighty Mouse engine and six-speed manual transmission, but put on some unsightly weight during the redesign.
Mazda’s SkActiv-G 2.0-L four cylinder arrived for 2012, slotted between the two naturally aspirated engines. This gas-sipper combined a 30% reduction in internal friction with direct injection and a high 12.0:1 compression ratio. Its 155 horses were directed through new six-speed manual and automatic transmissions optimized for efficiency.
Living with the 3
Thanks to some dedicated suspension fanatics in Hiroshima, the 3 delivered the taut ride and sparkling manners of a genuine driver’s car rather than a mere grocery getter. Owners cited the lively 2.3-litre four cylinder, strong four-wheel disc brakes, quick steering, firm suspension and precise clutch and shifter as traits usually associated with pricy European imports.
The numbers bore out that perception. Equipped with the five-speed automatic and the bigger 2.5-litre engine, the Mazda 3 could sprint to 100 km/h in just 8.7 seconds – even quicker with a well-shifted manual.
It could also grind out 0.87 g on a circular skidpad and haul down from 100 km/h in an impressive 39.3 metres. The wild MazdaSpeed 3 could scorch its front tires on the way to highway velocity in 5.6 seconds.
Ironically, where the 3 fell down is precisely where it was intended to compete: at the gas pump. Owners noted the 2.3-L engine was thirsty, sucking up fuel to generate good acceleration numbers. The base engine was merely adequate as a gas saver.
The second-generation, 2012/13 model with the Skyactiv engine made up for past transgressions at the pump. It could surpass 5.6 litres/100 km (42 mpg (US)) on the highway with a light throttle, yet the efficiency-obsessed Skyactiv was reasonably quick to 100 km/h at just over 8 seconds, too.
The Japanese-built 3 has won a legion of fans, many of them new to the Mazda banner. While most have enjoyed a flawless ownership experience, the 3 has exhibited a few annoying reliability issues that owners of other Japanese brands might find unsettling.
Significant corrosion and blistering paint are problems on 2004-06 models in particular, according to an enthusiast website. One dealer suggested Mazda had changed sheetmetal suppliers for the 2007 and subsequent model years.
A common gripe is a noticeably weak air conditioning system that barely keeps the cabin comfortable on muggy days.
A number of drivers have seen automatic transmission failures in the first-generation 3, some at low mileage. Worn out engine mounts are another reported weakness.
In the second-generation 3 (2010 in particular), the manual’s clutch material wears like a $6 t-shirt, and some owners claim their second clutch is wearing rapidly, too. Mazda will not warranty the clutch – a wear item – beyond 12 months.
Overall, the 3 is a lively performer in the competitive compact segment. Mazda emphasized a rewarding drive over penny-pinching economy – although discriminating buyers can get both in the 2012-13 SkyActiv models.
PROS AND CONS
> Lots of powertrain choices
> Balanced chassis
> Made in Japan goodness
> Cramped rear seat and trunk
> Early models rusted badly
> Clutch wears quickly
Watch out for:
> Broken or weak air conditioner
> Poor-shifting automatic transmission
> Slipping clutch
> Worn engine mount
> Chipping paint