9 / 10
The 2014 Mazda 3 is entering a segment that has never been so globally competitive. With a worldwide trend of consumer downsizing, the third-generation Mazda 3 aims to offer the cutting-edge technology and refined driving dynamics traditionally found in the larger classes. What the Mazda 3 doesn’t follow, however, is the engine downsizing trend followed by many competitors, instead offering a breed of highly efficient non-turbo engines to shove in the face of the now cliched breed of small capacity turbo engines…
From the outside the new Mazda 3 looks similar to the Mazda 6 and CX-5 from the front angle – and at times on the road a quick glance could easily confuse it with the mid-sized 6. It’s after you spend time to admire the front end that you realise it has a little more character and edge compared with its bigger brother.
The rear, too, is also very Mazda 6-like, especially in sedan form. That means more attractive styling, though Mazda will need to be mindful of not joining Audi in being accused of a ‘babushka doll’ design with a range of vehicles that are largely indistinguishable by the general public.
When the original Mazda 3 was launched in 2004, it changed the segment enough to give other Japanese and Korean manufacturers a wake up. With the second generation having launched in 2009, the Mazda 3 did (almost) the same again. The question is whether the third-generation Mazda 3 can have the same impact as its predecessors.
To find out, CarAdvice came to Hollywood in California. Mazda’s US engineers fine-tuned the suspension and steering feel for the global market around the hilly and windy roads outside of Los Angeles, which immediately raises concerns: that market’s penchant for soft-riding cars doesn’t bode well for Australia, which needs its cars to have at least a semblance of control over bumps. Thankfully, the concerns prove unfounded, and the Mazda 3 delivered a performance to worry many an Oscar-chasing Hollywood actress…
The Mazda 3’s vehicle evaluation manager says the steering feel was based on the halfway point between a car that has electric power steering and one that has manual steering. The result is a tune that makes the new Volkswagen Golf feel a tad over-assisted. Left on centre there’s not nearly as much forced sensitivity as before but it tightens up in a nice linear fashion as you progress around corners.
In many ways the steering feels far more like an MX-5 (which is a good thing) than a small city-friendly family car.
Mazda says the suspension setup has been modified considerably from the old car, which shared its platform with the Ford Focus and Volvo C30 but is now based around the same ‘Skyactiv’ architecture found under the 6 and CX-5. For example, instead of three per cent caster on the front wheels (typical for a front-wheel drive), it’s now 6.5 per cent (like a rear-wheel drive vehicle). In layman’s terms this means there’s more mechanical force being put onto the steering system to give it legitimate steering feel.
The Japanese company says electric steering, which the Mazda 3 uses, should only be used to make things lighter, not to add artificial weight, such as the one found in Hyundai’s Flex-steer system. As a result, it’s used the physics of mechanics to add weight and electronics to reduce it where needed.
Over the ridiculously smooth surface roads around Canyon country in southern California, our prototype vehicles on American all-weather tyres were graceful over bumps but a touch on the firm side. We suspect this dynamic will change considerably for the Australian versions set to arrive in January 2014.
The new Mazda 3 is available with 2.0-litre or 2.5-litre four-cylinder engines. Both engines are now using the company’s SkyActiv suite of technologies, which has seen power and torque for the smaller engine increase from 108kW and 182Nm, respectively, to 115kW and 200Nm, with fuel economy expected to be around 5.7L/100km for the automatic.
The new 2.5-litre engine, also found in the CX-5 SUV, pumps out a healthy 137kW and 250Nm (compared to 127kW and 228Nm in the second-generation) with fuel economy of about 6.1L/100km.
Behind the wheel the 2.0-litre feels smooth and linear in its power delivery, with plenty of torque in the mid range and more than enough power to move you about town and on the highway. Nonetheless, the six-speed traditional automatic transmission, which Mazda claims is just as good as any dual-clutch system, tends to have a bit of hesitation extracting its power. By comparison a Golf 118TSI is still more lively.
Still, the outputs of the 2.0-litre move far closer to the same-capacity engine in the Ford Focus (125kW/202Nm) and the 1.6-litre turbocharged engine in the Holden Cruze SRi (132kW/230Nm) that are currently the sub-$30K small car performance benchmarks.
With just 23kW and 50Nm more power and toque, the 2.5-litre isn’t nearly as gusty as you’d expect. It certainly has more pull than its smaller brother but seems to find itself trying harder than it should to make use of its 250Nm. Both models also tend to generate their fair share of noise, which is where the Golf again takes the lead.
Still, the new Mazda 3 is 30 per cent more rigid than before, and up to 90kg lighter, Mazda claims, so the performance of both 2.0- and 2.5-litre models improves substantially, and both feel quicker than the respective Golf. As with previous generations, the 3 feels louder, sportier.
Beyond the trifecta of excellence – steering feel, ride comfort and handling – it’s the interior that genuinely sets the Mazda 3 apart from its Japanese and European competitors. The Japanese-built Mazda 3 has taken a few pages out of the German luxury car book of interior design, providing a seven-inch iPad-like tablets for infotainment, a head-up display that projects speed and navigation details to the windscreen and an overall high-quality interior feel that should scare Volkswagen and shames its Asian rivals.
Be it the soft-touch plastics all around the cabin, the piano-black finish around the leather-wrapped gear lever, the high-quality leather seats with ample bolstering or the nice-to-hold steering wheel, it’s hard to fault the car’s interior.
The Mazda Commander system, which has much in common with BMW’s iDrive, provides a rotary knob and five buttons (that conveniently fit around your fingers) to control the car’s navigation, media and communication capabilities.
The usability of the system is the most intuitive from a Japanese company yet, with large text (using above ISO standard requirements for text size) and well-spaced menu items in correlation with a clear and easily understandable menu structure makes the system almost as good as the latest iteration of iDrive.
Although the screen is touch sensitive, it locks itself out when the Mazda 3 is moving, allowing input from the rotary dial (which is much faster than you’d expect) or voice commands. Mazda says this is done for safety reasons, but it can get a little annoying if you have a passenger in the car that can make use of the touch screen instead.
The entertainment system can sync up to your smartphone, and use its internet to access services such as Pandora and Aha radio, which allows access to more than 40,000 internet radio stations. We’ve been told the data usage for these services is minimal, but we will conduct a more thorough investigation when the vehicle lands in Australia next year.
It can also be used to access Facebook, Twitter and other social media services. The idea is, given many drivers are going to look at their smartphone when halted at traffic lights, why not provide a safer alternative and integrate that into the car’s actual entertainment system.
Mazda is yet to confirm if the 3 will support Apple’s iOS in the car system, set to launch later this year, but the company noted that its system’s software is completely updatable (via a USB port) so that it can be future-proofed as much as possible.
These updates will most likely be carried out at dealer-managed service intervals (10,000km or six months).
On the safety front, the Mazda 3 gets forward collision detection and active cruise control, which will slam the brakes if a collision is imminent and follow the speed of the car in front respectively. Add six airbags to the mix and a five-star safety rating is starting to look assured. The advanced active safety features are coming to Australian-delivered Mazda 3s, but variant specifications remain unconfirmed.
Overall, the latest iteration of Australia’s best-selling car for the past two years is definitely set to reignite the segment once more, offering best-in-class technology, great interior refinement, and certainly holding its own for driving dynamics, efficiency and looks.
The 2014 Mazda 3 will be available in Mazda dealers nationally in both sedan and hatch form from late January. Specification and pricing for our market is yet to be decided, but we suspect the base model will start in the very low $20,000s in manual form and the SP25 will finish up in the mid $30,000s for the automatic.