Mazda is on a roll at the moment and in Australia it has been kicking sales goals well beyond its position in the scheme of things, and now it has taken the fight right up to its opposition with the launch of the latest version of the Mazda3.
The car is certainly one of the major new car releases for 2009, given the fact it is now threatening rivals from former co-owner Ford and from Toyota.
On sale today with a starting price of $21,990 the New Generation Mazda3 is up just $500 on the outgoing Mazda3 Neo, and has revised drivetrains, better safety, including Electronic Stability Program (ESP) on all models, better equipment, improved driving dynamics and greater refinement.
The Mazda3 has yet to be safety tested by ANCAP but Mazda executives are confidently predicting a five star result.
Despite Mazda calling it the ‘New Generation” Mazda3 the car is not entirely new, with the platform being a refinement of the Ford Focus/Volvo S40-based C1 chassis.
General Manager Advanced Engineering and Program Promotion, Ruben Archilla, from Mazda North America told the press launch for the Mazda3 that the platform was now so heavily redeveloped that it should be called “C1a or something”.
Mr Archilla, who came to Australia from California to extol the virtues of some of the development work done on the new Mazda3, said that the car was a major refinement of the previous car.
For this Mazda3 the company has gone back to its original naming formula with Neo Sport reverting to Neo, Maxx returns, Maxx Sport continues, and the SP23 becomes SP25 to reflect a larger engine.
Mazda marketing manager Alistair Doak said the diesel would not be around until early next year, to give the new models some breathing space.
However, the range-topping performance model the MPS will hit our shores around August.
Starting with the base Mazda3 Neo you get ESP, a trip computer with speed alert, power windows, MP3 compatible audio, although no full iPod integration like that on Hyundai/Kia competitors, and air-conditioning as part of a comprehensive package.
Unfortunately at this level there is only two airbags, those in front of the passenger and driver and to make a sub-$22,000 price point, additional side/curtain airbags are a $500 option.
Mazda was predicting a 10 per cent uptake on this option in the Neo but after talking to its dealers now thinks that could be closer to 30 per cent.
Moving along to the reintroduced Maxx at $24,990 and all the airbags are included, along with alloy wheels, cruise control, a six-stack CD player and multi-function steering wheel.
The Maxx Sport, at $27,690, strikes us as the best deal as it comes with satellite navigation, plus Bluetooth for your phone, 16-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps and leather steering wheel.
Finally at the top of the tree for the moment is the SP25, which gets bigger, more powerful engine, plus 17‐inch alloy wheels, sports body kit, dual‐zone climate‐control air‐conditioning, side indicators in exterior mirrors, LED tail lamps and overhead sunglass storage box.
Under the bonnet the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, 16‐valve DOHC S‐VT engine continues in the Neo, Maxx and Maxx Sport but it has a new air‐induction system to give the car a more responsive engine character.
Power output remains at 108kW at 6500rpm and torque is 182Nm at 4500rpm, which results in a little change fuel efficiency of 7.9 litres per 100 kilometres with the all-new six-speed manual gearbox and 8.2L/100km with the new five-speed automatic.
The SP25, with a small increase in engine capacity gets a meatier 122kW at 6000rpm and 227Nm at 4000rpm while fuel efficiency remains the same as for the 2.3-litre at 8.6L/100km.
As already mentioned both transmissions are new and the five-speed automatic adds $2060 to the purchase price of all but the SP25 where it adds $2260 due to the inclusion of steering wheel mounted shifting paddles.
The Mazda3 will be offered in either four-door sedan or five-door hatch form, with the sedan expected to take up 55 per cent of sales.
Unlike the previous car the two body styles now share an identical frontal design, reducing production costs and maintaining a common look across the range, which makes the sedan a better looking prospect than its predecessor in our opinion.
There’s a strong family look to the new Mazda3 with a elements of the outgoing model preserved in the shape, while bolder bulging guards and the ‘smiling’ front of the Mazda2, and Mazda6 are now added.
Mr Archilla was at pains to explain how the distinctive new grille that dominates the longer nose was part of extensive efforts to improve aerodynamic efficiency, a key component of fuel economy at higher speeds.
He also said the air intake had been moved lower, while there’s even an innovative flap that can feed air around the radiator fan at higher speeds, to minutely reduce wind drag without affecting engine cooling.
Mazda aims to keep the pressure on its competitors with the new Mazda3 and aims sell about 31,000 vehicles with year, slightly down on the record figures it has produced with run-out pricing on the previous Mazda3, but still more than enough to have a lot of other carmakers scurrying to sharpen their pencils.
On the road the Mazda3 is still a sharp performer that manages to punch above its weight in both performance and roadholding.
To a large degree not much has changed with the new car but then it didn’t need to, what has changed only serves to make the package better.
The engine revs cleanly and smoothly and will go all the way to 7000rpm with a nice sporty note to accompany it. Curiously we found the Neo Maxx we drove to sound better than the Maxx Sport, which seemed to have more sound damping and this muted any chance of a sporty engine note, at least from the inside.
There’s a better spread of ratios in the new five-speed automatic to better harness the engine’s performance, and the auto will hold gears on hills to improve the performance.
There have been tweaks to the suspension to improve the already competent handling, especially though corners, where the Mazda3 sits nice and flat, even in the more basic models.
Mid corner bumps don’t unsettle the car at high speed, ensuring the body is well controlled for whatever comes next.
Our biggest criticism of the Mazda3 would be the electric power steering, which feels very light, especially at dead ahead, Especially noticeable on the Maxx Sport we drove was a slightly disconcerting lack of information about the relationship between the front wheels and the steering feel during turn in to a corner, which tended to make us hesitant, when we really didn’t need to be.
Once turned in the steering wheel did weight-up and provide plenty of directional feel. Curiously this was less noticeable on the Maxx we drove which had smaller, 15-inch alloy wheels and Bridgestone tyres, as opposed to the Toyo tyres fitted to the Maxx Sport and the SP25.
Road noise is better dampened than in the previous car but we felt this only served to highlight increased tyre noise from the Toyo tyres on the two sporty models in the line-up.
The Mazda3 is no bigger than the old car but the interior has a fresh clean look, with a sweeping feature at the top of the all-new dash housing a trip computer and on some models a 10cm screen for the satellite navigation.
There’s good adjustability in the seating to allow even the tallest driver find a comfortable position, although this can leave the rear seat room a little challenged.
Mazda has recognised that it has a winning formula with the Mazda3 and has resisted the temptation to mess with that formula, instead wisely opting to ‘improve’ what’s already one of the best small cars on the market.
New Generation Mazda3 Range
six‐speed manual five‐speed Activematic
Mazda3 Neo Sedan $21,990 $24,050
Mazda3 Neo Hatch $21,990 $24,050
Mazda3 Maxx Sedan $24,990 $27,050
Mazda3 Maxx Hatch $24,990 $27,050
Mazda3 Maxx Sport Sedan $27,690 $29,750
Mazda3 Maxx Sport Hatch $27,690 $29,750
Mazda3 SP25 Sedan $30,690 $32,950
Mazda3 SP25 Hatch $30,690 $32,950
Safety Pack (Side and Curtain Airbags) $500 (Neo only)
Luxury Pack: $2400 (SP25 only)
‐ Leather seat trim
‐ Bose premium 10‐speaker system with subwoofer
‐ sliding centre console armrest
Power sliding glass sunroof $1600 (SP25 only)