Mazda 3 Review : LT2

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A second month with the third-generation Mazda 3 raises some philosophical questions and interesting answers.

Eight weeks driving a car is usually enough to move from the getting-to-know-you phase of ownership and into the familiar settling-in stage – but not with our long-term Mazda 3.

As it turns out so far, the Mazda 3 Maxx automatic hatchback instantly felt familiar, and it continues with no surprises along the way and no disappointing shocks either. It isn’t like when you move into a new house and it takes weeks for you to find neat homes for all your stuff, or when you buy a car and need to learn all of its features; with the Mazda 3 you just sit in and drive.

A ‘lightbulb moment’ occurred sometime during driving it this month that Mazda these days seems to combine everything Australians have long loved about Toyota – inoffensive, functional, reliable motoring – only with more zing and zip (to avoid using two other ‘z’ words Mazda combines).

Yet typical of the process of long-termer discovery, a few more weeks are needed to find whether the ‘new’ Mazda personality can be truly lovable.

Time spent with the new Mazda 2 this month confirmed that all Mazdas now have the same ‘feeling’ to them – don’t worry, I won’t get too philosophical.

In one generation switch, the steering of the 2, 3 and 6 has all softened to become less immediate and pointy, and more progressive and fluent. The handling has become less racy and agile, and is softer but still beautifully balanced. Ride quality has improved enormously, and even the seats are broader and the cabins marginally more upmarket.

In short, current Mazdas are more rounded propositions than before, but equally being quite good at everything means no longer being outstanding in any single respect. It’s that, I think, that means I’m struggling to form a bond with our Mazda 3.

My previous long-termer, the smaller Audi A1, also did everything well. But it also hit great highs with its lovely manual gearshift, supreme agility, and sweet sounding engine that had nippy acceleration.

By contrast, each morning when I start the 3 Maxx, its 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine idles at a buzzy 1500rpm until it warms up.

In these warmer months, the clacky, oversized air conditioning controls get used straight away, but actual cold air saps away when you use more throttle.

During the morning commute in gridlock, you note the monochromatic fuel gauge and trip computer readout looks 1980s in a world of noughties technology featured on the colourful centre screen.

Indeed the highlight of the interior is the brilliant MZD Connect infotainment system, and I love that I can use the Pandora app to make my own radio stations, change between them, and vote up or down a song on the fly – it really does make commuting so much nicer than waiting to pause at traffic lights and fumble for your phone to do the same thing.

The front seats are wide and more plush, and the whole car feels much larger than previous-generation 3s, which along with the more relaxed steering makes it seem less engaging than before.

When you do choose to be spirited with the Mazda 3, even this $24,990 (before on-road costs) Maxx automatic on chubby Toyo Nanoenergy tyres that lack grip steps up to remain one of the best handling cars in the class.

And when you do extend the 2.0-litre and utilise manual mode and find the automatic shifter is the correct way around (push forward to downshift, back to upshift), you’re again reminded that Mazda is an engineering-led company with lots to offer people who love to drive.

The dynamism that once underpinned every Mazda of the previous decade is now just hidden beneath layers of smoothness, and for 90 per cent of the time and the people driving this small hatchback, the latest 3 is all the better for it.

One new discovery I did find this month is that everyone knows someone who owns a Mazda 3 – though it’s a not-so-brilliant one considering it has been one of the most popular new cars sold in Australia over the past decade.

Test yourself and see if you know someone who owns a Mazda 3, because until I joined the 3 gang (unfortunately you don’t get a catchy name like Golf club or Focus group) I hadn’t given it much thought.

Indeed four people I’m quite close with own a Mazda 3 – my cousin (a previous-generation 3 SP25 manual hatch), my best mate’s girlfriend (a previous-gen 3 Maxx manual sedan), a family friend (previous-gen 3 Maxx Sport automatic sedan) and a colleague who works right here at CarAdvice.

That colleague is Jordie Bodlay, one of our tech gurus who works in code to ensure you can see these words and pictures, and navigate to other ones.

He has an original-generation Mazda 3 Maxx automatic sedan and was keen to know what the new one was like and if he should upgrade, so we loaned our Reflex Blue example to him for a weekend to see what he thought.

Just when I thought perhaps I was being a little too picky with the new Mazda 3, the owner of the original returned with his verdict.

“It's bulkier than mine and so made it a bit more difficult to park,” began the tech guy.

“The reverse camera definitely helped, but was still more of a task than would be in mine. Even though it seemed bigger, it didn't appear to have any more boot space, though I am comparing my sedan to a hatch here, so take that with a grain of salt. Mine does seem deeper though, not sure why this one is so 'high'.”

Jordie was right, though – at 308 litres and with a high loading lip, the Mazda 3 has among the smallest boots in the small car class. Proving that people upgrading from older cars may not be familiar with stop-start, the tech bloke disliked this piece of technology in the same way I dislike his cheesy one-liners.

“i-stop irritated me non-stop (geddit?),” he went on.

“Especially on a hot day because when it turns off the engine, the air-con goes with it. The start-up also means there is a lag when taking off. Over and over in traffic, it's just distracting and the shuddering as it starts become uncomfortable.”

Despite claimed combined fuel consumption of 5.8 litres per 100 kilometres, this month our Mazda 3 has slurped down three tanks that resulted in figures of 9.6L/100km, 10.1L/100km and 10.5L/100km.

Clearly this wasn’t ‘combined’ conditions, though, and the trip computer is showing a paltry average speed of 29km/h and 9.8L/100km claimed – only 0.2L/100km optimistic.

With small issues came the big ticket items that won Bodlay over.

“It’s definitely a smoother ride than mine, I think my generation suffered from too much road noise,” he commented.

“Console space and design is an improvement over mine, and Bluetooth connectivity is seamless, works very well. Was easy and pain-free to set up and didn't have any dropouts (if that happens?).”

It does, mate, both in the Renault Clio and A1 that preceded this Mazda 3 as a long-termer. So would he upgrade?

“I guess when I look at it I'm comparing it to my current Mazda 3 (Ashley FYI), and overall I would say it doesn't seem like it'd be worth the upgrade if I were thinking about it. There just doesn't seem to be eight years worth of advancements in there.”

Jordie and I might be in agreeance, at least for now, but the punters are still flocking to the Mazda 3 in droves.

In line with it being a more rounded proposition, this coming month I think I need to take it beyond the realms of suburbia to try to truly connect with what remains a largely impressive small car.

Mazda 3 Maxx
Date acquired: September 2014
Odometer reading: 8658km
Travel this month: 1941km
Consumption this month: 10.0L/100km

Mazda 3 Review : LT1

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