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- 2009 Mazda 3 Maxx; 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, petrol; five-speed automatic; sedan - $27,050*
Okay, okay, let's start with the obvious - the Mazda3 has a big smile. It's kind of a goofy grin, too, with the numberplate causing it to look a bit like it's buck-toothed. Bugs Bunny smiley face or not, this is one of the best small cars going around. Will buyers look past its looks? The sales figures seem to indicate that they will.
Just last month, for example, the Japanese company sold 2900 Mazda3s in Australia, giving it a 15.5% market share for the highly competitive small car under $40K segment. So what's all the fuss about? We asked Mazda for a week in the Maxx model to find out.
We were handed an automatic, and as we'd driven the manual in our SP25 we had a few weeks ago, it was interesting to see if it's worth the extra to lose a third pedal. It is and it isn't.
The 'box itself is very good, slurring and covering changes very nicely. It holds onto the gears at full throttle, making the most of the power curve. On part throttle, it quickly jumps to the higher gears conserving fuel, which is also helped by carrying five ratios to choose from, compared with six speeds in manual guise. The spread of gears in the "Activematic" - Mazda-speak for auto - works well with the free-revving engine. There's a slightly short first gear, to help get things going, with the following ratios evenly spaced. The transmission is excellent.
So what's the issue? There's a little indicator panel between the speedo and tacho that lets you know the transmission selection is. P for park, D for drive, and so on. The problem is not the panel itself, but the colour that's been used.
It's a reddish-orange, and when it's set to D, because of the way the LCD numbering system is set up, it's a roundish sort of shape. While you're driving and looking ahead through the windscreen, your peripheral vision notices a reddish-orange round light on the dash. Damn, I've left the handbrake on - wait, no, it's just in drive. Several kilometres down the road, you're ignoring the light, but in the back of your mind, you still think it's a warning light. Throughout the week, I found myself constantly looking down, checking this warning, only to be reminded it's just the auto-selection panel (see below; imagine yourself in the driver's seat, staring at that for a week - or the term of the lease).
Now, if it were green, or blue, this wouldn't be an issue, and maybe I'm making a big thing out of nothing, but it was quite distracting. Thankfully, it's about one of the few negatives with the car. The rest of the cabin is brilliant. The dash materials are very nice, almost Civic Type R in layout, as it's quite driver focussed. The seats are very good, not too flat, with a nice cloth trim.
The controls are all nicely laid out, and the brakes are decent. The steering is good on the whole, though mid way through the lock on each side, while on a long sweeper or cloverleaf, it loses feel, but around centre, it's crisp and well weighted. As far as a driver's car goes, the new Mazda3 is very good.
It tackles directional changes with a little roll, but remains unfussed, taking undulations in its stride. There's no crash from the suspension over broken tarmac, and while it's not an MPS model, there's enough firmness to inspire confidence when heading out on country roads. With a load, it does soften a little, but it is a small car, so you probably wouldn't be stuffing five people inside. Small kids are fine, but anyone over 14 would start to struggle on long trips.
If you did decide to load it up, it would probably get a little squashy in the back, but for room and for the size of the car, Mazda has packaged it well. The boot on the sedan offers enough space with more room than the hatch (430 litres versus 340 litres), the rear seats are still comfortable and the smoothness of the ride helps to keep the cabin a fuss free place to be.
But the interior has one failing that looks to be carried over from the previous model. Road noise. Especially on coarse-chip surfaces and at higher speeds, the drumming inside the cabin continues, albeit a tad more muted that the previous Mazda3. More attention to acoustic attenuation would be nice, though most people might not care.
It's a cliche, but it's the sort of car you call "zippy". There's plenty of mid-range torque to keep the car spooled up and responsive. It revs cleanly to its limiter, and even from a standstill doesn't bog down and low to middling revs. It has enough power for everyday applications, it threads through inner-city traffic with ease. It's unique in its looks and is built to withstand the daily grind. I'd still pick the manual, as it's quicker, two-grand cheaper, and it uses less fuel (7.9-litres/100km, versus 8.2-litres/100km).
Importantly, the Mazda3 Maxx comes with excellent safety features, such as six airbags (two curtain bags, mind you), ESC, ABS, collapsible steering column, and active head restraints. It's a shame the base Mazda3, the Neo, misses out on some of this, though you can pay an extra $500 for side and curtain airbags in a "safety pack" - it is worth it.
The next step up is the Maxx Sport, which costs $27,690. This gets you bigger wheels, a mild body kit, Bluetooth and sat-nav. For the price, if you were considering a Mazda3, this would be the one to go for.
While there's nothing about the Mazda3 that would hand it a clear lead over its competitors, the Golf, Impreza, Corolla and Focus - each has its strong points - the Mazda3 is a great alternative for those who want a small car, but still enjoy attacking the twisties every now and then. There's enough "zoom-zoom" to keep driving enthusiasts happy.
CarAdvice Overall Rating: How does it Drive: How does it Look: How does it Go: