The Mazda 3 has been a mainstay of Australian roads since the launch of the BK in 2003. In 2011 it reached peak popularity becoming Australia’s favourite car of 2011, knocking Holden’s Commodore off its long-held perch. As the successor to the 323, which formed the basis of Ford’s more popular Laser, the new Mazda 3 was related to Ford Australia's Laser replacement, the European designed Focus.
This piece is part a tale of detailing how I ended up joining the masses who were flocking to the Mazda 3, and part review, outlining my experiences of owning one for the past ten years. Prior to buying this car, I have owned a MK1 Ford Capri, a VS Holden Berlina, an N14 Pulsar Q 2.0L and the car I said goodbye to before welcoming the Mazda 3 into my driveway, an MY99 Subaru Forester GT.
How does a self-confessed ‘car nut’ go from driving a warmed-up MY99 Subaru Forester GT to an ace-of-base Mazda 3 Neo? Well, let me tell you! It all started on Christmas Day in 2011 when a freak storm swept through Melbourne, dumping hailstones the size of golf balls, and leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. That storm absolutely pelted my gorgeous two-tone Acadia Green Metallic Forester with so much force that the rearview mirror, which is held on with some kind of unobtanium glue, promptly detached itself from the windscreen. Not a panel was left unharmed. The Subaru was a write-off and I was in the market for a replacement.
Being 2011, the TTAC and Jalopnik reader in me was all about owning a brown diesel wagon, with a manual of course. The cheapest brown diesel manual wagon available at the time was the Toffee Brown Volkswagen Golf 77TDI Mk6 Trendline that listed for $31,990. It ticked every one of my boxes except for its price, which was way over the circa $20,000 I had planned to spend. I was just about to start university so I needed to be mindful of my budget.
So, I was back to the drawing board, or in this case, my trusty MacBook, trawling the interwebs for my next car. I needed something cheap, reliable and practical, which was easily achievable in the over-a-decade-ago car market. The heart had already lost out to the head, so I refined my search criteria and came up with three choices.
Choice one was another 2011 Golf, this time in base 77TSI Mk6 specification. The second choice was a used 2009 Ford Focus TDCi LV and the final choice was a 2011 Mazda 3 Neo BL with the recently released Series 2 update. At the time, all three were within a whisker of my budget if you were prepared to shop around and negotiate. Why not Hyundai and Kia you may ask? In 2011 my answer was resale value, but with some years under my belt, I can say it was also brand snobbery and a little bit of ignorance.
There’s no need for a spoiler alert, as you already know which direction I went in, but it is worth mentioning why I ruled out Volkswagen and Ford. The Volkswagen was at the top of my list and was ruled out due to its lack of cruise control and the inclusion of steel wheels instead of alloy rims. DSG-gate was also in full swing and doing its part to tarnish my view of Volkwagen’s reliability and dealership experience. The Ford looked good on paper, coming with a gutsy yet economical diesel engine. In the end, it was the build quality that scared me away from the Focus. Some of the Fords I’d looked at had patchy paint and misaligned panels.
Mazda 3 it was. The specification was better than its rivals and Mazda had a better reputation for quality and reliability. After shopping around, I purchased a 2011 plated BL Series 2 Mazda 3 Neo hatch with a 6-speed manual transmission. The only upgrades were the obligatory Mazda branded mats, dealer fitted Bluetooth and tinted windows. All in, and after some bargaining, I was $20,800 out of pocket.
The best thing about the exterior of the car is the Aluminium Metallic paintwork that depending on how the light hits it, goes from being a bright silver to a deep silver. After nearly a decade of weathering, it still looks great. The appearance of the car never appealed to me, especially with the Series 2 bodywork updates. The Series 1 BL had a much more cohesive appearance that looked somewhat more aggressive than the later update that smoothed out the edginess of the front and rear bumper skins. As stated already, this was a purchase I was making with my head rather than my heart, which is why I didn’t get hung up on the looks.
The grey and black-themed interior of the Neo looked dated as soon as it left the factory. Whilst it isn’t flashy, it has everything you need. Finding a comfortable position is easy due to the tiller that is adjustable for rack and reach. During the daily commute or on long trips, the seats are supportive and covered in a hard-wearing material that is easily cleaned after a spill. The rubberised steering wheel and gear knob are comfortable in hand, and after almost 10 years of ownership, still, come up looking brand new after a wash. Most surfaces like the dash, upper doors and armrest are covered in soft-touch materials that have mostly stood the test of time. Elsewhere, places like the lower doors and transmission tunnel are covered in hard plastics that are durable yet difficult to scratch. Unfortunately, the panel that sits atop the radio and trip computer readouts in the centre of the dashboard has started to separate from the lower panels. Lifting dash panel aside, this is a solidly built interior with nary a rattle or squeak to be heard. The most common rattle complaint in this model is actually caused by the passenger seat buckle twisting and not sitting flush with the interior C-pillar. If you can hear a tapping noise from your left, this is usually the issue and you just need to adjust it so that it’s not on an angle.
For its time, the Neo was well-specced for its price point. Standard features worthy of a mention include single-zone manual air conditioning, cruise control, intermittent wipers, a six-stack in-dash CD player with auxiliary inputs for MP3 players, and a multifunction trip computer. Spartan by today’s standards, yet more than enough to still make it a comfortable and practical car, especially when paired with the dealer fitted Bluetooth unit that added phone and audio functions. On the safety front, it comes with ABS, ESC, traction control and a bunch of airbags. When tested, it had a 5-star ANCAP rating.
By far the best thing about the BL generation of Mazda 3’s is the handling. Whilst I could easily rattle off some jargon about its independent rear suspension or the platform it shares with high-performance Ford and Volvo products, it wouldn’t be genuine. By no means am I an expert on suspension and handling, nor have I driven enough cars to know any better. What I do know is that this car is fun to drive. In comparison to the Hyundai i30 of this generation, which I spent time driving as a rental, the Mazda feels like it is in a different league with more direct steering and a firmer suspension setup that feels more connected to the road. The BM that followed, whilst technically superior, seems numb in comparison to the BL. A race car it is not, but you can still have plenty of fun behind the wheel.
By far the worst thing about the BL generation of Mazda 3’s is the tyre noise. When commuting in built-up areas, this isn’t very noticeable due to the smoother road surfaces that produce less tyre roar. Beyond the city limits above 80km/h and on rough surfaces, the noise can become distracting. If you plan to buy a used BL Mazda 3 to drive mostly on rural roads, you may want to look elsewhere. The Series 2 BL was supposed to have improvements over the Series 1 BL. Having been in both, I think you’d need scientific instruments to tell the difference, as they’re both noisier than their counterparts.
The 2-litre 4-cylinder in the Mazda 3 is a solid performer coming with 108kW of power and 187Nm of torque. It has more than enough oomph for the daily grind, rarely needing to be stirred above 3000rpm to maintain pace with the morning and evening peak hour rush. On the open road, you won’t need to shift down for inclines and will have enough power to perform safe overtaking manoeuvres. On the Hume Highway outside of Melbourne, where the speed limit is 110km/h, the engine will tick over at a fraction under 3100rpm. It’s not a noisy engine at this speed by any means, but it does rev surprisingly high given its six forward ratios.
The manual gearbox shifts smoothly and it's easy to find each gear when driving spiritedly. The clutch is light with a vague engagement point, yet is a breeze to operate once you've become accustomed to its lightness. Above 60km/h, it will comfortably cruise in fifth gear with the engine spinning at 2000rpm. At his rate, it still has access to enough torque to accelerate lightly when needed. If sitting in fourth at this speed, it’s downright peppy and ready to pounce on gaps in traffic, should you need too. One annoying thing about the manual is that you’ll need to adjust your elbow location as the centre console gets in the way.
My daily commute is 17km in each direction and covers mostly stop-start traffic with a small stint of freeway driving. Under these conditions, the car sips a trip computer reported 8.3 litres per 100 kilometres, which is line ball with my own measurement. This is only a fraction higher than the claimed 8.2L/100km rating. On longer trips outside of metropolitan areas, I have seen it drop to as low as 6.6L/100km.
When new, the Mazda 3 came with a 3 year/100,000 kilometre warranty, which was standard for its time. Given the car is almost 10 years old, it shouldn’t warrant a mention, but it does. Primarily because of the great service provided by Mazda when I made a warranty claim after four years of ownership. After four years and roughly 30,000km of hassle-free motoring, the front engine mount gave way. The dealership said they couldn’t help me as they were bound by the warranty that came with the car, which had expired. They suggested I contact Mazda Australia directly for a resolution. After one phone call to report the issue, I received a call from my dealership to let me know that my claim had been approved.
Would I recommend the 2011 Mazda 3 Neo BL Series 2 to a prospective buyer? Yes, I would. In today’s market, it’s cheap, safe, has decent performance and reasonable economy. After 10 years of ownership, I still find it to be an entertaining car to drive and probably one that will stick around in my driveway until the mortgage is reduced and I can finally step into that brown wagon. By then, however, it will probably be electric.