We can't talk about the new Mazda3 without lovingly gushing over the old Mazda3. Introduced in 2003 and produced until this year, the first generation was a segment buster. For about the same coin as its competitors, the Mazda3 gave you more: More sportiness, more refinement, more space and, being a Mazda, more reliability. The Mazda3 was just a better car. And of course there was the beloved MazdaSpeed3 – aka lightning in a reasonably-priced bottle. For 2010, Mazda has built a new, slightly larger 3 packed with polarizing styling, a bigger engine and more creature comforts. But will the new car bust the segment like its predecessor did?
In our First Drive, we mentioned the styling and how it's either a love it or gag on it proposition. Like many contemporary cars, the new Mazda3 has such complicated surfaces that when seen two-dimensionally via a computer screen, much of the subtlety is lost. Porsche's new Panamera shares a similar fate. In real life, the new Mazda is both flowing and cut. Of course, the big news is the grinning proboscis, which you either love, hate or love to hate. Again, we found it much more acceptable in real life than in photographs, but as with all things aesthetic, your mileage will vary.
We tested two Mazda3s, a 2.0-liter "i" sedan and a 2.5-liter "s" sedan. In other words, no five-door. As far as chunky little sedans go, with its new mega-mouth and stubby trunk, the Mazda3 shares a passing resemblance to the Mitsubishi EVO X – that's no bad thing. One aspect we particularly dig are the headlights. They're complicated yet elegant and finely shaped. Some reviews have pointed out the the clear taillights are pretty seven years ago, but we think they look fine. And Mazda did an excellent job with the wing mirrors.
Inside is a darker story. If you've ever found yourself inside a 1980s BMW, you get the idea. Lots of black and a bit of red. Darth Vader would feel right at home. The deep set gauges are inspired from the old car, but we're happy to report they're much more legible. The little 3 now comes with a nav screen (if you get the Grand Touring package), but it's the size of a credit card and hardly worth getting. Also, you can only map stuff with the steering wheel buttons, so its not very useful, either. The Grand Touring package adds all sorts of other luxury amenities including heated seats, dual zone climate, XM/Sirius radio and a quarter acre of leather. But it also burdens the steering wheel with 15 buttons.
Now we come to the transmissions. Our 2.0-liter "i" came with a five-speed automatic. It works just fine, but if you're craving any sort of sportiness from your three, you'd be much better served the five-speed manual. The autobox is simply a mechanical downer. Our 2.5-liter "s" tester came with a six-speed manual, and while we've long been a fan of Mazda's manuals (particularly the stellar 'boxes fitted to the RX-8 and MX-5), sadly, we were thoroughly underwhelmed by the quality of the row-your-own tranny in the new 3. It just felt floppy. The throws are old-school long, akin to a '70s Corvette, and the shifter comes off as chintzy. The "leather" shroud conceals a curved piece of metal where it's been spot welded to the bottom of the knob, and while that's hardly a deal breaker, we simply expect more from Mazda. Tumbleweed.
Our decadently optioned Grand Sport came in at $25,115, and now you're in WRX territory.
On the road, the tale of two engines isn't as different as you might think. Obviously the 2.0-liter "i" mill is aimed at the budget-minded consumer. It's 148 hp and 135 lb-ft of torque move it around and... that's about it. We would have liked to try wringing this motor out with a manual, but didn't get the chance. For those on a budget or worried about miles per gallon, this is your Mazda3 motor. The sad news is that those looking for some get up and go in the compact class, the 2.5-liter "s" motor isn't the answer. Yes, it's bigger and makes some more power (167 hp and 168 lb-ft of torque), but on the road there isn't very much difference. Considering the Subaru Impreza's naturally aspirated 2.5-liter boxer-four makes 170 ponies and 170 torques, yet the 2.5i Premium starts $1,000 cheaper than the s Mazda3 – $18,495 versus $19,490 – choosing the 2010 Mazda3 over the Subie becomes even more difficult. Thrown in the fact that our decadently optioned Grand Sport came in at $25,115, and now you're in WRX territory.
It's obvious at this point that after a week with the "i" and a few days with the "s", we simply weren't feeling the new Mazda3. Both cars' saving grace is the eager to boogie steering. Regardless of engine/transmission, turning the 3's wheel feels fabulous. Like nearly all Mazda's, the brands sporting DNA shines the brightest through the suspension. The parts aren't novel – MacPherson struts with coilovers up front and multilink coilovers behind – but it's all tuned brilliantly. Maybe then, the key to the 3's salvation lay up in the hills? Off to the canyons we went.
We selected Glendora Canyon – a wonderful, curve-imbued 20-mile blast – to put the 2010 Mazda3 through its paces. We set off with a friend's Hyundai Elantra in hot pursuit. First of all, pounding the holy snot out of (relatively) underpowered cars is a very underrated endeavor. Because the limits are so low, you can reach them quickly (red line in third gear, why not?), and because the chassis are modern the (safety) first tendency is always to understeer. Unlike a Viper, little cars aren't actively out to kill you.
As suspected, up in the canyons is where the Mazda3 came alive. Speeds rarely crested 45 mph, but even still the 3 flowed from one curve to the next. The new 2010s come standard with stability control, which we left off for the entire run – it simply wasn't needed. Aside from the aforementioned understeer, there isn't any bad behavior. There's even enough torque to let the engine do most of the braking for you. This prevented us from riding the grippy 11.8-inch front and 11-inch rear disks into flaming oblivion. Case in point: At the bottom of the mountain the Hyundai's brakes sat and smoked for a good five minutes while the Mazda looked as if it had been strolling through a park.
Without question, the old Mazda3 was the best car in its segment. Luckily for the new model, it's a pretty weak segment. Aside from the nearly-absurd price of our Grand Touring test car, there's nothing glaringly bad about the new 3. But unlike the old car, there's nothing too great about it either. Still, minus a few options and/or trim levels, this is a vehicle that many people will purchase and happily own for years to come. The 2010 Mazda3 will undoubtedly remain the go-to choice for non-pistonhead family members, but for those of us craving more from our compact runabouts, we're keeping our fingers crossed for the 2011 Mazdaspeed3.