A Globe&Mail (Canadian) Mz3 Sport review :
Sporting a real grin
Mazda3 Sport provides it all: Comfort, looks and smiles
By Michael Bettencourt
Thursday, January 22, 2004
The dearly departed Mazda Protegé5 was as much fun as a bachelor party at the Playboy mansion, and one of the most engaging hatchbacks on the road. Its replacement, the 2004 Mazda3 Sport, is better looking, more powerful, more comfortable and even more entertaining to drive. It is undoubtedly the one vehicle that's elicited more "I'd buy this car for myself" reactions around the office than any vehicle in recent memory. No wonder it won the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada's (AJAC) award for Best New Sports Coupe/Sedan Under $35,000.
AJAC does car tests a lot better than award tag lines. Not only is the above honour a major mouthful, the Mazda3 Sport is neither a coupe nor a sedan. It belongs in this group, however, as it combines the cool looks usually offered with the former along with the practicality of the latter in its 5-door hatchback body, along with a healthy dose of performance that's untouchable for its just-over $20,000 price. The Sport doesn't whip heads around, but it's handsome enough to elicit smiling inquiries at the gas station.
A lot of serious engineering has gone into the Mazda3 Sport's driving dynamics.
The 2.3-litre, 4-cylinder engine produces 160 hp, but unlike the sportiest versions of some competitors, the engine feels energetic around town thanks to the generous 150 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. It's not the most powerful in its class, but feels like it at anything less than 6,000 revs. Plus, no matter how hard the engine's working, it always sounds smooth, refined and nicely muted while cruising on the highway.
The 5-speed manual transmission has a nice quality shift feel. The gas and brake pedals have obviously been placed close together to help make heel-and-toe manoeuvres easier, but Mazda has been a little too eager to please hot shoes in this respect. One pair of my size nines would clip the brake pedal almost every time I went for the throttle.
I had the chance to drive the Mazda3 Sport back to back with the wickedly quick Dodge SRT-4 at Shannonville racetrack during the AJAC awards this past fall, and the differences were eye opening. The Dodge left the 3 in its dust on the straights, but the Mazda3 Sport felt much more composed in the corners, with very little kickback in the steering wheel, and only a touch more lean from its considerably more comfortable suspension.
Our recent tester was shod with winter rubber and therefore rode a touch harsher than I remembered, but still had a serious appetite for gobbling up corners.
The Mazda3 Sport's interior also sets it apart from the competition. Settle in behind the steering wheel and you'll notice redundant radio controls on the wheel, an item that used to be reserved for luxury cars and is now racing its way down the price scale. The dash's stereo also has a futuristic, Knight Rider-esque light bar that cycles red flashing lights side to side in tandem with stereo adjustments. Not exactly functional, but it gives the 3 a cool look that'll impress your passengers.
There's a pervasive feeling of quality inside the Mazda3 Sport. All interior switches light up at night, including the ones on the steering wheel, which is often not the case on some vehicles costing twice as much. Rain-sensing wipers are standard, as are headlights that come on (and turn themselves off) automatically. Plus there's a handy mute button on the steering wheel, which is great for when your cell phone rings or when you pull up to a drive-through for your morning caffeine hit.
These features are the most surprising, since they come standard on even the base Mazda3 Sport GS that starts at $20,185. A GT model, like our tester, starts at $21,385, which includes upgrades like 17-inch wheels over 16-inchers, steering wheel mounted cruise controls, rear spoiler and two extra speakers. The only options available for the GS are air conditioning and a 4-speed automatic, whereas the GT offers a sunroof and leather seats as well.
Safety equipment includes 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS, standard in all Mazda3 Sports, as well as an engine immobilizer and adjustable rear head restraints. Interestingly, no side airbags, traction or stability control systems are available, one area where the 3 Sport is not class-leading.
Unfortunately, despite its long list of positives, we had a number of niggling annoyances with our hatchback. On cold mornings the brakes on our tester squealed like a preteen at a Justin Timberlake concert, although the unsettling noise quickly went away after the first few stops. Also, snow tends to collect on the rear bumper, which means you have to reach through the white stuff to open the bumper-level rear hatch, which is no fun if you're not wearing gloves.
These nits are not reserved for winter-only grievances. We had the passenger airbag warning light come on and stay on, in not one, but two Mazda3s we tested in the past month. Then there's the tiny button that must be pushed in before the ignition key can be removed - a royal pain.
In the big picture, however, the Mazda3 Sport does a lot more things extremely well, more than making up for its unexpected quality and ergonomic quirks. If the Mazda3 (Sport or sedan) doesn't win AJAC's overall 2004 Best New Canadian Car of the Year award, it will be a major shock, as this vehicle really is that good.
Chrysler PT Cruiser,
Ford Focus ZX5,