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Spend any time hovering around the auto industry these days and you're likely to hear the term, DNA, more often than you would at a convention of bio-geneticists.

In today's crowded and fragmented car market, customers have become increasingly fickle and new products can easily get lost and sink below the surface. To stand out from the crowd, smart manufacturers look to emphasize and build on those qualities -think of them as chrome and steel genes - that best define their brand, helping make the most positive connection with potential buyers. Two of the best examples are BMW's performance heritage and Volvo's emphasis on safety.

The search for defining characteristics isn't always easy. And sometimes consumers identify DNA a manufacturer might prefer to forget about. Remember Rodney King's Hyundai? That's one automaker that spent the last decade practicing gene splicing, hoping to overcome its primal roots as a purveyor of cheap transportation.

Few carmakers speak of DNA more than Mazda. But what is it that defines the Japanese automaker, which has gone through a seemingly endless series of near-death experiences and subsequent rebirths since first entering the U.S. market three decades ago? Probably no Mazda product could provide a purer sample than the new RX-8: with a distinctive and sporty design that translates into creative functionality, it's powered by that most quirky of powerplants, the rotary engine, which has long been a Mazda trademark.

It's easy to develop a brand-defining sports car, but now the automaker's taking aim at the subcompact market, a segment often referred to as "basic transportation." Though it's not aiming to challenge the likes of the Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla, the new Mazda3 has ambitious sales goals. And since price is the single deciding factor for many buyers in this segment, the Mazda3 team had plenty of constraints limiting their options.

What they've come up with is a subcompact that is a good bit more stylish than many of the segment's current blandmobiles. You're likely to recognize some of those RX-8 genes in the angular and aggressive nose - though Italian aficionados might also detect a hint of the Alfa-Romeo 147, as well. The sports appearance package adds such features as 17-inch wheels and a rear spoiler, but with integrated fog lamps, and a big air intake tucked below the bumper, even the base Mazda3 won't be confused with a me-too econobox.

The 3 is offered in both four-door and wagon configurations, and they each have a distinctly difference look and presence. Mazda has done more than just slap a box on the back of the basic sedan. The automaker's advertising is likely to make mention of the new "five-door," a recognition that wagons don't sell well in the U.S. Too bad. It's actually the most appealing package of the two, and not just because of its added versatility.

Under the skin, the Mazda3 shares its basic "architecture" with several other Ford family products (the U.S. automaker owns a controlling interest in Mazda). That includes the all-new Volvo S40, as well as the new Ford C-Max, a European crossover vehicle. The process has several advantages. For one thing, the various spin-offs can share components that don't really matter to consumers. And that adds up to big cost savings - money that can be reinvested where it matters.

Aided by Volvo know-how, Mazda boasts more safety technology than many other products in the segment, for one thing, and expects to deliver five-star crash ratings. You can pack it with up to six airbags, and the front seatbelts feature pretensioners and load limiters. The front seats are designed to prevent whiplash, while there's extra protection to prevent luggage intrusion in a rear-end collision.

That's the good side. On the other hand, the industry is littered with examples of look-alike and drive-alike products that shared just a few too many pieces. No wonder Mazda is so focused on the issue of DNA. It can't afford to have the world come away thinking the 3 is just a Ford by some other name.

Styling is the first clear sign that Mazda was able to win the argument. As far as looks are concerned, you won't confuse this car with any other Ford or Volvo. And the differentiation is equally apparent after driving the Mazda3.

No, you won't spin the tires like you would with the RX-8. But stomp on the gas in the 2.3-liter four and you'll feel a strong surge of acceleration, especially if you opt for the manual transmission. The four-speed automatic's competent with the 2.3 engine, but a bit sluggish with the 2.0-liter, where we'd recommend sticking with the manual gearbox. Maybe it's time for a five-speed auto here?

The car is quiet and smooth as you hit highway speeds. Steering is quick and responsive, but with the slightly heavier feel of a sports car, rather than your typical subcompacts. One of the automaker's goals was to deliver the driving feel of a larger and more sophisticated product, and while the 3 isn't quite as sophisticated as last year's Mazda6, you might think you're driving something significantly more expensive.

The suspension has a sportier tuning than many in the class, and with the large-diameter four-wheel disks, Mazda3 has plenty of braking power. Mazda's are among the most popular brands with grass roots racers. We'd expect to see those into performance sports compacts quickly gravitate to the new car.

The high-line feel is enhanced by Mazda's attention to detail. Engineers worked to minimize body gaps, both inside and out. The interior maintains the sporty but sophisticated feel with such high-line touches as a glovebox damper, which keeps it from banging open and closed. Incidentally, the box is big enough to stow a small laptop computer. One of the nicer touches is the indirect blue lighting on the black-faced gauges that comes with the sport package.

Among the easiest way to express your brand heritage is by staying with a well-known brand name, something automakers are reluctant to ever give up. But despite all the talk about DNA, Mazda made a point of abandoning the old 323 nameplate. And considering what they've put together with the new Mazda3, it's a wise decision. The nomenclature also follows a new style, in line with the Mazda6.

The new subcompact isn't as much of a surprise as that bigger car. But perhaps we've just gotten a little sanguine in our expectations as a result of other recent Mazda introductions. After several days of driving the Mazda3 in the countryside surrounding Paris, we quickly grew comfortable with the new car, and are looking forward to spending more time with it back in the U.S. In a very crowded market, this is one subcompact that has the genes of a serious contender.

(I want the 2.3 too!!!)

330 Posts
AAAHHHH!!! Takes me back to when there was only like 150 people on this board and everyone was drooling to be the first in the country to get one. I was a little slow signing on. I waited till I actually had signed for the car before signing up as a member. I was originally going for a Focus ZX3; MP5 or a Toyota Matrix. Then blessed be the day way back in July 03, I was doing research and found out that the MP5 was going to be replaced. I dug around found pictures and haven't stopped loving the Mz3 since!!!
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