CHANTILLY, France -- If company president Mike Benchimol and the other folks at Mazda Canada had their way, the new 2004 Mazda3 still would be called the Protege. After all, the Protege is the vehicle that turned around the car company's fortunes here, in the process becoming one of the best-selling compact cars in the country.
It's only reluctantly that you give up brand recognition (and owner loyalty) like that.
But, alas, Canada is only a small player on the world stage, and these days in the car biz it's very much a global market.
That's why Mazda, the Japanese manufacturer partly owned by Ford of Detroit, chose to introduce the all-new Mazda3 in France this month -- a dog and pony show put on by the multilingual and multinational staff from Mazda Europe's German HQ. In the course of 51/2 weeks they will make the new cars available to waves of media hordes from Europe, Japan, North America, the Middle East, Australia ... well, just about anywhere there are media hordes.
After the initial shock of not being able to stroll into the local Mazda dealership to order a new Protege, I think customer reaction to the Mazda3 in Canada is going to be overwhelmingly positive.
I mean, who cares about the name if the Zoom-Zoom is still there?
And it is.
Besides, if Mazda can offer you more car for the same amount of money as a Protege (as Benchimol hopes), then what's yer problem, mate?
And the Mazda3 is more car for the money, with, as Mazda will tell you, more style, more emotion and more excitement.
On a more tangible level, it's also bigger, with a longer wheelbase and more width, which also translates into a roomier cabin and more trunk space.
And Mazda, I think, is very clever in offering buyers a choice of engines -- something the marketers at other car makers don't seem to grasp. (Are ears burning in the marketing departments at General Motors and Toyota? They should be.)
Base engine in North America is a 2.0-litre DOHC 16-valve inline four producing 148 hp at 6,500 rpm and 135 lb.ft. of torque at 4,500 rpm. Also available is a 2.3-litre DOHC 16-valve four that pumps out a healthy 160 hp and 150 lb.ft. of torque.
Both engines run on regular unleaded gasoline and can be mated to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.
When the cars go on sale in Canada in November, Mazda3s will be available in two body styles -- four-door sedan and five-door liftback -- both of which can be kitted out with a sports appearance package that includes body-colour grille, side skirts, fog lamps and either a roof-mounted spoiler (five-door) or trunk-mounted spoiler (four-door).
Benchimol expects the new cars will sell in about the same ratio as Proteges, approximately 2:1 in favour of sedans.
It will share common architecture with the new Ford Focus, although, as one company spokesman Joe Bakaj told us, the new car "drives like a Mazda and feels like a Mazda. It's spirited, fun to drive and experience."
In the car business, first reactions can carry enormous weight, and if your first reaction to the Mazda3 is anything like mine, it will be along the lines of, "Whoa, this can't be a replacement for the Protege, it's got way too much cool to be a mere econobox."
The styling is evocative of the mid-size Mazda6, with the flared fenders of the sporty RX-8, and the interior is both functional and stylish. Extra effort has been spent on the quality of materials surrounding the occupants, with special emphasis placed on fit and finish.
My initial driving impression (with a 2.3-litre, five-door) was equally positive. The car has a positive steering feel and a nice, light clutch and improved feel to the five-speed stick. The suspension (MacPherson-type up front, multi-link rear) delivers a taut ride that some North American backsides may find too firm, but which I prefer.
One area where Mazda3 engineers spent a lot of effort was improving the car's torsional rigidity for flat and stable cornering and ride. In fact, bending rigidity vs. the Protege has been improved by 40%.
Although it's a new shape on the world's roads, the Mazda3 didn't cause much of a fuss along the highways and narrow village streets of rural France. Exterior styling is quite European and the Mazda3 fits right in among the funky Peugeots, Renaults, etc.
Mazda says it chose Chantilly, about an hour's drive northwest of Paris, and home to 2,000 racehorses, as "the perfect place to launch our new thoroughbred." Judging by the advance models we got to drive through the French countryside here, I'd say the odds are good Mazda's got itself another winner.