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.
Ok, I went to the appropriate underground parking lot today and sure enough, I found one Mazda3 (red sedan, same one as from the Vancouver port pics).
So I took out my camera and in less than a minute of taking pics ... I got caught. A guy was coming towards me and used the keyless to unlock the car. I politely asked if my picture taking was ok and he said sure.
He did even more than that, he opened the car up, showed it off for me and even let me start it up, all while I was taking pictures. We chatted for about 15min, and then he had to go. But since we were in a non-public underground, I asked if he could drive me back up to where I parked my car. So, I got into the passenger seat and got a 2min ride in the Mazda3. It was manual, or else I would have asked if I could drive it myself.
This is the first time I've seen this vehicle in real life (and obviously the first time I rode in one), so here's my impressions:
* looks great in person (better than the pics). It looks compact and very coupe-like on the outside, but there's TONS of room inside (including the back) and in the trunk. It also clearly has that 'athletic tension' that all new-gen Mazda's have.
* seats felt amazing, very supportive yet very soft and comfortable (I have an internal Mazda graph that compares the Mazda3 seats to the Golf and BMW 3-series in terms of 'support', 'ride', 'holding' and 'softness feel'. Being a Mazda graph, of course the Mazda3 seats beats them both, but now that I've sat in it I can confirm that they're very nice). But I have to say this caveat, I'm a small & thin person, and I could see the seats maybe being too small for very large folks.
* the steering-wheel feels awesome, not a surprise given that it's taken directly from the RX-8
* seating position is high (so great view of the road), but there's still good headroom and I was very impressed with the amount of room in the backseat
* like the other new-gen Mazdas, the center display says 'Hello' when you start up the car
* the radio is very, very cool. When you turn the volume up or down, the horizontal led-like lights around the buttons light-up in the direction you turn the volume knob. The documentation I have says that Mazda did this so it seems like the car interacts with you. Also, even though we were in an underground, the radio reception was perfect, and it sounded pretty good too (it sounded as good as the standard radio in th RSX I was in today, but I'm not an audiophile).
* the glove compartment is HUGE. Plus, it's dampered, very upscale.
* the vehicle had the 16-inch alloys, and as we rode up from the underground, it was very smooth. He also took some corners somewhat fast and there is like NO body-roll. Overall, the ride is very, very refined, very smooth but this car can clearly perform as well
* the 2.0l engine started up very smooth and is very quiet. At idle, the 2.0l had less vibration than the RSX I was in today
The guy confirmed that the vehicle (and I'm pretty sure all the vehicles from those Vancouver pics), was euro-spec. They are using them as test mules (e.g. checking out the specs, testing it on our roads, squeak & rattle testing, etc...). The red sedan I was in was the only one on site - he wouldn't tell me where the others were.
The guy said that the Mazda3 would reach Canada around mid-November, which further confirms my info.
And of course you want pics right? Well I took a good amount of them (though I wish I had more time before the guy came), and I'd be happy to share with you the better ones (all my pics had a particular focus, I had seen enough profile shots from the Mazda official pics so I didn't do many of those)
" The interior of the Mazda 3 should please people looking for the kind of quality and ambiance usually found only on upscale European products. The instrument panel, console and dash are almost Audi-like in their quality and fit and finish. I liked the driving position as soon as I got into the car and the seats are very supportive too. Best of all, this is a real "driver's car" like the bigger Mazda 6. It's fast and agile and certainly as good as anything we've yet seen in this class. The car compares to some of the sportier VW Golfs I've driven and people moving on from products like the Miata will not feel they've given much up when family sedan/hatchback time comes around. Pricing, incidentally, will be announced later in the year and I have a feeling we'll be pleasantly surprised.
I thought that Mazda had come up with "best in class" styling and performance with the 6 model and they seem to have done it again with the smaller car. The Mazda 3 is going to be a major hit when it arrives later this year and should put a company that saw some problems a few years ago firmly back on the road to prosperity. Well done Mazda! "
I think Mazda knows it can't compete with Honda or Toyota at the moment, they need to survive. Solution? Specialize and occupy a niche in the car industry. IMO they are agressive and successfull at doing it. Nice work so far Mazda.
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