Nathan Ponchard (Wheels Feb 2004) said:The Power of 3
And so Mazda's impressive product metamorphosis continues. After 27 years, the 323 badge has been slapped on a horse and sent to a Pal factory, finally ending Mazda's succession of those three-digit model names that began here with the 808 in 1972. All thanks to Mazda's razzle-dazzle 3 - the first car to spring from the global C1 platform shared with Ford's next-generation Focus and Volvo's all-new S40/V50, and the final prong in Mazda's resurgent product offensive.
But life won't be easy on the 3. Mazda's highly successfully 6 landed in a desolate wasteland (the medium-four class) and immediately made headlines for its athleticism and value. The 3, on the other hand, must compete against a huge array if talent, and this year alone must face the Renault Megane, Holden's all-new Astra, Volkswagen's all-new Golf, and an updated Toyota Corolla.
Since Mazda took to 323 prices with a machete 18 months ago, the sixth-generation has been selling like cut-price beer in summer. But the 3 will be at least $1500 more expensive in base Neo trim (albeit with a 104kW 2.0 instead of the 323's 92kW 1.8 ), and the range-topping SP23 tested here is exactly $2500 more than an Astina SP20. Despite its conservatism, the final 323 was a likable car - roomy, reliable, generously equipped and good to drive. To the 323's solid virtues, the Mazda 3 adds some much needed styling panache, a stronger body, noticeably improved refinement, and an inspired chassis. But does the more expensive 3 make a strong enough impression to maintain the sales rage? And will it bulldoze the opposition to become the new class benchmark?
Considering we've only driven a manual SP23 locally, and have yet to compare the Mazda 3 with any rival, only 'The Man' Mundine could make such a call without flinching. But in a class littered with niggling flaws and 'if onlys' - like the Corolla's flat seats and underdone suspension, or the Astra's dated cabin and poopy manual gearchange - the 3 stands out as the Glynnis Nunn of its ilk, the heptathlete with a heart of gold, and an unnerving talent for being good at heaps of stuff.
The 3's chassis headlines the list of attributes that makes this Mazda such a cohesive, well-rounded contender. It’s one of those cars you can drive badly, and yet will still corner well – dissolving understeer with a subtle, fluid drift from the rear, that squatting and working its rubbers with absolute neutrality.
Grip from the 17-inch Bridgestones is tremendous, and all four tyres showed minimal wear, despite being given a hearty thrashing while exploring the SP23’s biting, rewarding handling.
You can hone the Mazda’s cornering line with either throttle or brakes, and it has just the right amount of rear-end adjustability to please enthusiastic drivers without scaring the terminally useless. That said, the SP23 feels more benign that a Focus ST170 – its steering feeling marginally less animated, if still full of feel, it’s chassis similarly planted, if a tad less reactive. The 3 turns into a corner precisely, with beautifully consistent steering progression, and great on-centre feel. When turning away from straight-ahead, the 3 isn’t as sharp as a Mazda 6, but its dynamics are more polished, and its firm steering is much better weighted. Only really bad corrugations will provoke steering kickback, and even then it’s more column flutter than shudder.
But the SP23’s dynamic piece-de-resistance is its combination of great balance and superb body control with a well damped, relaxed ride, and impressive road refinement. Only tyre rumble on coarse-chip surfaces breaks the Mazda’s silence, and then only in relation to how quiet and comfortable it is elsewhere. Ride quality is actually quite loping, especially for a sports model, and the SP23 (on 205/50R17 tyres) handles poor roads with noticeably more suppleness than a 6 Luxury (on 215/45R17 rubber). Unexpected, indeed.
Despite weighing 146kg less than the top manual 6 (the Sports Luxury hatch), and sharing its big brother’s 2.3-litre four, the SP23 is no quicker. Blame the 3’s lower compression ratio (9.7 v 10.6) and it’s single muffler (not dual) exhaust system – resulting in 115kW at 6500rpm (down 7kW) and 203Nm at 4500rpm (down 4Nm, and peaking 500rpm higher). What the SP23’s peppy MZR engine hasn’t lost is the 6’s throaty induction noise, and its keeness to rev – although the 3 isn’t quite as vocal at the top end, and feels lacking in low down torque.
The SP23 needs at least 2500rpm on its tacho to pull fourth or fifth gear with conviction, and really needs 4000rpm to blur the scenery, but it will sing heartily all the way to 7100rpm. Thankfully the SP23’s gearshift is a sweetie – well oiled and well defined, with a tactile leather gearknob – because it receives considerable use on hilly, twisty roads. A six-speed box certainly wouldn’t go to waste. In the meantime, the SP23 slurped regular unleaded at the rate of 12.3L/100km – not bad, considering our pace.
What spoils the SP23’s deep-seated driver appeal somewhat is its pedal layout – fine for distant stuff, but the accelerator is too low and distant relative to the brake for effortless heel-and-toe downshifts. At least the brakes themselves – 300mm ventilated discs up front, 280mm solid discs behind, with ABS and brake-force distribution – are smooth and progressive, with good feel, no obvious fade, and ample retardation.
It’s when seated in the SP23 that you realise just how thorough Mazda has been with this car. No sheep-like design dags to speak of, and certainly no “She’ll be right, mate” attitude to note. Not even compared to Mazda’s more expensive 6. Highlights are the leather bound RX-8 wheel with tilt and reach adjustment (very unusual for a Japanese car), and the world’s most brilliant glovebox, which extends almost the whole depth of the dashboard, despite the passenger airbag nesting above it.
The RX-8 style driver’s seat has crank handle height adjustment, and a nice, grippy backrest with reasonably good lumbar support, although no lumbar adjustment. Cushion tilt would have been useful, but generally the seat is very good. As is the rear pew, set higher than the front seats for great forward vision, yet still with excellent headroom, and blessed with a well-placed centre armrest. The seat cushion is long, but a bit flat, and the backrest is a little too far reclined for perfect support, although, like boot space, the 3’s rear is more than acceptable.. So too the 600ml bottle holders in all four doors, the posh-looking polished sill cappings in the front, and the rear seat’s 60/40 fold-flat versatility (even though it’s not the clever ‘Karakuri’ design from the 6).
Still, Mazda’s whole new model process would be undermined if the 3 looked crap. It doesn’t. In the big wheeled SP23’s case, it looks muscular, dynamic, and different, without being contrived or fussy. Only the biggish rear takes some getting used to, although the rear bumper is large enough to sit on at sporting events, and the unusual glasshouse shape not only looks cool, but delivers good over-the-shoulder vision. In the right light, the wheelarch blisters look fabulous too, and likewise the tail-lights’ space-age detail. And most of the time, you’d never know just how big the Mazda 3 is – almost 4.5m long and 1.76m wide, with the fattest stance in its class.
So, at the very least, the Mazda 3 is a guaranteed bloody good thing. It’s spacious, superbly built, it looks individual, and it’s a charmer. And the SP23 version is a thoroughly new-millennium sporty – not too challenging, but never dull, and without any obvious compromise. Which pretty much sums up the whole car, really. Like the RX-8, the 3 is a clever crowd-pleaser, yet remains a gust of fresh air. The 3 may have lost two digits in its name, but Mazda is ready to raise a middle finger to it rivals.