published Saturday, September 21st, 2013

Test Drive: New Mazda 3 zooms past competition

The all-new Mazda 3 has a distinctive grille and aggressive sheet metal. 
Staff photo by Mark Kennedy
The all-new Mazda 3 has a distinctive grille and aggressive sheet metal. Staff photo by Mark Kennedy

FAST FACTS

Model: 2014 Mazda 3 I-Touring

Exterior color: Soul Red Metallic

Interior color: Black

Engine: 2.0-liter, four-cylinder

Horsepower: 155

Transmission: six-speed automatic

Fuel economy: 40 mpg highway, 30 mpg city

Dealer: Edd Kirby Adventure Mazda

  • Price (as tested): $22,240

Among car enthusiasts, the arrival of the new Mazda 3 is a much-anticipated event.

In a nutshell it's roomier and zoomier.

The clean-sheet redesign of the 2014 3 rounds out Mazda's excellent new line-up of pulse-quickening models and gives the brand a new best-seller to hawk on its showroom floors.

To produce an economical compact car that makes your accelerator-foot itch is quite an accomplishment. The 3 joins stable-mates such as the exciting new Mazda 6 midsize sedan and the new CX 5, a fun-to-drive sports-ute.

It was only a few years ago that the Hiroshima, Japan-based car company appeared down for the count. But with all these well-reviewed products in the pipeline things are looking up for the niche brand, which has returned to its core mission of producing highly-engineered automobiles that appeal to serious car enthusiasts. Its partnership with Ford has been dissolved.

The news Mazda 3 comes in two flavors: quick (the 3-I with a 2.0-liter engine) and quicker (the 3-S with a 2.5-liter engine).

We snagged one of the first 3s -- a 2.0-liter five-door hatchback -- to hit the ground in Chattanooga last week from Edd Kirby Mazda downtown and took it for a mid-afternoon spin on Mountain Creek Road and beyond.

The base Mazda 3 four-door sedan starts at $16,700 plus freight, and our five-door in Touring trim stickers for $22,240. A top-of-the-line Mazda 3 in S-Grand-Touring trim retails for $26,790 plus $500 freight.

STYLING AND FEATURES

All of the new Mazda models share a family resemblance, namely a big, gaping grille that looks like it's about to swallow something -- in this case, the road.

Our test car came in tantalizing Soul Red Metallic paint, a well-worth-the-money $300 option. Character lines sweep back across the hood and doors of the Mazda 3 hatchback like the wake from a ski boat.

A black-out B-pillar gives the hatch a coupe effect. The wheelbase has been lengthened by almost three inches this year, and this pays dividends in the back seats, which now allow plenty of knee room for adults.

The cockpit design is clean and airy. The dash is uncluttered and the gauges are easy to read and intuitive. The front buckets fit snugly on my 170-pound frame. Our mid-trim model had cloth seat covers, but leather is available.

DRIVING DYNAMICS

Throughout, the new 3 is infused with Mazda's new Skyactiv suite of design features, which results in a stronger, faster more efficient automobile. Mazda is banking on its breakthrough four-cylinder engine technology to push the boundaries of performance, fuel emissions and economy.

With Skyactiv, the company set out to improve fuel economy by 15 percent and torque by 15 percent by tweaking its existing engines. Mazda engineers raised the compression ratio, designed more efficient fuel injectors, improved piston performance and installed longer exhaust manifolds. They also reduced overall engine friction by 30 percent.

The result is a lively little car that returns 40 mpg highway (30 mpg city) while delivering sporty performance -- a nearly irresistible combination. On our test drive, the 3 was playful in twisty sections of Mountain Creek Road. Moving up to the 2.5 liter engine, which makes 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque, would only enhance this effect.

Steering, a 3 strong-suit, is on the heavy side, a signal that the engineers were serious about handling. Even though the steering is electronic, it still provides ample feedback to the driver.

The 3 also includes some upscale features, such as push-button ignition, hill-launch assist and carbon-fiber look dash inserts.

BOTTOM LINE

The Mazda 3 should be on every compact buyer's must-drive list. Our area's mountain roads practically beg for a small, economical driver's car like this.

It's priced in line with such competitors such as the Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Kia Forte, but at the end of the day the Mazda 3 feels like a more substantial, more expensive car.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...

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