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Mazda3 adds zoom at an entry-level price

February 06, 2004|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

Mazda makes it look easy to put a little "Zoom-Zoom" into a class of vehicles that has been more or less chug-chugging along.

Entry-level fun? When it comes to basic transportation, it's sometimes hard to find. But, fun - and style - it seems, masks the new Mazda3's practical side and provides new motivation for purchase. It's like getting the cake, the frosting and low calories when you're on a strict diet.

From its sculptured grille to the rounded rear haunches, the Mazda3 smacks of a revolution in the small-car universe. Which, in a way, it is. It's all part of the "next generation" of Mazda products, a new vision that has inspired the Japanese automaker to launch four new vehicles in less than 24 months.

In each case, Mazda says it doesn't want, or feel the need, to compete with everyone else out there, so the company has concentrated on creating its very own class of vehicle. The segment? Fun to drive. The sales card? An expression of movement with muscle and stability.

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Zoom-zoom, huh? It just might work.

As the replacement to the long-running, highly successful and loveable Proteg, the Mazda3 is a distinctive four-door sedan or wagon that aims to remove the "sub" from subcompact. With dynamic proportions created from a long wheelbase and cabin, short overhangs, large-diameter wheels and aggressively flared front and rear fenders, the Mazda3 has an assertive, up-market (and bigger) presence.

It's not aiming to challenge the Honda Civic or Toyota Corollas of the world. The sales goals are modest: about 85,000 units this year, just enough to make it a player. For the fun at heart and the frugal of wallet, it has a modest price of less than $14,000. In this segment that's a deal clincher.

However, a true sport package - 17-inch wheels, rear spoiler, integrated fog lamps, air intake tucked below the bumper and sporty seats - helps the Mazda3 make the move from mere entry-level car to compact sport sedan.

Once you realize that the Mazda3 shares its basic platform with other Ford-owned products (Ford owns a controlling interest in Mazda), it's easy to see how this transition is so natural. The '04 Volvo S40 and the European Ford C-Max crossover vehicle share their architecture with the Mazda3.

What's the end result? A little bit of good donated from everyone involved.

It means the Mazda3 arrives with Volvo know-how when it comes to safety, boasting more technology than many other products in the segment (as many as six optional air bags as well as whiplash protection). And it means a little Mazda muscle.

The Mazda3 comes equipped with either a 2.0-liter 16-valve in-line four-cylinder engine that produces 148 horsepower or a meatier 160-horsepower 2.3-liter four-cylinder.

Inside is where the Mazda3 really stands on its own. The outgoing Proteg already had one of the roomiest interiors in its class, so the new car had some big boots to fill. The Mazda3 is slightly larger in most key interior dimensions, with differences in the look and feel of interior appointments becoming immediately apparent.

From the well-appointed dash to the firm, supportive seats to the purr of the engine on the first turn of the key, there's the sense that the Mazda3 is certainly worth more than what you've paid. That feeling extends right through to the way it drives.

More than anything, the attention to detail separates the Mazda3 from the masses. The interior is sporty and sophisticated, with high-line touches such as a large glove box (that's big enough to hold a laptop computer) with a damper that keeps it from flopping open onto the front passenger's knees.

The forward section of the console box has two cupholders (one large and one medium-sized) with a flip-back lid. And, more importantly in this segment, there's plenty of room for more than two passengers. The back seat is comfortable and easily able to accommodate. The trunk, with the seats folded flat, becomes a sizeable place for cargo.

Space, speed, style and, did we mention, less stress on the savings account?

There's not much that isn't right with the Mazda3. It's a value meal with a little extra meat. A feast without having to fast to afford it. And, of course, a little more zoom.

© 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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