EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 8, 2013

New Mazda3 rewrites the rules

Motor Mouth
Jeffrey Zygmont

---- — Car companies remake a car model every four, five or six years, bringing out a wholly new, re-engineered and re-styled version meant to maintain the vehicle’s standing.

They have to. Technology advances. Tastes and styles change. The competition to get your attention, and hold your attention, is fierce in the auto biz.

But newly re-built, next-generation models very often are place-holders that maintain the status quo. Sure, they’re noteworthy milestones. But they’re milestones like a college graduation. They’re not like the breakthrough of, say, New Hampshire’s Alan B. Shepard becoming the first American in space.

The new, 2014 Mazda3 is closer to the Shepard-style breakthrough than it is to a graduation. The car is slick and sophisticated. It stirs passions. It could incite a renewal of excitement and bring a fresh fervor to small, economical autos.

“Mazda has completely changed the game, not just for themselves, but for the competition as well,” said Bryce Hanson, sales consultant at Lannan Mazda, Lowell, based on what he sees in the showroom since Mazda introduced the next-generation 3 late in the summer.

The new Mazda3 stands out all the more because it’s a car that could be ordinary. The model’s trim and tidy size places it in the compact class, with competing vehicles that emphasize economy and practicality. Going against such enormously popular models as the Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, the Mazda3 needs to possess attractive amounts of usefulness and thrift. It does that, with a starting price of $17,740 for a four-door sedan version, ranging upward to $27,290 for top level of the five-door hatchback model, which works out to be a technology show-piece.

The fuel economy of the new 3 is at the top of the class. Its standard, 155-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine delivers a government gas-use rating of 30 miles-per-gallon in city driving, and 41 mpg on the highway (34 mpg combined) – for a sedan model equipped with automatic transmission, a $1,050 upgrade from the standard, manual transmission.

Hanson of Lannan Mazda pointed out that shoppers also like the economy available from the larger, more powerful four-cylinder available in the top-level versions of the Mazda3. The 184-horsepower, 2.5-liter engine with automatic transmission yields a fuel-use rating of 28 mpg city, 39 mpg highway (42 combined).

The car delivers other vital elements of economy and practicality. For example, its comfortable, fashionably styled cabin seems spacious for its class. The hatchback version – my personal favorite – provides all the haul-around utility that an open-back vehicle lends to active lifestyles. Equipment included on the 3 adds up to make the model an attractive value. Standard features at the base level include advanced antilock brakes and dynamic stability control, well sized, 16-inch wheels, fully adjustable steering column, keyless locking, tire-pressure monitoring, fold-down rear seat, and more.

But while it amply handles the basics, the re-made Mazda3 also shines in qualities that are above and beyond the call of duty. In Lowell, Hanson sees drivers particularly taken by the new model’s appearance, its performance, and by its use of advanced technology in areas such as communication, entertainment, navigation and safety.

I can understand that, because styling, street manners and advanced tech were qualities that grabbed me when I test-drove the new Mazda3 last week.

The model’s shape and stance strike me as both timelessly classic – containing some hints of a yester-year stand-out you might find in an auto museum – and at the same time dramatically contemporary. The Mazda3 wears a large, winged grille and swept headlights like slanted cat’s eyes. It is wide at the fenders, with a steep rake front to rear, a set-back cabin and a trimly tapering rear roof. All those features combine with flowing side curves and creases to give the 3 an appearance of purposeful motion. It looks ready to tame roadway the way a shark looks ready to swim.

Even the rear view of the new 3 looks pleasing and artfully finished, with swoops, curves, roundings and tucks that show designers were paying attention. That’s noteworthy, because often the back ends of autos, even some pricy luxury models, look bland and neglected, like afterthoughts – as though the designers missed the lesson nuns taught me in Catholic school, that you have to polish the backs of your shoes too, not just the toes.

The ready-to-pounce appearance of the Mazda3 is matched by the car’s road handling. Energetic, agile and responsive, the compact cruiser can turn a run to Market Basket for milk and eggs into a joy ride. My evaluation model came with the six-speed manual transmission. The shifter allowed me to toss through the gears with a rapid precision that impressed me.

The technology tour de force from the model builds in size as you move into higher, more expensive trim levels, and as you add options. My Mazda3 Grand Touring version included a seven-inch color touch screen for controlling something called the “Mazda Connect Info-tainment System,” which took voice commands and included text-message audible read-out and programmed replies, navigation, back-up camera, a nine-speaker Bose surround-sound audio system with Pandora, Aha and Stitcher internet radio integration. For an explanation of what those last three features do, ask someone under 25. Still, I found the tech features well integrated, accommodating and useful.

“Mazda is going in a different direction than the industry standard,” said Hanson. “People are really expecting great things from this car.”

If there is any justice in the world, other auto companies will flatter Mazda by imitating it. They’ll inject new drama, excitement and style into their compact cars, while retaining the practical economy that are hallmarks of the compact class. Why can’t a sensible car also be stirring, like the new Mazda3?

Jeffrey Zygmont is an author of fiction and non-fiction books, and a long-time auto writer. Contact him at www.jeffreyzygmont.com.

2014 Mazda3 Vehicle type: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive compact sedan and hatchback Price range: $17,740 to $27,290 (plus options) Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles basic warranty; 5 years/60,000 miles powertrain warranty; 5 years/unlimited miles corrosion warranty Base engine: 2.0-liter I4 Power: 155 horsepower at 6,000 rpm; 150 lb.-ft. torque at 4,000 rpm Base transmission: 6-speed manual Fuel economy: 30 mpg city; 41 mpg highway (with automatic transmission) Wheelbase: 106 inches Length: 180 inches Width: 71 inches Height: 57 inches Weight: 2,781 pounds Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons Turning circle: 34.8 feet