Vince Pornelos / Kelvin Christian Go | August 12, 2014 18:00
Finding the right balance
When choosing a car to buy, we often find ourselves weighing two things: wants and needs.
There are cars that we want to have like performance cars and sports cars, but try using them everyday on our roads and you'll wish you had chosen something you actually needed instead like an efficient compact sedan or comfortable family car that cheap to run.
Enter the 2014 Mazda3 1.5V hatchback; an entry grade model of a popular compact car that, after our tests, appears to truly have the potential to outperform its more powerful brother (the 2014 Mazda3 2.0R) overall.
How did we come to this conclusion? Let's start with the design.
When it comes to looks, the 2.0R that we tested earlier and this 1.5V are identical. The Kodo design treatment is quite striking; kudos to Mazda's designers for that, though I still maintain that the 4-door sedan looks better. The flowing lines, the wide wheel arches, the smooth contours all give the Mazda3 a very athletic look fit for a brand known for zoom-zoom.
What needs addressing is the set of wheels on this 1.5V. It's understandable to give a lower grade variant smaller rims, but the wheels and high aspect tires on this variant really don't do the design justice. Tip: if you do get a Mazda3 1.5V, pick out a new set of lightweight wheels right away to fill up the wheel wells a bit more.
The most surprising part when it comes to “stepping down” from the 2.0R to the 1.5V is the interior; it didn't change much at all in both design and features. Normally we would expect a noticeably lower grade finish on the trim pieces, deleted convenience features, a downgraded stereo and perhaps fabric instead of leather. Not so on the Mazda3 1.5V... well, except for the use of fabric upholstery.
Same dashboard? Check. Same voice command-capable multimedia entertainment system (MZD Connect)? Check. Bluetooth? Check. USB? Check. Same power features? Check. Same navigation feature (provided you opt for the extra SD card for the maps)? Check. The only things that have been removed are the sunroof, the i-ELoop system, the i-Stop system, the curtain airbags and auto dimming rear view mirrors. The fighter-style heads-up display (HUD) in the 2.0R is also gone too, though I really wasn't that much of a fan; it can be a bit distracting and can't be folded down manually. The best bit is the fact that the Mazda3 is manufactured in Japan. If you ask us, there really is a difference in having that “Made in Japan” mark versus anywhere else (except maybe Germany). Everything just fits together perfectly.
Now onto the engine. At the heart of this Mazda3 is an all new 1.5 liter gasoline SkyActiv motor. We know what you're thinking; why in the world did Mazda bring in the 3 with a puny 1.5-liter engine?
It's hard to imagine a 1.5L car -especially a Mazda- that can successfully be competitive against fellow compacts with larger and more powerful 1.6L and 1.8L engines; it's also tricky given that 1500's are usually reserved for smaller, lighter and cheaper subcompacts. In terms of numbers, the 1.5L SkyActiv engine produces decent digits: 112 PS with 144 Nm of torque is pretty good for the displacement. To put that in perspective, the 2012 Mazda3 hatchback that we drove made 105 PS and 144 Nm as well, but that was a 1.6L.
Still, the 1.5L SkyActiv isn't the most powerful out there in the displacement class given that the 1.5L i-VTEC motor in the Jazz and City still make the most at 120 PS. It's also worth noting that the 2.0R version gets 155 PS giving the Mazda3 one of the largest differentials in power between the top and entry grades in the class; the model that has the biggest gap in that respect is the Ford Focus.
Driving the 2014 Mazda3 in the city with the 1.5L engine is a pretty sedate experience. It's not quick from stoplight to stoplight, but the SkyActiv transmission does kick down quickly when you prod the throttle for improved acceleration. One striking difference from the 2.0R is the ride. We may scoff at the small wheels, but the ride quality is definitely better than the top spec 2.0R. Since Mazda removed the i-Stop system, the 1.5V doesn't have that perceptible engine cut at a set of traffic lights (for better economy). It doesn't need it anyway as the 1.5V hatchback delivered 13.9 kilometers per liter in light traffic (31 km/h average) though in moderate-heavy conditions (16 km/h average, plus heavy rain) that number drops a bit to 9.0 km/l.
On the highway the Mazda3 1.5V is smoother than a typical car with a small displacement engine should be. Overtaking is easy and the car can easily sustain 100-120 km/h without the RPMs intruding too much into the cabin; we have the 6-speed SkyActiv transmission to thank for that. Like in urban environments, on the highway the Mazda3 1.5V shows off its efficiency again, this time delivering 16.7 km/l (92 km/h average), an improvement over the 14.9 km/l we tested a few months prior during our drive to the east coast of Luzon.
Enter a twisty road and the Mazda3 1.5V will showcase it's greatly improved SkyActiv monocoque. By using boron steel, Mazda's engineers were able to lighten the car significantly. This could also have been a significant factor why Mazda chose to downsize to a more efficient 1.5 motor.
Using lightweight boron steel also increased the Mazda3's overall rigidity. Toss it into a corner and you'll be surprised at how well the handling and cornering manners of the car has been sorted out. The engine is also a lot of fun to play with at high revs, and you've got the paddles to play with. Of course you shouldn't expect that the showroom stock 1.5V will handle the exactly the same as the 2.0R given the large difference in tire size, aspect ratio and wheel diameter, but it feels just as light, easy and fun to drive on any challenging road.
Before we were handed the keys to the 1.5V, we really had some doubts about the car. These were quickly dispelled once we spent some time driving it. What's even better is that at PhP 948,000 for this hatchback (and PhP 945,000 for the sedan), the Mazda3 1.5V is about as complete a package can be from the showroom floor. In contrast, the 2012 Mazda3 1.6S hatchback that was sold by the former entity of Mazda in the Philippines was priced at PhP 1,099,000. It also comes with free maintenance for three years thanks to Mazda's Yojin3 program. Yes you read that right; you pay zero pesos for three years worth of PMS parts and labor.
Mazda really has put their best foot forward with the new generation 3. Whether it sells or not is up to the market and the buying public, but what we can honestly say is that rarely do we come across a model that is as compelling and as competitive as the 2014 Mazda3 1.5V; a car that strikes that ever difficult balance between what's wanted and what's needed, and does so in it's own unique way.