It is commonplace to celebrate a car company's anniversary, but to celebrate a product's existence is something few can pull off. Especially if a company's product has been zoom-zooming in the market for only a year.

The Mazda3's foray into the highly competitive compact-class (C-class) segment in August 2004 broke new ground in the automotive segment, thanks to a rare marriage of European-inspired fully independent suspension, steering, braking and handling and Japanese compact car styling. Designed in Japan from the ground up, the Mazda3 was meant to embody the company's spirit of "zoom-zoom" and fulfill consumer's expectations of value-for-money in the C-class segment.

The result is an exceeding of expectations by a mile. But don't take the author's word bit by bit; let the folks at Mazda tell you all about the significant sales gains of the car. "In fact, as of July 2005, we are glad to report that one out of every five cars in the country is a Mazda3 and three out of four cars in the two-liter C-class segment is a Mazda3," said Mazda managing director Dave Macasadia.

In order to cap off an amazing year for an amazing car, Mazda Philippines recently celebrated the Mazda3's first year with a media track day at the Batangas Racing Circuit (BRC), in order to show why the Mazda3 is a force to be reckoned with in the C-class segment.

Zoom-zooming on the road

After converging at The Palms Country Club for breakfast and at Mazda Alabang to pick up several Mazda3's, members of the media and Mazda Philippines hied off to the BRC.

The trip to the BRC requires passing through the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX) and Batangas' Star Tollway. Using a 1.6V as the ride towards BRC, it was at the two aforementioned highways where the Mazda3 showed every bit of its engine power and torque. Zoom-zooming through every opportunity of open road at 120+ km/h, the trip netted a top speed of 170 km/h. Helping the Mazda3 achieve the said top speed is the aerodynamic design of the "C1 Medium" platform (shared with the current model Ford Focus Ghia and Volvo S40), which reduces drag. Case in point: on the said trip, going at speeds of 100+ km/h, little road noise can be felt at the a- and b-pillars.

The suspension features a four-point plastic mounting system between the subframe and the body, with liquid-filled bushings minimizing noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) at the rear point of the lower trailing arms. The rear suspension, on the other hand, features a multi-link arrangement with the spring separate from the dampers, a setup commonly found in European luxury cars. Overall the suspension was taut but not floaty on the roads of the SLEX and the Star Tollway and little NVH was experienced at the front, but there was slightly moderate NVH at the rear. The brakes felt incredibly good, even when slowing down from triple digit speeds. The car's standard four wheel disc with anti-lock braking system (with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist), made stopping as enjoyable as accelerating, but with very minimal fade.

Whether in Alabang, SLEX or Star Tollway, the Mazda3's Activematic transmission felt right at home. Arguably the Activematic's spirited drivetrain curve can be compared to a sequential transmission, with the option to go automatic in Metro Manila busy streets or Activematic for long drives.

Zoom-zooming on the track

Upon reaching the BRC, media and Mazda personnel alike were treated to various driving exercises that showed the Mazda3's power and nimble footing. Supervised by Tuason Racing School (TRS) president Jean-Pierre "JP" Tuason, the first two exercises consisted of maneuvers designed to show the Mazda3's handling and braking. The handling exercise featured a slalom weave at 40-50km/h and a two-run braking exercise that showed the compact car's stopping ability from 60 km/h and 80 km/h.

A brief hiatus for lunch prompted media personnel to take photo opportunities of the different Mazda3's lined up at the paddock area of BRC. While snapshots of the cars were taken, it is interesting to note that even at rest, the Mazda3 looks fast. It practically begs the driver to take a scenic route to one's intended destination, thanks to styling themes reminiscent of coupes and 2+2 sports cars, five-spoke alloy wheels and a faux concept car interior. It is this design that has prompted the Car Of The Year Awards Group to bestow on it an award for "Best Overall Design".

A distinctly European character can be seen in the design of the quarter panel glass, the dashboard, the seats and the dashboard gauge cluster arrangement and layout. The quarter panel glass design is reminiscent of the Volvo S40, while the dashboard reminds you of the E46 BMW 3-Series, but with far more plastic trim. The fabric and color of the seats accentuate the interior and provide comfortable seating for five, while the power-assisted locks require a manual pull or push of the driver's side lock to lock/unlock all four doors, a "low-tech" feature in such a technology-laden car.

After lunch, participants took on the third exercise, which consisted of following a TRS-instructor driven pace car throughout the BRC short course for two laps. One run was to be executed with the 1.6V and the other was to be done with the 2.0R. Pylons were distributed throughout the course to show the racing and braking lines of the course, with two pylons beside each other in a wide gap to show the braking points, a straight row of pylons to indicated the racing line through the turn and two four-pylon rows lining up horizontally represented chicanes to slow down the cars to safe driving speeds. The rules were simple, one journalist per car as they drove safely at their own pace keeping a one-car length distance from the car infront. Making it more interesting was that it was raining, with no signs of letup.

The BRC short course is wide enough to fit three cars side by side on every half-kilometer and has enough runoff for mistakes on late braking maneuvers. Having drawn the two-liter R variant as the first assignment, it is easy to get away with late braking maneuvers, especially at the first corner haripin, the R-bend (so-called because of its resemblance to the letter "R") and the last hairpin before the exit turns. The 2.0R's bigger brakes, made more stopping power available on demand. On the other hand, making participants maintain the said one car length rule is a more powerful engine which produces 141 hp and 135 lbs. ft. of torque. Helping the car get maximum grip amidst the torrents of slippery rain were its 17-inch Bridgestone Potenza tires giving a wider contact patch on the tarmac.

BRC's R-bend is a unique downhill right-hand bend with two apexes that forces you to stop 100 meters away from the turn proper, go downhill and far from the first apex and carry momentum, clip the second apex and accelerate as the car exits the turn. Apparently the author thought that the 1.6V's braking dynamics are the same as that of the two-liter version. That mistake got the author in trouble at the R-bend, as he carried too much speed into the second apex, experienced a slight wiggle of the rear end, suddenly lifted the gas pedal and ended up spinning after the exit of the turn. This humbling experience taught the author three important lessons: 1) Brake before a turn, don't brake when you're in a turn; 2) Don't take traction for granted; and 3) Learn from that spin. Even more of a consolation was the fact that AutoExtreme TV's Ardie Lopez also spun at the same bend.

The last exercise featured an individual timed competition that was a potpourri of acceleration, braking, slalom AND parallel parking, which totally upset participants' rhythms and forced them to be cool under pressure. All participants were required to line up at the short straightaway near the exit turn and drive identical Mazda3 1.6V's through the exit turn, brake and go through a row of pylons without hitting them (hitting them disqualifies you from the contest), weave through a slalom course, execute a u-turn by going through two sets of two pylons beside each other in a wide gap (located on opposite sides of the main straightaway), end up at the apex of the exit turn and execute a close-quarter parallel parking maneuver.

The parallel parking maneuver consisted of two sets of pylons (with four sets of pylons per set), with one pylon set placed in a narrow gap before the other set to give the appearance of a parking space, one in which shoehorning the Mazda3 is a must. As a result participants ended up hitting one or two cones during the parallel parking maneuver on both ends of the parking space, disrupting rhythm and tested composure to the limit. Taking top honors in the contest was Manila Bulletin editor Anjo Perez, with a one-minute, 4.28-second run. Second was Top Gear Philippines' Chuck Kim with a one-minute, 11.37-second run, while Manila Standard's Dino Directo took third place with a one-minute, 15.63-second run.

Zoom-zooming towards C-segment domination

Whether in Metro Manila or out-of-town, the Mazda3 has the potential to become the king of the track or the king of the stares in the parking lot. Much like the Jordan brand of Nike shoes, the Mazda3 may well be that rare product with a huge cult following. A year (and what happened in between) after its launch may probably have put the Mazda3 as the most powerful evangelist of the teachings of Mazda, the gospel that goes "zoom-zoom."