There was a time when we thought that the compact car was an endangered automobile.
The subcompact car class had successfully supplanted the once mighty compact car class as the most popular vehicles in the country, a trend that continues to this day. Slowly and surely the compact car segment, a class that included once proud names like Lancer, Civic and Corolla, eventually relented to Mirage, City and Vios. It also didn't help that the rise of the compact crossover or SUV became the more sensible choice, offering larger families more space for just a bit more money.
As time went on, the compact car seemed to be a prime candidate for extinction, or so we thought until the new generation Mazda3 came along.
The all new version of Mazda's sport compact was launched just under a year ago and we praised it endlessly. We even named it our favorite new car of 2014, a decision that was a real no-brainer given the other new cars that it was up against last year. Mazda Philippines says that sales of the new model has reached 1,271 units since last year. The split is also interesting; the 3 hatchback variants of the Mazda account for 51% of that while the 2 sedan variants are at 49%.
We've fully tested both the 1.5V and the 2.0R variants of the Mazda3 hatchback, but we've only had limited seat time in the sedan versions. Now we get to truly see if it's as good as advertised, or better.
The Mazda3 is the third car to bear the signature Mazda Kodo look that debuted in the stunning Mazda Shinari concept; the first two being the CX-5 and the Mazda6. Personally I have yet to meet someone who honestly thinks that this third generation Mazda3 doesn't look good, particularly in this shade of Soul Red.
The slim headlights and taillights, the large gaping grille, the proportions of the body, the profile, the stance, the curves, character lines and the large wheels on this 2.0R variant all blend together to form a car that's ready to move. While I do like the hatchback version, this sedan just looks more complete, particularly with that fastback silhouette thanks to the raised short rear deck (trunk lid). On that note, Mazda in the UK refers to this variant as the Mazda3 Fastback.
Pop the driver's door and it just looks very premium inside, definitely a cut above what is normally expected in the compact class. The driver is greeted by a large round steering wheel, a large central tachometer with a small digital speedometer flanked by two LCDs for the trip computer, fuel status and other information. At start up, a small glass (or polycarbonate?) panel rises up from the top of the gauge shroud and displays the speed much like the HUD (heads-up display) on modern fighter jets.
The dashboard looks like it was lifted off of a German sedan in terms of cleanliness, organization, quality and panel gap consistency, though much more rounded and curved as the Japanese do. Mazda did this by organizing most of the pertinent functions (audio system, Bluetooth, navigation) into one tablet-like device that sticks up from the center of the dash. The “tablet” itself is touchscreen, but it can be also be controlled via the unified human machine interface on the center console just below the automatic gearstick.
Explore the cabin a bit more and it's clear that the same quality on the dashboard extends to everything else. The switchgear is great to the touch. The leather fits the seats perfectly. The gaps are excellent and very consistent. There isn't as much legroom in the back when compared to the Toyota Corolla Altis, but this is a sport compact sedan after all. In terms of cargo space, the Mazda3 sedan can take on 419 liters in the trunk, a larger figure when compared to the hatchback at 364 liters with the rear seats up though that balloons to 1263 liters with the seats folded; such is the versatility of the hatch.
Being a 2.0R variant, this Mazda3 sedan gets the excellent 2.0-liter twin cam 16-valve four-cylinder SkyActiv engine. At 155 PS, the Mazda3 is no slouch, though I actually do wish the engine made a bit more power like the 170 PS 2.0L motor in the 2012-present Ford Focus. The SkyActiv engine is matched with a 6-speed SkyActiv automatic gearbox that drives the front wheels.
For the uninitiated, SkyActiv is no mere marketing jargon but a complete approach to making a car more efficient, more fun and ultimately more exciting. Under this engineering philosophy, Mazda made the car lighter by using high tensile steel to generate the same strength while using less metal on the monocoque; less weight equals better fuel economy and a livelier drive. The engine makes use of direct injection and conforms to Euro-4 emissions standards. The transmission shifts smoothly and more efficiently than before. Technology also makes a contribution as the 2.0R comes with the i-ELOOP system that stores electrical energy from the brakes and when coasting. That same energy is then used when the car automatically cuts off the engine thanks to i-STOP (idle stop).
Driving the Mazda3 2.0R sedan in the city yields some surprising results. When driven casually but smartly in moderate traffic with i-ELOOP and i-STOP activated, the 2.0R returned 9.4 kilometers to the liter (21 km/h average speed). We actually had to double check that to make sure and a second run yielded 9.0 km/l (19 km/h average). With i-STOP deactivated the numbers drop down to 8.5 km/l (19 km/h average). On the highway the Mazda3 2.0R excels again by returning 14.6 km/l (99 km/h average).
Comfort is good but understandably not as good as models like the Corolla Altis or the Nissan Sylphy, the latter being our new favorite in terms of comfort in the class. The large rims and touring tires do make the car more sensitive to potholes and bumps but not overly so. Where the Mazda3 2.0R sedan excels is when the car comes up to a series of tricky bends.
Floor the throttle and the Mazda3 kicks down to the perfect gear for the speed. The auto gearbox may deliver the goods in economy but it's even better when you're having fun; shifting smoothly and intuitively. The driver can take over via the paddles or the +/- gate on the stick, but with a gearbox this smart you really don't need to, even if you're faced with a mountain pass.
The brakes have great bite (and the transmission matches it), while the 2.0L engine's response is good despite being designed to be more efficient. Flog the wheel into the corner and the Mazda3 responds well even if you entered it a bit too hot; the suspension and monocoque manage the strains very well. Should you ever get it wrong, the electronic aids such as the anti-lock brakes and the stability control will be quickly of help. Of all the compact cars in its class and price range (barring the all-wheel drive Impreza, of course) the Mazda3 2.0R gives the most exciting and most enjoyable driving experience.
Price wise, the Mazda3 2.0R Sedan retails for PhP 1.195M, though the Soul Red color does add PhP 16,800 on top of the sticker price. It sounds steep, but keep in mind that any new Mazda sold (under Berjaya Auto Philippines) comes with 3 years of free servicing and parts; all you need to do is follow the schedule and sign for it.
There's just no other way to put it: Mazda came out of their corner punching with all they've got with the Mazda3. The design, the quality, the performance, the economy and the speccing, all these attributes work so very well together to create a new four-wheeled hero, one that can bring back the lost luster of the compact car class.