These days, you can count on Mazda to make something practical a joy to steer. Take for example the CX-5. It's a crossover that can haul people and luggage but still be fun to drive when you take it to back roads. Needless to say, we expect a lot from Mazda in the driver involvement department regardless of what they make. This brings me neatly to the Mazda 3.
It's one of the more senior models in the current range, now at five years old. Yes, their C-segment sedan is that old already. There's a new model on the horizon but will it still impress? A road test is in order then and Mazda handed us the key fob to the sedan version.
The ravages of time hasn't faded the dynamic exterior styling one bit; the Mazda 3, even in sedan form, still looks as modern and contemporary as the day it first set foot in the market. There's the aggressive front fascia with its angry-looking headlight and grill combo, plus that bold hexagonal grill further accents the aggression.
That sweeping roof line makes it look sportier too. While may say that it's not as handsome as the hatch, the four-door Mazda 3 is a stylish looking sedan, breaking the mold of more upright and conventional sedans. It's like it wants to be taken seriously and Mazda's done a good job of achieving that effect. The rear on the other hand needs a little more distinction from the smaller Mazda 2 sedan, but it's cohesive in its execution with the overall theme.
Step inside and you won't really feel that left out when compared to other cars in its class, or even against the all-new CX-5. The cockpit is driver oriented and the ergonomics are spot on. Its dash wraps around the front occupants, as if it persuades you to drive it in a spirited manner. Also, the floating infotainment screen and the scroll wheel to control the said infotainment system is a page from European automakers. It even reminds me of a BMW, and that's not a bad thing at all.
Cabin materials are soft to the touch, as one would expect from a car costing over a million pesos. Each press you make on the buttons and each click on the dial feels solid and substantial, upping the premium feel of this sedan. It's well equipped too with automatic climate control, cruise control, a heads up display, USB ports and a good sound system. Plus, it comes with a sunroof which is great for bringing in more light in the rather dark cabin. I don't mind the lack of power seats but I do wish it came with rear air-conditioning vents
However, the sunroof cuts into headroom which brings me to the space inside the Mazda 3 sedan. There's more than enough room in front but the rear quarters may be cramped for taller folks, particularly when it comes to legroom. That sloping roofline doesn't help matters either. If you're a six-footer and you have to sit at the back, you might have to slouch a bit to be comfortable. While we're on the subject of space, the trunk capacity isn't that commodious either, but it should be enough for most.
Pop the hood and you won't see turbochargers in there. Powering the Mazda 3 is a naturally-aspirated, 2.0-liter, four cylinder mill with SkyActiv tech. Power is rated at 155 PS while torque is at 200 Nm. While not as powerful as is boosted competition, it's still a good powertrain. Transmission on the other hand is a six-speed automatic.
Even though it's down on horsepower, the engine and transmission work well to give you the impression you have more than the advertised 155 PS. Pull is decent even at the lower half of the rev range and the transmission kicks down with immediacy when you push the pedal deeper. Whereas most four-cylinders would sound gruff when pushed, the 2.0-liter mill in the Mazda 3 has a more raspy, sporty tone that would make you want to play with it a little bit more. I reckon it would be more fun if it has the optional engine from the US, which is a 2.5-liter with 184 PS and 251 Nm of torque.
To save a bit more on fuel, this particular version of the Mazda 3 comes with a stop/start system which shuts off the engine when the brake is fully depressed. During its stay with me, I had the system turned off for most of the time. Despite that, it still returned pretty good consumption figures. According to the trip meter, it returned 8.7 kilometers per liter around the city (average speed, 18 km/h). On the highway, that figure bumps up to 15.2 kilometers per liter with the cruise control set at 95 km/h. With these figures, a range of nearly 500 kilometers was possible, not bad for a 2.0-liter.
Having driven the hatchback version, I do have to say that the sedan rides a bit softer than its five-door sibling. While still firm, it's more pliant than the hatch when driving over imperfect surfaces. Mind you, it's not jarring in there but you feel bumps more often than, say, if you were in a Honda Civic. It's not as quiet as the competition either with tire roar making its presence felt over concrete. Then again, Mazda put a more sporting emphasis on the chassis, and it pays dividends when you find yourself alone on a back road.
Yes, it rides softer than the hatch but boy does it cling on to the road. There's a hint more roll than the hatch but handling is sharp, involving even. It may have an electronic power steering system but you still get more than enough feel and feedback through the wheel. Also, the G-Vectoring system added confidence on twisty roads and wet bends.
Handling is planted and secure, but still fun and dynamic when driven spiritedly. Plus, a good handling car means, should a panic situation arise, you'll be confident in knowing that the suspension, steering and brakes are doing their best to keep you out of harm's way. Who said a bog standard, front-wheel drive family sedan can't be fun? I can only imagine just how much more enjoyable it would be if it had a six-speed manual.
After spending a week with the Mazda 3, I get the impression that it seems like it was also designed to appease the motoring journalist and enthusiast. We like cars that are fun to drive, but we also like cars that can be practical and efficient. On the practicality front, the Mazda 3 is a little bit short but it delivers driving enjoyment without the big fuel bills. At Php 1,280,000, it undercuts most top of the line C-segment sedans, further boosting its value proposition.
To sum up, the Mazda 3 is reasonably priced, has four doors, and fun to drive. What more can the enthusiast with a family want? Yes, it's not perfect, but the Mazda 3 can put a smile on anyone's face when their behind the wheel, and for some, that's what matters the most.