This is it.

Mazda is on an almost unbelievable roll in the Philippines. Ever since Berjaya took over the brand in the country the Mazda brand has seen a renewed vigor with new SkyActiv models like the Mazda6 (which won the most recent Car of the Year-Philippines title, among other international awards) and the Mazda CX-5 (which likewise won Japan's own Car of the Year, among others). It's a stark contrast to just over two years ago when the brand known for zoom-zoom had a bit of gloom-gloom.

The Mazda6 and CX-5, however, are models meant for the higher tiers of the automotive ladder. They're not meant to fully compete for sheer automotive volume, as the premium/executive sedan segment and semi-premium crossover segment in which those two models sell in are not big on numbers.

And then came this: the all-new 2014 Mazda3. It's fresh from Japan, ready to compete and preparing itself for its own set of awards... but we're getting ahead of ourselves.


Third time's the charm

The 2014 Mazda3 that was launched by Berjaya Auto Philippines is actually the third generation of the Mazda3 line; of course this does not count the previous generations of the Mazda 323, the nameplate's predecessor.

This 2013 Mazda3 is the third model that makes full use of the brand's Kodo design language, hence the strong resemblance to the current Mazda6. The body features details that convey motion like the creases and lines along the sides, the wide and low stance, the sporty design details, among others. Both sedan and hatchback models are offered by Mazda, though personally I would prefer the 4-door sedan given the coupe-like proportions. Top spec models get things like the larger wheels and rear ducktail spoiler, among others.

The cabin is what surprised many of us because of the very obvious level up in terms of quality, materials and feel. The seats feel perfectly shaped and offer plenty of support. The dashboard will surprise even the most vigorous dashboard rappers and knockers. Anything and everything that your hands will touch like the steering, shifter, switches and all else in between are great to the touch. The only thing missing is a bit more rear knee and legroom.

We've always thrown about the idea that Mazda is aiming to compete against the likes of BMW, but now we can say for certain: Mazda has its own iDrive. The new man-machine multimedia interface system is simply excellent, more to the point it's intuitive if you've had a chance to use BMW's iDrive or Mercedes's COMAND APS. The usual features are standard like USB input, vehicle settings and such.

Overall the third generation Mazda3 is a great package right out of the box. GPS is available for the 2.0R models along with a pretty neat jet fighter-style Heads-Up Display (HUD).

Of course the 2014 Mazda3 is much more than just mere style and high tech gadgetry and we'll tackle that later. In the meantime: Tower, this is Ghost Rider requesting a fly-by...


The drive

The select group of motoring media gathered at the Mazda Pasig dealership in E. Rodriguez Jr. for the morning briefing by Mazda Philippines executives. Unusually, they had several product specialits involved in various segments of the Mazda3's development; it's notable because carmakers and distributors in the Philippines usually have the presence of just the project manager, chief engineer or related deputy, not a team.

We were briefed on the car and the drive we were about to take. The route involved a mix of expressways, provincial highways and various other roads, but what I really looked forward to were the long and challenging sequence of curves that cuts through and around the mountains heading to Baler.

Apart from the anticipation of entering that road, we were also told that our car for the drive up was to be the Mazda3 2.0R Sedan.

This was bound to be an interesting drive indeed.


Zoom-zoom from the start

After boarding and settling into the 2.0R sedan, we headed out onto the North Luzon Expressway for our northerly and then easterly routes.

The Mazda3 2.0R is a bliss to drive on the highway. Smooth, confident and capable, the open road gives you the enjoyment to stretch the Mazda3's nice legs; a little too much enjoyment for some, but that's another story.

Being an R, this particular Mazda3 has got a pretty potent 2.0 liter engine. At 155 PS, the 2.0R won't blow you away in terms of horsepower, but what it does is offer the complete package; the full SkyActiv package, that is.

Mazda (particularly the Mazda3) was already known for zoom-zoom, but not so for fuel economy. SkyActiv wishes to change that.

SkyActiv entails four main things: engine, transmission, body and chassis. All those main elements of the car have been optimized for improved fuel economy and efficiency by giving the car less weight, less resistance, less drag and all the other factors that affect consumption. Mazda has engineered SkyActiv to make little gains in every aspect of the car which, when it's all added up, combines for some impressive numbers.

Given that we were part of a convoy and maintained a steady speed, we thought we should zero the trip and fuel computers. When it was my stint behind the wheel, with speeds not generally friendly for fuel eco runs (100-120 km/h, or overtaking speed) the Mazda3 2.0R registered 8.5 liters per 100 kilometers; that's 11.8 kilometers to the liter.

Two days later the Mazda3 1.5V performed equally well on the highway at 14.9 km/l under similar conditions. Again it's impressive, given that lower displacement variants have a knack for delivering higher consumption on the highway; a trade-off against (generally) lower consumption in city traffic.

When we have some more time with the 2.0R and 1.5V models in the city later on, we'll test how they really perform in terms of everyday fuel economy; of particular interest will be the iStop (auto start stop) and iEloop (regenerative braking) technologies


Let the fun begin

After a few hours of waiting in the back seat (the Mazda3 really could use some more legroom) and the passenger seat, it was my turn behind the wheel... just in time for the long, challenging roads up, around and down the mountains into Baler. This should be fun.

Utilizing the paddles on the 2.0R (the 1.5V has them too, FYI) we start to take on the roads. What really was impressive was how the Mazda3 managed its weight even with three aboard. Body control and roll mitigation -by my estimation- felt like it was best in the class.

The Mazda3 changed directions and managed weight transfers on these roads like it was second nature. Stomp on the brakes and the 3 controls itself, never feeling like it was going to put a foot wrong or step out uncontrollably into the shoulder or (gulp) down the ravine and the mountains. The car was quick and confident; given some good driver training, you can really have a lot of fun with this chassis.

The engine and transmission combination was the most impressive by far. The previous generations (at least the ones offered for local sale) had to make do with 145 PS in the 2.0R and an inefficient 4-speed automatic. Not this time.

The new Mazda3 2.0R gets a far better 155 PS while the 1.5V versions get 112 PS; both of which are significant improvements over the previous 2.0R and the 1.6V/1.6S models respectively. What's even more impressive is that all models get a much better (not to mention apt) 6-speed automatic and paddle shifters.

Acceleration in the 2.0R is profoundly improved but, more importantly, having more gears to choose from gives the Mazda3 better control over the mountain passes. The 1.5V (which we drove on the way back, 2 days later) was equally impressive despite being down by 43 PS.

If we enthusiasts had our way, however, we would relish the idea of a Mazda3 with the same 2.5 liter SkyActiv engines that the model's U.S. counterparts get... such an engine would really make this drive Baler truly exhilarating.


Overall impressions

If you thought we were impressed with the all new Mazda3, you're right. The 2014 Mazda3 indeed sets the standard for driving pleasure in the compact class; so much so that this latest generation can truly be considered a sport compact car.

At around the same time of our drive of the Mazda3, I was already testing the 2014 Toyota Corolla Altis 1.6V; a car that has thoroughly impressed our already very critical views and reviews of the latest cars in the market. Needless to say, we would be very excited to see how these two cars would compare on a head-to-head basis and on equal conditions, and we'll indeed be working to make that a reality.

For now, however, Mazda Philippines really has a contender in the all new 3... a car that -in the company of its peers in the compact car segment like the Lancer EX, Focus, Altis, Civic, Sylphy and more- will probably have us reaching for its keys far more times than the rest.