Test Drive: 2010 Mazda Mazda3

Reworked Mazda compact hits the mark in handling, but high-revving 3s engine can be either invigorating or irritating

by James M. Flammang

2010 Mazda3 four-door hatchback

Affordable sportiness is the theme of Mazda's smallest model, which debuted for 2004. Redesigned for its second generation, the 2010 Mazda3 sport compact has been "redefined,reengineered, and restyled," according to the company. Initially promoted as "all-new," the 2010 model is actually more evolutionary in design, but curvaceously sporty - especially in hatchback form.

Like all other Mazda models, the front-drive, five-passenger Mazda3 promises the "soul of a sports car," as well as the company's trademark "zoom-zoom" experience. As before, two body styles are offered: a four-door sedan (with trunk) and the four-door hatchback.

Exterior styling of the 2010 model hints at Mazda's Nagare (motion and flow) design philosophy. Chief designer Kunihiko Kurisu calls this a "more expressive" design. Mazda notes that the bold five-pointed grille is "purposely polarizing," adding that the front-to-rear beltline rise suggests a "crouched, expectant look of a predator ready to pounce." That might be stretching reality a bit, but the low-in-front window openings and other design elements do help create a more dramatic profile. Measuring 3 inches longer overall, the 2010 Mazda3 sits on the same 103.9-inch wheelbase as its predecessor.

Small tweaks have cut wind noise 6 percent. Speed flaps on the radiator shroud automatically open at highway speeds, to permit some air to bypass the cooling fan, slightly enhancing aerodynamic efficiency.

Three trim levels are available, with more standard and optional equipment this time. Many new features have been borrowed from the bigger Mazda6. Buyers get four powertrain choices: two four-cylinder engines and either a manual or automatic transmission.

Beneath the Mazda3i hood sits a 2.0-liter MZR engine, rated 148 horsepower at 6500 rpm and 135 pound-feet of torque at 4500 rpm. (PZEV versions, available in California and selected states, produce 144 hp.) Five-speed manual and automatic transmissions are available for the Mazda3i (except for the "entry-level" SV version, which is manual-shift only). The sportier 3s series gets a 2.5-liter engine (replacing the prior 2.3-liter), as used in the Mazda6i. That engine generates 167 horsepower at 6000 rpm, and 168 pound-feet at 4000 rpm. Either a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission may be installed in 3s models. Active Adaptive Shift incorporated in automatic transmissions downshifts when the car is braking aggressively.

Fuel economy has been improved, especially in the stick-shift 3i model. That version gets an EPA fuel-economy estimate of 25 mpg in city driving and 33 mpg on the highway (3 more highway mpg than before). Automatic drops the city figure to 24 mpg. With the 3s engine, EPA estimates are 21/29 mpg (city/highway) for manual shift, and 22/29 mpg for automatic.

Front seat cushions are 0.8 inch longer for enhanced thigh support. Seatbacks have been extended 1.4 inches for added shoulder support. Optional sport-seat upper bolsters cant inward more aggressively than usual. Frequently-used displays and controls are mounted high, close to the driver. Audio and climate controls are elevated in the center stack. A padded, seamless, grained instrument-panel top cover sweeps from the console to each windshield pillar.

Six airbags and antilock braking are standard. Most models have Dynamic Stability Control and traction control. Each 3i model rolls on 16-inch tires, while the 3s gets 17-inch rubber.

Inside and out, the Mazda3 flaunts a sporty look and feel. Mazda's high-revving 3s engine translates to brisk takeoffs and easy merging/passing, even if you're off by one gear or so. In the right ratio, performance scores high. For a sporty hatchback, the Mazda3s hatchback delivers a surprising easygoing ride.

Handling is where this hatchback shines brightest. Few cars in this price class - or any class - behave so nimbly and expertly, whipping through corners and curves with an excitement that can satisfy even the less-enthusiastic driver, and delight lovers of spirited compact motoring.

Our biggest complaint is that the engine revs so high, so rapidly, that it's hard to control when starting off from a standstill. Push the gas pedal seemingly lightly, and the engine is likely to leap to high revs as you let out the clutch. That may be good for spirited driving, but annoying in ordinary use.

On the other hand, the manual gearbox is among the slickest and easiest to use, requiring minimal effort to flick between ratios. This one should satisfy any driver.

Engine noise is appropriate for the vehicle, with a high whine as rpms rise but quiet enough while cruising. Visibility is excellent all around.

Nice orange-lit gauges are easy to read, despite being set deep into nacelles. A small but helpful information display sits high on the dashboard for Sirius/XM program details (if satellite radio is installed), alongside a temperature readout. Below those indicators, however, is a mysterious amalgamation of knobs and buttons for audio functions, many of them utterly cryptic to the uninitiated.

Five versions are offered: 3i SV, 3i Sport, 3i Touring, 3s Sport, and 3s Grand Touring. Rivals include the Honda Civic, Ford Focus, and Nissan Sentra, none of which come in hatchback form or suggest a particularly sporty nature.

Pricing for the 3i sedan starts at $15,795 (including destination charge) for the SV edition with manual shift. Topping the lineup is the 3s Grand Touring model with automatic, which has a Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) of $23,050 in either four-door sedan or hatchback form. Options include a navigation system, electronic stability control, leather trim, rain-sensing wipers, and xenon headlights. Sales of the 2010 Mazda3 began early in 2009.

Attention Editors: This complete 2010 Mazda3 review is available now for your publication. Please contact us at JF@tirekick.com for details.

© All contents copyright 2009 by Tirekicking Today
Text and photos by James M. Flammang
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