Maza 3 - Standing out

Written By nyit on Saturday, April 9, 2011 | 3:30 AM

Standing out among the plethora of economy cars, the 2011 Mazda 3, even in its most base form, offers plenty of style, content and comfort. As close as the Mazda 3 comes to a bare-bones version is the SV and it provides full power accessories, tilt-telescoping steering wheel and a four-speaker audio system with auxiliary input jack. By the time you move up to the top-of-the-line Grand Touring trim level, you gain luxury appointments such as leather seating, dual-zone automatic climate control and a 10-speaker Bose-tweaked audio system. Mazda 3's wide range of trims is designed to appeal to a wide variety of budgets and tastes.

Further broadening its allure, Mazda 3 comes as either a four-door sedan or a five-door hatchback. Shoppers interested in the sedan can chose between two engines: a 148-horsepower 2-liter four cylinder or a 167-horsepower 2.5-liter four cylinder. Only the 2.5L powers the hatchback. To identify which engine churns under the hood, look for an "i" in the nomenclature of the 2L editions and an "s" for those with the 2.5L.
Base pricing begins at $16,550 for the Mazda 3i SV, escalating to $24,560 for the Mazda 3s Grand Touring hatchback with automatic transmission. The pecking order for the 2L versions is 3i SV, 3i Sport and 3i Touring. Whether it's the sedan or hatchback, 2.5L models come only as 3s Sport or 3s Grand Touring. My test car was the manual transmission-equipped $20,795 Mazda 3s Sport hatchback.

Both engines use either an engine-specific manual or a five-speed automatic transmission to drive the front wheels. The manual designated for the smaller engine has five forward gears, while the larger engine uses a six-speed gearbox. Every entry-level SV, however, comes only as the sedan with the 2-liter four and manual tranny.
Sifting through the trims, engines, transmissions and body styles probably isn't as confusing as it sounds, but there is no way to really shorthand it. The key piece of information you need is that the larger displacement four is available in both body styles, while the smaller 2L is available only in the sedan. Although aesthetics may come into play for you, when choosing between the sedan and hatchback the key difference is cargo room. The hatchback has 17 cubic feet of luggage space, while the sedan has 12 cubic feet of luggage room.

No surprise that the engine-transmission combination affects fuel economy. Posting EPA-estimated ratings of 25 mpg city and 33 mpg highway with the manual transmission, the Mazda 3 with the 2L is dinked by 1 mpg in the city when joined with the automatic tranny. With the 2.5L, however, the better mileage is with the automatic transmission. Here the EPA-estimated numbers are 22 mpg city and 29 mpg highway. Stirring the shift lever yourself drops those stats to 20 mpg city and 28 mpg highway.
As you would expect, the 2.5L delivers a more satisfying and fun driving experience -- particularly when paired with the manual transmission. The smaller four, though, is more than adequate and won't disappoint anyone who is mainly concerned with just getting somewhere. My latest test 3 was spunky, delivering quick starts when the light turned green. The fluid manual gearbox was precise and fun to operate.

Mazda was thinking "zoom, zoom" when it tuned the four-wheel independent suspension. Composed of MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link setup in the rear, it is taut with stable cornering in mind. The tuning isn't uncomfortably stiff, but handling was certainly the top priority.
Reining in the forward motion falls to four-wheel antilock disc brakes. One of the few changes for 2011 is that every 3 comes standard with stability control. Other brake-related safety features include traction control, electronic brakeforce distribution and emergency braking assist.

Clean lines and quality craftsmanship highlight the Mazda 3 interior. Although the center stack is overpopulated with switches and buttons, generally the dashboard is neatly arranged. Large, round gauges situated directly in front of the driver display speed and rpms. Three large knobs arranged below the audio controls operate the climate system. Even the SV version comes with steering wheel-mounted redundant audio controls for its sound system; although moving up to the Sport is required to add air conditioning.

The front seats are comfortable and supportive. Generous bolstering in the 3s sport seats helps keep driver and front-seat passenger upright during sharp cornering. The split-folding rear bench seat is about as comfortable as you will find in this segment; likewise for this segment, rear-seat legroom is tight, but adequate.
My test 3s Sport included as standard equipment a leather-wrapped steering wheel, trip computer six-speaker audio system, 17-inch alloy wheels, rear spoiler and foglights.
In the 3, Mazda has developed a small car for a wide range of entry-level buyers. It's basic structure, design and engineering provides a platform for an escalating array of content bound to fit the needs of most small-car shoppers. There is no evidence of Mazda skimping or cutting corners in any area despite the range of affordable prices. The quality is evident. Simply stated, the Mazda 3 delivers a lot of value.

By Russ Heaps - MyCarData

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