I recently had the opportunity to try out the new 2014 Mazda3 on a 168-mile ride along winding roads, hills and highways driving east along the Mexican border and then looping north and west through Julian and Ramona, and back to downtown San Diego.
I was particularly interested in the Mazda3 because it’s the first car in its class to offer so much advanced technology that up to now has been available only on much more expensive cars.
This is Mazda’s second model designed using its SkyActive approach that the company embarked on several years ago. In order to improve mileage, reduce emissions and improve driving performance, the company started with a clean sheet of paper and engineered each new model from scratch. As a result, every major component of the automobile has been designed to work together effectively, avoiding the use of older parts that led to design compromises. It also incorporates their new KODO design theme, which means “soul of motion” in Japanese.
The first model to roll out with SkyActive is the Mazda CX-5, a midsize SUV that’s been very favorably received and setting new sales records. The Mazda3, which began shipping in September, is its second, and a Mazda6 will follow.
The Mazda3 is a compact car in the same C-class category as the Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra. Yet it neither looks nor drives like most of these. I found the car to be a blast to drive over the entire 3.5-hour course. It drove much like a sports car, with excellent handling, firm, not choppy, and tight and responsive steering. I drove cars with both a 2.0L and 2.5L 4-cylinder engine, and while I could tell the difference, both had good response accelerating onto highways and up hills. Mileage ratings range from 27 to 30 mpg city, and 37 to 40 mpg highway.
The Mazda3 is available in four-door and five-door models, each in three versions and two trim levels. The 5-door automatic, which I preferred, ranges from $18,950 to $26,500. The 4-door version is about $1,500 less.
I found its appearance both inside and out to be particularly attractive with sweeping lines that make the car appear bigger than it is. The interior offered plenty of room for the driver and front passenger, and could even seat two or three in the back.
What set this car apart was not only its stunning looks, but the well-designed interior as well. The choice of premium materials and the fit and finish of the dashboard and other interior details were comparable to my BMW X3. In fact, Mazda brought along a BMW to compare its interior to the 3.
There was none of the stodginess or gaudiness that’s often found in the interiors of other cars in the same price range. The dashboard was covered with a soft rubber-like matte black textured material, avoiding the use of cheap-looking shiny plastic parts. There was no bright chrome trim, rather a more subdued and rich-looking satin metallic trim. Everything was tasteful and classy; some may even say subdued.
My initial attraction to this car was less about performance and more about technology. As one who tends to select a new car based on its useful gadgetry, this was a feast. It makes sense for Mazda to put its energies here, because its targeted audience is young adults, who are becoming increasingly focused on technology.
Lets get to specifics. It’s one of the few, if any, cars in its class that offers a heads-up display, lane-departure warning system, collision-avoidance system and advanced entertainment system using Harmon’s new Aha technology. Every model has Bluetooth to connect easily to your phone.
I found its navigation system to be among the best I’ve used. The 7-inch display sits above the dash, making it easy to glance at while driving; no looking down or refocusing. That allows the dashboard to sit lower and offer greater visibility.
Navigation is controlled using the touch screen, voice or control knob that sits between the seats, much like a simple version of the BMW iDrive. Maps are very clear, colorful and sharp, and routes are clearly marked, along with a speed limit sign that turns red if you exceed it. The one negative is that you need to switch to another map for traffic. While some of the touch functions are disabled while moving, all functions are accessible using the knob or voice control.
The phone and entertainment system are integrated into the same display and offers Sirius (four-month trial), local AM/FM radio, CD, Pandora, Stitcher and Internet radio stations, many using Aha, a product from Harmon that connects several entertainment apps with your phone. My iPhone 5 easily connected to the system using Bluetooth, and it quickly uploaded my address book. The entire system, navigation, entertainment and phone can be automatically upgraded over the air using your cellphone.
The dashboard has a combined analog dial and inset digital display that uses the dial for speed and the display for RPMs on the entry models, and reverses them in the mid and upper models. A separate black-and-white display to the right shows trip information, and is the only sign of a compromise with its pixelated text.
The heads-up display sits just below your line of vision above the dashboard, with information projected onto a curved transparent surface that pops up from behind the instrument panel when you start the car. It’s designed to form a virtual image far enough away so it’s always in focus. When I was using the navigation system, it displayed information about the next turn as well as my speed.
There really is no stripped-down model in the Mazda3 series. Even its $19,000 entry-level 5-door model has more standard technology features than most cars in its class — such as push-button start, air conditioning, power windows, remote keyless entry, carpet floor mats, halogen headlights, and cruise control. And it has the same comfortable seats, attractive interior and driving performance found on the more expensive models.
Among the several 5-door models, I preferred the midpriced 3s Touring with an MSRP of $25,095. It has just about every option that you could possibly want, with the exception of the collision-mitigation system, an advanced cruise control that adjusts your speed to the speed of the car in front, and a braking system that regenerates a small amount of energy. Adding those features brings the MSRP to nearly $29,000.
If you’re looking for an excellent performing car with lots of great technology, the Mazda3 should fit the bill. It’s way ahead of its competition and should even appeal to those that can afford much more, because it doesn’t force you to compromise.
Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to email@example.com. Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.