Above expectations

The new-generation Mazda 3

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D3---Mazda3c20150091This just could be the Japanese carmaker’s great white hope to win back the market share as it has been lagging behind over the past years in the compact car segment. Mazda, now under the wing of Berjaya Philippines Inc., a major Malaysian conglomerate, manages and distributes the Mazda brand in the Philippines. To the Asian region, the Mazda 3 is its entrant in the biggest market segment of all and its followers are equally large elsewhere.

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Introduced just last year, the new-generation Mazda 3 with SkyActiv technology is the epitome of the firm’s bold new Kodo’s “Soul in Motion” revolution. More than any other model, the 3’s competitiveness will determine exactly how quick and transformative the company’s recovery will be.

What way to fully relish the Mazda 3’s true to form “above expectations” is a full media day test run. Sharing with a full line-up of Mazda 2’s and a teaser fully-optioned Mazda 6 wagon. Berjaya Philippines president and Chief Executive Officer Steven Tan together with Mazda designers sent us off with over 457 kilometers of relaxed back road driving starting from Santa Rosa, Laguna. We head up to Ibaan in Batangas via STAR tollway, passing through San Juan, Batangas, before heading to Candelaria, Tayabas and Lucban in Quezon. Driving through twisty mountain roads around the foot of Mount Banahaw, the group circled back to Liliw, Majayjay, Nagcarlan and Los Baños in Laguna before driving back to Tagaytay, Cavite. We zoom down to my hometown of Nasugbu Batangas, finishing off at the exclusive Hamillo Coast for an overnight stay before heading back to Manila on the second day.

Design
Mazda’s unique fascia has created quite a stir in the entire automotive industry. All the media test drivers and I agreed that there has been a remarkable improvement in terms of styling with the Mazda 3. This compact is handsome regardless of which version you choose, and those who would rather not have another typical “fastback” four-door can opt for a five-door hatch instead.

Mazda’s SkyActiv platform brings an all-steel monocoque construction, 60 percent of which is either high or ultra-high strength, and makes for a 30-percent improvement in torsional stiffness.

Interior
The new Mazda 3’s driving position is a bit on the high side, which seems a missed opportunity for a brand committed to a sporting image, but the seats are comfortable and supportive. The cabin is spacious, with enough legroom and quite a long boot.

You peer down the trio of instrument clusters that has a clear, classic speedometer flanked by digital screens showing engine speed and a fuel gauge.

Much as I found both the 2 and the 6 so much the same except for the aircondition vents of the 2, the 3’s cabin quality is good for the most part. The parts of the cabin you routinely touch – heater controls, door handles, gearlever and steering wheel – feel solid and well finished. But there’s too much inconsistency in the quality of materials and switchgear elsewhere, so it’s impossible to get an impression of the 3 having a particularly classy driving environment. You wouldn’t call it an especially attractive one either. Yet there’s a functional simplicity to the interior that seems quite modest and likeable.

It’s the equipment that Mazda introduces with a tablet style seven-inch screen that makes for a decent display detail interface (audio system, Bluetooth, navigation) that’s bolted on the center top portion of the dash, same as the 2 and a bigger improvement on the 6.

The standard six-speaker system offers Bluetooth streaming, AM/FM radio and MP3 playback. The sounds are adequate and basic but the optional Bose premium set-up system feels like you are in a different realm with nine speakers, surround sound processing technology and noise compensation designed to overrule road and wind noise frequencies.

Performance
The Mazda 3 is available with a suite of SkyActiv powertrains including two petrol engines that start with a 2.0-liter unit that produces 153 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute and a 1.5-liter unit that belts out 110 hp at 6,000 rpm. Both are four-cylinder direct injection, 16-valve engines running at Mazda’s very high 13:0 compression ratio.

Mazda’s entry-level 1.5-liter petrol is expected to sell in better numbers, not least because its carbon dioxide emissions are identical to the more powerful 153-hp 2.0-liter version at 119 grams per kilometer. They prefer to challenge the trend and right size its engines, claiming that the real-world economy of these more efficient SkyActiv power units is superior to smaller, turbo motors in most circumstances.

The Mazda’s 3 six-speed automatic transmission is excellent, smooth, short of action, weighty and precise. Not one to rush, it produces a little bit more mechanical noise than the class norm. The car’s brake pedal feel is also good, with neither grab nor delay at the top of the travel.

Handling
It’s a credit to Mazda’s development team that, despite carrying up to 65 percent of its mass over its front wheels and wearing 16-inch alloys in standard spec, the new 3 has such crisp steering and such a sweet chassis underneath.

This is an honest, old-fashioned, quiet kind of driver’s car with a clean, logical, pure agility about it. There are no tricks in its skin; it doesn’t manipulate your perception of its handling with darting directness, sudden changes in the rate of response or excess control weight.

So you can familiarize yourself with it in an instant, know immediately where the 3’s limits are and guide it from corner to corner instinctively, smoothly and precisely – quickly, if you want to. Our Mazda 3 came with 18-inch alloys and is balanced, predictable and responsive. And it does all you can ask of a compact sedan when it runs out of grip yet it remains controllable. In fact, the Mazda does more than that, because it gives you options. Its stability control system stays in the background until a developing slide becomes unrecoverable and its accelerator pedal and steering remain consistent, trustworthy and communicative, often allowing you to manage momentary losses of lateral grip quickly and intuitively.

With practicality, efficiency, value, style and the latest multimedia technology on its side, Mazda is here to stay and roar back with a vengeance by making a defining mark in the automobile industry.

The price tag for the Mazda 3 are as follows: P1.195 million for the 2.0 Skyactiv R sedan; P1.198 million for the 2.0 Skyactiv R hatchback; P945,000 for the 1.5 Skyactiv V sedan; and P948,000 for the 1.5 Skyactiv V hatchback.

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