BY MARK PHELAN
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
The ’10 Mazda 3 sedan has ample power for daily use.
A little power goes a long, long way
Somebody should have cut Mazda’s engineers off before they went back for that last round.
They’d mixed up the ingredients for a delightful compact car in the new 3: Lithe, eager handling, a roomy and comfortable interior, attractive and unique styling. The engineers’ job was done, and well done.
Then somebody ordered one for the road — make it a 263-horsepower double — and things got out of hand. It’s all fun and games until somebody wakes up with their head stuck in an exhaust pipe, buckos.
The Mazda 3 compact sedan and hatchback serve up an effervescent cocktail of value and excitement. The high-performance Mazdaspeed 3 has the subtlety of grain alcohol, all kick and no taste.
Prices for the front-wheel drive Mazda 3 start at $15,345 for a sedan with a 148-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission. The least-expensive model with an automatic transmission has a five-speed and goes for $17,105. Stepping up to a 167-horsepower 2.5-liter engine and six-speed manual gearbox raises the sedan’s sticker to $19,185. A five-speed automatic brings the total to $19,985.
The 3 hatchback starts at $19,685 with the 2.5-liter engine and a six-speed manual. Adding an automatic transmission raises the hatchback’s base price to $20,485.
The Mazdaspeed 3 comes with a turbocharged, direct injection 263-horsepower version of the 2.5-liter powerplant and six-speed manual transmission.
The Mazda 3 competes with compacts like the Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Nissan Sentra and Toyota Corolla. The ‘Speed 3 takes on front-drive performance compacts like the Civic Si, Sentra SE-R Spec V and Volkswagen GTI.
I tested a Mazda 3 with the 2.0-liter engine, five-speed manual transmission and a $20,225 price and a well-equipped Mazdaspeed 3 that stickered at $25,090. All prices exclude destination charges.
The base 3 fares well against its competitors. Its price and equipment are comparable, while it provides a larger passenger compartment to go complement a crisp shape and sporty, responsive handling.
The ‘Speed 3’s engine overpowers the car’s front-wheel drive layout. The free-revving engine produces a bruising 280 pound-feet of torque to send the front wheels skittering right and left under hard acceleration. You can have the engine’s full power. You can have the chassis’ eager handling.
You can’t have both at the same time. That result is a car that’s less fun to drive than less powerful compacts like the Civic Si and GTI.
The 3’s 2.0- and 2.5-liter engines produce less power and more enjoyment than the ‘Speed 3. Mazda’s free-revving engines provide plenty of power for confident acceleration. The chassis’ responsive steering, nimble handling and clingy road holding make the base 3 one of the most enjoyable compact cars on the road. A six-speed transmission mated to the 2.0-liter would reduce vibration and improve performance and fuel economy, however.
The 3 and ‘Speed 3 trail the best of their rivals’ fuel economy. The 3’s highway EPA rating of 33 m.p.g. will look downright profligate when the larger Chevrolet Cruze hits the road with a 40-m.p.g. rating later this year.
Technically speaking, the ‘Speed 3’s highway fuel economy of 25 m.p.g. is lousy. It’s one mile a gallon worse than a 412-horsepower 2011 Mustang GT, and the Mazda requires pricey premium gasoline while the Mustang runs on regular. A 260-horsepower Chevy HHR SS wagon beats the ‘Speed 3 by 4 m.p.g. on the highway and 3 m.p.g. in city driving.
The 3’s 94.1-cubic-foot passenger compartment offers more space than competitors like the Civic, Focus, Corolla and GTI. Wide-opening doors provide easy ingress and egress. The sedan’s 11.8-cubic-foot trunk is smaller than the others. The 3 hatchback’s accommodating 17.0 cubic feet of cargo space leads the pack.
The comfortable interior features big, clear gauges and simple controls with large, easy-to-use dials. The map pockets and center console provide very little storage space, however.
The hands-free telephone system works well, but CDs and iPods keep playing when they should pause for phone calls.
The Mazda 3’s styling is exceptionally appealing. Sharply creased fenders are reminiscent of the sporty Mazda 6 midsize sedan. Wraparound headlights, a creased hood, long nose and short rear deck set the 3 sedan apart from the many bland compacts. The dashing and practical hatchback is even more distinctive. The gaping, cartoonish lower grille is the only visual misstep.
Sometimes you can’t tell what’s enough until you know what’s too much, though. Mazda may have crashed through the boundaries of sober good sense with the ‘Speed 3 and grille, but the Mazda 3 sedan and hatchback add style and excitement to the compact segment.