2006 Mazda3 S Touring 5-Door Review


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2006 Mazda3 5-Door
DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Mazda

2006 Mazda3 s Touring 5-Door

What's not to like about the Mazda3 s 5-Door? With its space-efficient namesake five-door hatchback body style, an energetic 160-horsepower 2.3-liter engine matched to a smooth-shifting five-speed gearbox, and a fully-independent suspension that provides both comfort and sure-footed handling, the flagship of Mazda's small sedan line combines sport and utility in a way that no small ``sport utility vehicle'' possibly can.

Coming from Mazda, this should not be surprising. After all, Mazda makes two of the best-known sports cars on the market today, the all-new MX-5 Miata and the RX-8. And their influence is felt throughout the Mazda lineup, even in the Mazda3 line of compact sedans and hatchbacks. The Mazda3 replaced the long-running Protege two years ago, and its increased size, space, and structural rigidity have been used to maximum advantage. It's offered in four-door sedan and five-door hatchback body styles. The 5-Door model is a fine successor to the sporty and useful old Protege5, with improved performance and handling.

There are some minor changes to the Mazda3 lineup for 2006. As before, the sedans are available in well-equipped ``i'' or sportier ``s'' models, with the 5-Door in s trim only. The i models get variable valve timing in their 2.0-liter engines, to improve power and throttle response. S models now come in ``Touring'' and ``Grand Touring'' trim levels, and automatic transmission equipped examples now have five instead of four speeds in their transmissions, with a manual shift mode.

I've just finished a week with a 2006 Mazda3 5-Door in Touring trim. It's a sports car with great ride comfort and handling and very reasonable fuel economy. And it just happens to be able to hold four or even five people when necessary, or a large amount of cargo. It's stylish in a contemporary way, without calling too much attention to its performance potential. Unlike the old cliche, the Mazda3 5-Door is a jack of all trades that is also a master of all.

APPEARANCE: The Mazda3 5-Door doesn't hide its sporty character, but neither is it as in-your-face as some small sports hatchbacks. It's definitely a Mazda, exhibiting a sculpted hood and five-point grille similar to those of the mid-size Mazda6 and a front bumper fascia that looks right off an RX-8. The hood line continues to the base of the windshield to form a strong shoulder line, and top of each low, wide front fender creates a line that flows back to the complementarily-shaped blistered rear fender for a strong, purposeful look. Seventeen-inch wheels with low-profile performance tires fill the wheel arches, and plastic trim garnishes the rocker panels. Although the Mazda3 5-door has a longer wheelbase than the old Protege5, and is longer, its beefier proportions give it a look that is more hatchback than wagon. At the rear is a large compound-curved hatch and clear-covered taillights that echo the headlight shape. A small spoiler is found atop the trailing edge of the roof.

COMFORT: Step inside, and there is little doubt that the Mazda3 5-Door's focus is on driving. Unusually for its class, the steering wheel adjusts for both tilt and reach. The front seats are manually adjustable and among the best in the class for comfort and support; the driver's cushion height may be changed, so the perfect driving position is within reach of all drivers. The leather-covered shift knob is placed well, and the red-backlit instruments are easily visible. Cruise and auxiliary climate controls are found on the steering wheel, with the main audio and climate controls in the center stack. There is practicality with sport, as storage areas include a cavernous locking glovebox, door pockets with bottle holders, and a two-level console box for front passengers. The rear seat is contoured for two, and two adults can fit easily if they are under six feet tall. There is space, and a safety belt, for a third rear passenger, but, as is typical for any car this size, that is a short-term position. The rear seat is split 60/40 for cargo when needed - and at those times the rear doors are wonderful for positioning items, even when the cargo is inserted from the rear. A standard cargo shade hides anything in the rear when the rear seat is up, and it can be removed when necessary. There are tiedowns in the cargo area, and a small amount of storage space under the floor. The cargo floor panels can also be rearranged for cargo management, a very useful feature.

SAFETY: Standard safety features include ``Triple-H'' body construction for a strong safety cell around the passenger area, three-point safety belts for all occupants, anti-whiplash front seats, and advanced-design front airbags. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes with electronic brake force distribution are standard.

RIDE AND HANDLING: The winning recipe: take a rigid chassis and add a fully-independent MacPherson strut front, multilink rear suspension tuned in the European manner, and the result is an extremely pleasant, thoroughly enjoyable car. Although serious performance enthusiasts might wish for stiffer springs and firmer shocks, the standard setup, with relatively soft springs and compression damping, and firmer rebound damping makes for very good ride comfort, and the handling can't be faulted for everyday street use. The steering, power-assisted by an electrically-driven pump, is weighted just right, and torque steer is nearly nonexistent. Road and wind noise levels are low compared to some other cars in the Mazda3's class.

PERFORMANCE: Like all Mazda3 s models, the 5-Door gets the 2.3-liter instead of the 2.0-liter engine. Based on the four-cylinder engine found in the larger Mazda6, with power characteristics that make it useful, highly entertaining, and reasonably economical, it's the perfect powerplant for this car. With 160 horsepower right at its 6500 rpm redline, and 150 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm, it's competitive with any other regular sport-compact for power. Despite the high horsepower peak, there is plenty of useful midrange torque for easy driving with minimal shifting. It won't complain if driven a lower engine speeds, but keep it above 3000 rpm for immediate power. There is a strong rush at the top where maximum horsepower is made. The standard five-speed manual gearbox has well-chosen ratios and excellent shift linkage, making it a joy to use. I averaged around 26 mpg, in mostly city driving and as much backroad fun as I could find. A lighter right foot, or more highway miles, could do better. With five, instead of four, speeds and Mazda's ``Sport A/T'' manual-shift mode, the optional automatic should have a relatively minor negative impact on performance and economy.

CONCLUSIONS: Want sporty fun but need practical space? Get both in the Mazda3 5-Door.

SPECIFICATIONS
2006 Mazda3 S 5-Door


Base Price			$ 17,615
Price As Tested		$ 19,065
Engine Type		dual overhead cam 16-valve
4-cylinder
Engine Size		2.3 liters / 138 cu. in.
Horsepower		160 @ 6500 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 		150 @ 4500 rpm
Transmission		5-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length	103.9 in. / 176.6 in.
Curb Weight		2826 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower	17.7
Fuel Capacity		14.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires			P205/50 VR17 Goodyear Eagle RS-A
Brakes, front/rear	vented disc / solid disc,
				ABS and EBD standard
Suspension, front/rear   independent MacPherson strut /
				independent multilink
Drivetrain		front engine, front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy -        miles per gallon
                                 city / highway / observed	
                                 25 / 32 / 26
0 to 60 mph			 7.5  sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
moonroof and 6 CD changer package	$ 890
Delivery charge 			$ 560

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