2014 Mazda Mazda3 i 5-Door Grand Touring Review by Carey Russ


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2014 Mazda Mazda3

Combining fun and fuel efficiency with practicality

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD WITH CAREY RUSS

    • SEE ALSO: Mazda Buyers Guide


With the appearance of the third generation of Mazda's most popular car (worldwide) and a continued emphasis on "SKYACTIV®" engineering efficiency in design and construction, one might think that the result would be a boring transportation appliance, albeit one that gets excellent fuel economy.

One would be correct about fuel economy, and totally wrong about the fun-to-drive factor. Here is a car that can easily get 30+ mpg in everyday use, and be a great car to drive while doing so. The engineering techniques that contribute to efficiency -- direct fuel injection allowing high compression, combustion chamber design to take maximum advantage of that, techniques to decrease internal friction in both the engine and transmission, and increased rigidity and crashworthiness of the unibody structure with decreased weight -- are right out of the racer's handbook for improved performance and driving character.

And then it's all wrapped up in Mazda's latest design language, called "KODO". In five-door hatchback form, the premium and most-popular body style, it looks more like a front-engined, rear-wheel drive sports coupe than a transverse front engine, front-wheel drive hatchback. Economy is spoken here, but "econobox" is not.

Trim levels for both the sedan and hatch are Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring. Touring and Grand Touring are offered in both "i" form, denoting a 2.0-liter, 155-horsepower four-cylinder engine and six-speed stick or automatic or "s" form with a 184-hp 2.5-liter engine the automatic. There is also an entry-level SV for the sedan. In both bodies, the new Mazda3 is lower than its predecessors, and sits on a longer wheelbase, all the better for improved interior space. Yet overall length has decreased slightly, and width grown by 1.6 inches, for both more interior space and a wider track for improved handling.

My week with a 2014 Mazda3 i Grand Touring was preceded by an opportunity to drive the same car for a few laps around a race track. That track just happened to be Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca (MRLS), and at a quicker pace than I'd try on the street, the Mazda3 performed admirably. Next I tried an "s" model -- and was pleasantly surprised that, with the extra power from the 2.5-liter engine, the automatic had a negligible negative effect on performance. Back in the real world, the supple suspension and good seats provided comfort on less than perfect road surfaces, and a spirited drive on local backroads, rarely above third gear, saw over 27 mpg. Add in more city and fifty or so miles of highway and that easily went to just over 30 -- with no attempt by me to get the best possible mileage. The five-door hatch layout is hard to beat for maximum interior versatility and usefulness in a small-footprint size, and the latest Mazda3 hatch combines that with fun-to-drive character and little thirst for regular unleaded to make it one of the best of the genre.

APPEARANCE: Technically, the Mazda3 hatch is a two-box design. But there are no straight lines or flat surfaces for boxes anywhere on its lithe, sculpted shape. "Cab rearward" was the plan, and with its long hood and rear-set cabin, it looks more like a four-door sports coupe than a traditional hatchback. The large five-sized grille, with chrome trim underneath, and long, low headlamps fit the character well. Both front and rear overhangs are short, so the front splitter is relatively safe from damage. It's not merely cosmetic, as there is a partial undertray for under-car air management. Prominent fenders suggest a sports car, and the tapered passenger cabin ends in a visor spoiler above the rounded hatch. Dr. Kamm might disapprove, but the coefficient of aerodynamic drag is a low 0.28 so Mazda is doing something right. Stability in winds is good, too.

COMFORT: At Grand Touring level, standard equipment is very good. Pushbutton start/stop and un/lock, a tilt and slide moonroof, power driver's seat, stitched leatherette upholstery, navigation system, AM/FM/XM radio, CD, and integration for Pandora and Stitcher internet radio (via your phone) plus audio delivery of text messages and tweets and voice control for much of that are all part of the deal. And more… Control of the electronics is via a well-marked knob and buttons on the console, just like in expensive German cars but simpler here. There is also a new heads-up display, not fitted to my test car but to the other example I drove, that displays a bright image not on the windscreen but on a transparent panel on top of the instrument cluster, very clean and unobtrusive. Fit and finish and materials are all first-rate, with soft-touch materials and honest plastic trim of "piano black", textured "carbon fiber look", and matte silver in various places. Instruments and controls are well-placed and easily seen and used. Front seat comfort is very good, and three-level cushion heating adds comfort in cold weather. The tilt- and telescope-adjustable steering wheel has a leather rim and controls for audio, information, and cruise control systems. Visibility to the front and sides is very good, with a rearview camera helping when backing. The rear seat is spacious for the car's size, and contoured for outboard passengers. Cargo space with the 60/40 split rear seatback up is good, and even better with it down, plus easy access via the rear doors. There is a space-saver spare under the cargo area, not a can of sealant.

SAFETY: The Mazda3's structure protects passengers with all of the currently required safety features and technology, including multiple air bags, safety cell and crumple zones, dynamic stability control, and a tire-pressure monitoring system. Brakes are four-wheel disc, with antilock, electronic brake-force distribution, and brake assist. At i Grand Touring level a blind-spot monitoring system is standard.

RIDE AND HANDLING: This is a wonderfully well-balanced automobile. A rigid unibody structure and compliant, well-damped fully-independent MacPherson strut / multilink suspension combine good ride comfort with nimble cornering ability. Even pushed harder than would be sane on the street, body roll and understeer are not excessive. Brakes are excellent. Steering effort is moderate, without the numbness that is too often found in electrically-assisted systems. Good handling characteristics and brakes are as important to safety as to performance and fun.

PERFORMANCE: If pure numbers and 0-60 acceleration are your only considerations, you're in the wrong place. With a 0-60 time around eight seconds, the Mazda3 won't be getting Top Fuel honors. So? It's quick enough for any traffic situation I came across, and, driven enthusiastically, not gingerly, can still go a long way on a gallon of unleaded regular. Which is quite a tribute to Mazda engineering, as the compression ratio is an ultra-high 13:1. Careful design, direct fuel injection, and sophisticated electronic control means no need for premium. Peak horsepower from the twin-cam, 16-valve alloy engine is 155, at 6000 rpm. Torque peaks at 150 lb-ft at 4000, for good midrange performance. Careful design and construction utilizing friction-reduction technologies further improves efficiency, as does the choice of gearbox ratios, if perhaps a bit at the expense of acceleration. It's a six-speed box, with short, quick-throw linkage that makes shifting fun. Fifth and sixth are both overdrives, with sixth having a high 0.68:1 ratio. There's the secret for excellent potential highway mileage, as long as no hills get in the way. Despite my best efforts to stay away from the highway and keep the engine up around the torque peak on country roads I still saw high 20s in backroad and city driving, and well into the 30s on the highway -- there with hills and speeds far in excess of the simulated 50 mph of the EPA dyno test.

CONCLUSIONS: The all-new 2014 Mazda3 i 5-Door hatch combines fun and fuel efficiency with practicality.

SPECIFICATIONS

2014 Mazda Mazda3 i 5-Door Grand Touring

Base Price $ 23,245

Price As Tested $ 24,335

Engine Type DOHC 16-valve aluminum alloy inline 4-cylinder with direct fuel injection and variable cam phasing

Engine Size 2.0 liters / 122 cu. in.

Horsepower 155 @ 6000 rpm

Torque (lb-ft) 150 @ 4000 rpm

Transmission 6-speed manual

Wheelbase / Length 106.3 in. / 175.6 in.

Curb Weight 2797 lbs.

Pounds Per Horsepower 18.0

Fuel Capacity 13.2 gal.

Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline

Tires P205/60R16 91H Yokohama Avid m+s

Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, ABS, EBD, BA standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent multilink Drivetrain transverse engine, front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 29 / 40 / 30

0 to 60 mph est 8.0 sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES

Cargo Mat $ 70

Rear Bumper Guard $ 100

Door Sill Scuff Plates $ 125

Destination Charge $ 795


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