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New Car Review: 2004 Mazda3 5 Door

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SEE ALSO: Mazda Specs, Reviews and Comparisons 1997-Present Model Year


A few years ago, Mazda invented the sport-compact wagon genre with the introduction of the Protege5. For 2004, as the Mazda lineup continues to change, the Protege is history, replaced by the Mazda3. Does this mean Mazda has given up on the sport-compact wagon? Not a chance. The top-line Mazda3 is the S 5-Door, a car very much in the same vein as the Protege5 - but more grown up and better in all ways.

Slightly longer and wider than the Protege, the Mazda3 is built on a new platform that is considerably more rigid than the old Protege chassis. It comes in sedan or 5-Door body styles, the 5-Door being a four-door hatchback with the hatch making the fifth door. As with the Protege, the Mazda3 is a front-wheel drive car. Mazda3 sedans are offered with a choice of four-cylinder engines, of 2.0 and 2.3 liters displacement, both closely-related to the four-cylinder used in the larger Mazda6. The sportier 5-Door is available only with the 2.3-liter engine. Its 160 horsepower is a considerable step up from the Protege5's 130-horse 2.0-liter engine.

In the week I spent with a Mazda3 5-Door, I found it to be a more substantial and grown-up car than the Protege5. It's more refined, but not at the expense of an entertaining, fun-to-drive character. There is even more room inside, making it a great choice for anyone needing space but wanting sport. Add plenty of useful power, matched with a great-shifting gearbox, and a refined but sporty chassis to that space and the result is an experience unique in this country. Zoom-zoom, indeed.

APPEARANCE: A sporty car should look sporty, and the Mazda3 hides nothing of its character in its skin. It shows all of the latest styling trends from Mazda, with a healthy dose of Mazda6 in the sculpted hood and more than a hint of RX8 in the front face. As on the Mazda6 and RX8, sharply-sculpted character lines radiate back from the grille (in this case a body-colored version of the Mazda five-point design) to form a power dome hood. The plastic-faired headlight clusters are between the 3's two relatives in shape, but the lower fascia, with a large mesh-covered intake flanked by faux brake scoops with projector-beam foglamps, has a marked similarity to the front of the RX8. The hood line continues to the base of the windshield to form a strong shoulder line, and top of the each lower, wider front fenders 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: The Mazda3 is friendly - a ``Hello!'' message is shown in the audio system display when you start the car. Like the Protege5 before, the Mazda3 5-door's interior is styled and equipped above it's modest price point. The new 3 is a more mature car, with a notable lack of silvery plastic trim and slippery imitation race pedals. Bright trim is found on the instrument and outside vent bezels, and a swatch of imitation carbon fiber adds interest to the center of the instrument panel. This is a car for driving, and the driver is treated to a steering wheel with a thick leather rim that adjusts, manually, for both reach and tilt and a comfortable and supportive sport seat that has adjustable cushion height. The leather-covered shift knob is placed well, and the red-backlit instruments are easy to read. 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 huge 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.

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 disc brakes are standard, with antilock available.

ROADABILITY: Mix a rigid chassis and a fully-independent MacPherson strut front, multilink rear suspension with European-spec spring and shock tuning and the result is an extremely pleasant, 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: The 5-door is the performance-model Mazda3, and so it gets the 2.3-liter engine. Based on the four-cylinder engine found in the larger Mazda6, with power characteristics that make it useful, fun, and 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. Just keep it above 3000 rpm for immediate power, and 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, and is a joy to use. As in all Mazda3 models, the optional four-speed automatic has Mazda's ``Sport A/T'' manual-shift mode.

CONCLUSIONS: Need space and utility with good fuel economy but want sporty character. That's not an impossible combination, it the description of a Mazda3 5-Door.

2004 Mazda3 S 5-Door

Base Price			$ 16,895
Price As Tested		        $ 18,305
Engine Type			dual overhead cam 16-valve 4-cylinder
Engine Size			2.3 liters / 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,
				 antilock available
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  independent multilink
Drivetrain			front engine, front-wheel drive

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

In-dash 6-disc CD changer		$ 890
Destination charge			$ 520

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