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2005 Mazda3 s 4-Door Review

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SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Mazda

2005 Mazda3 s 4-Door

Compact cars haven't been a major segment in the U.S. since the fuel crises of the 1970s and `80s, but that may change soon. Gasoline prices have recently skyrocketed, and ever more congested cities and parking lots can make a large vehicle a liability, too. While it may seem that current offerings in the small-car market are either boring, spartan econobox commute modules that sacrifice performance to economy and comfort to low price or racecar-wannabes that sacrifice comfort - and fuel efficiency - to speed, a third alternative is appearing. Cars in this category, while small outside, make efficient use of their size for better than expected interior space, and have the appointments and level of comfort expected in a mid-level, mid-sized sedan.

Welcome the premium compact segment, consisting of small cars with enough room for passengers and cargo to be comfortably useful for carpool or even small-family transportation duty, and the power and handling to keep out of harm's way in traffic.

Mazda's entry in the premium compact segment is the Mazda3, offered in sedan form as the ``i'' model with a 2.0-liter, 148-horsepower engine, or as the ``s'' model with a 2.3-liter, 160-hp engine. There is also a five-door hatchback ``s'' model for maximum versatility. ``SP23'' versions, based on both the ``s'' models, are a recent addition to the lineup, adding more luxury features to challenge some of the entry-luxury brands. But even in standard form, the Mazda3 is a fine car, with a wonderful fun-to-drive character and plenty of space for its size.

The Mazda3 debuted last year, as a replacement to the long-running Protege. Like the Protege, the Mazda3 is sportier than the average small car without being too seriously sporty, for everyday, mainstream comfort, but the Mazda3 is a slightly larger and more grown-up car. I drove a Mazda3 five-door a year ago and was very favorably impressed. So when the vehicle that I was supposed to test last week was unavailable and a Mazda3 s sedan appeared instead, I was not at all disappointed. It had the same endearingly entertaining character as the hatchback, only in sedan form. Under the skin, in the chassis and engine departments, they're identical. The sport package that is part of standard fare on the 5-door is mostly cosmetic, with only 17-inch wheels and 50-series tires versus the standard 16s with 55-series tires the only mechanical difference, and a minor one. In either form, few cars combine everyday practicality, fun performance, and value as well as the Mazda3.

APPEARANCE: All of the current Mazda design language appears on the Mazda3, giving it a noticeable similarity to the Mazda6 sedan and the RX-8 sports coupe. But its proportions are a little chunkier than those of the larger Mazda6. There is 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, a body-colored version of the Mazda five-point design, to form a power dome hood. The plastic-faired headlight clusters are between its' 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. At the sides, moderate fender flares are more functional - providing increased body stiffness - than decorative. The roofline is coupe-like, constantly curved, with narrow C-pillars for good rear quarter visibility. It descends nearly to the edge of the short trunk, further reinforcing the car's sporty look. A kick-up to the shoulder line at the tail gives a jaunty look. At the rear, smoked clear taillight covers echo the shape of the headlights and help with the contemporary appearance.

COMFORT: Inside, the Mazda3 offers contemporary style and a higher level of room, comfort, and amenities than expected in a small sedan. Fit and finish and materials are first-rate. There is a notable lack of distracting silvery plastic trim, with a subdued faux-carbon fiber piece across the instrument panel the only contrast to an otherwise dark interior scheme. The main instruments are deeply-inset in a stylish three-ring cluster, with metal-look bezels that match the outboard air vents. The driver and front passenger get sport buckets with very good support, and the driving experience is further enhanced by a thick-rimmed, tilt-adjustable steering wheel and well-placed shift knob, both leather-wrapped. Cruise and auxiliary audio controls on the wheel are an upscale convenience touch. Controls for the audio and climate-control systems are on the center stack, and are simple and easy to use. Front seat storage includes the usual small door pockets, a useful toll-holding space to the left of the steering wheel, a two-layer console box, and an absolutely cavernous locking glove box than can swallow several laptops, a camera bag, or many, many CDs. The rear seat has plenty of space for two adults up to six feet, with a tighter center position. The trunk is much larger than you'd expect from the exterior styling, and the lid uses external struts for luggage protection. The opening is small, so if you habitually carry large or bulky items, consider the 5-door model as it's hatchback design allows large things to fit easily.

SAFETY: The Mazda3's unibody structure is designed to send crash energy around a central safety cage in order to protect passengers in an accident. It scored third out of 68 vehicles recently tested by then National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in a recent rollover study, and also has performed well in frontal and side-impact tests.

RIDE AND HANDLING: Excellent chassis tuning makes the Mazda3 both comfortable and enjoyable to drive. The fully-independent MacPherson strut front, multilink rear suspension takes advantage of the chassis's rigidity with seemingly soft springs and correctly-matched damping. If it feels too softly comfortable to be sporty, run hard into a corner. The Mazda3 will exhibit more body roll than a more stiffly-sprung sports sedan, but it does very well in the corners and is great fun to drive. It's also more comfortable than any small sports sedan I can think of, or any other small car in its class. All models have four-wheel disc brakes, for repeated, sure stopping power, although the ``s'' versions have slightly larger discs.

PERFORMANCE: Both Mazda3 models have dual overhead cam, 16-valve four-cylinder engines. A slight increase in stroke increases the ``s'' model's engine from the 2.0 liters of the ``i'' to 2.3 liters. That, and variable valve timing on the intake cam, raises horsepower from 148 to 160, both at the 6500-rpm redline. But there is no need to become well-acquainted with the rev-limiter, as the torque peak - 135 lb-ft for the 2.0 and 150 for the 2.3 - is at 4500 rpm, and, with the 2.3 in my test car anyway, there is enough torque right off the line to let the driver know that traction control is done the old-fashioned, non-electronic way - by careful throttle modulation. The standard five-speed manual transmission has slick, quick linkage and well-chosen ratios, and helps make the Mazda3 fun to drive. Acceleration, at any point in the rev range, is not a problem. Fuel economy, at around 26 mpg for mixed city and highway mileage, is good considering the relatively large and powerful engine.

CONCLUSIONS: Few cars I've driven recently have combined fun performance, practicality, interior efficiency, and comfort as well as the Mazda3. If a Miata was a front-wheel drive sedan, it would be a Mazda3.

2005 Mazda3 S 4-Door

Base Price			$ 16,615
Price As Tested			$ 18,850
Engine Type			dual overhead cam 16-valve
				 aluminum alloy inline 4-cylinder
Engine Size			2.3 liters / 137 cu. in.
Horsepower			160 @ 6500 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 			150 @ 4500 rpm
Transmission			5-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length		103.9 in. / 178.7 in.
Curb Weight			2,762 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		17.3
Fuel Capacity			14.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				P205/55 HR16 Toyo Proxes
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
				 antilock optional
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

ABS/SAB/SAC Package - includes:
  antilock brakes, side airbags, side-curtain airbags	$ 800
Moonroof & 6-CD Package - includes:
  Power moonroof, in-dash 6CD changer			$ 890
Destination charge					$ 545