The Mazda3 is the most popular car sold in the US sold by Mazda, by an impressive margin. The company sells three Mazda3s for every Mazda6 sold, the company’s second best seller. Having enjoyed the thrill of the Mazdaspeed3 last December, it was time to sample the 3 in a package the majority of Mazda3 owners live with. My request to Mazda’s press fleet was for the four door model, since I was already familiar with the five-door. I was given two choices-the base engine 3i with a 5-speed manual, or the more desirable, more powerful 3s with a 5-speed automatic. As you can see, I opted for the less powerful 3i. Sure, I am a sucker for a car with three pedals, but wanted to learn more about the 3i.
You see, the Mazda3 is hailed as a fantastic little sports sedan by the press, and rightfully so. But the car the press drives most often is the Mazda3s. The base Mazda3i is generally overlooked by the glossy magazines. Having experienced the Mazda3 in its most powerful, outrageous form, the only logical step was to go the other extreme. Would the Mazda3i bore me to death, or does it maintain the company’s promise of “zoom zoom” in every car it builds? Read on to find out!
The Mazda3 is now in its second generation. While resemblance to the prior car is similar, the most distinguishing feature of the new 3 is the giant grin that greets you on the front end, but on darker colored cars, the effect is taken down several notches. In fact, our Graphite Mica test car was serious and almost somber in appearance. Still, the Mazda3 is a sporty looking sedan, carrying far more visual flair than a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla.
The interior of the Mazda3 carries the sporty theme, with a driver-focused cockpit. Seats are firm and supportive, and I had no trouble finding a comfortable driving position. The silver trim that is standard on the Touring model did a decent job of breaking up what was otherwise a dark interior. While the plastic steering wheel and shift knob reminded me I was in a lesser model, I actually preferred the simple white on black gauges as opposed to the electroluminescent gauges found on the Mazda3s and Mazdaspeed3. It goes to show because it costs more to make does not mean it is always better.
While I found little to fault with the interior of the Mazda3, one aspect did come as a surprise: space. The Williams family (myself, my wife and four year old son) use a Honda Civic Si four-door as regular transportation. Stepping into the Mazda3 as a family, the first impression was “Wow-why are we so close to each other?” Interior-wise, the Civic offers more room (more trunk space too). For a single person or a couple just starting out, the Mazda3 four door will likely provide all the room you need, but if you really dig the 3 and have a kid, you might be better off in the 3s five-door.
The real question of the Mazda3i is what was it like to live with the base engine? The engine in question is a 2L inline four, rated at 148hp. Our test car had the standard 5-speed manual (a 5-speed automatic is optional). Ã‚Â Around town, the car has enough pep to get around with no problem. On highway ramps with family on board and A/C on, the 3i is leisurely at building speed, but once at cruising velocity is comfortable. Nearing 80mph, I wouldn’t have minded a sixth cog to grab. But the Mazda3i acquits itself well as a friendly commuter car.
The Mazdaspeed3 would not be as fun to drive if the car it was based upon offered poor driving dynamics. And here the Mazda3 shows its sporty DNA in flying colors. The shifting is a little notchy but otherwise fine, and clutch take up is easy to read. The ride is comfortable but firm, giving the 3 great handling. A driver who knows how to extract the most out of a car not offering gobs of horsepower will surely be entertained here. If your opinion is a fun to drive car cannot be had for $16,000, you haven’t driven the base Mazda3i yet.
Such is the dilemma of the Mazda3i. On its own merit, it is a good little sports sedan. History remembers the BMW 2002 as one of the best two-door sport sedans of its time, and it is my opinion the Mazda3s is the car that carries the spirit of that icon. Yet no one talks about the BMW 1600-same car, just a smaller engine. The Mazda3i is the BMW 1600 of today-all the excellent engineering is right there, just in a less powerful package.
Mazda offers the 3 in many flavors-too many to dissect here. Our Mazda3i Touring is the top-spec model for the base 2L engine. While four door 3’s are available with both 2L and 2.5L engines, the five door hatch only comes with the larger engine. All Mazda3i Tourings come standard with a 6-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo, A/C, power windows, locks and mirrors, jack for an MP3 player and Bluetooth-in other words, enough kit to satisfy the young car buyer, with a base price of $17,875USD-not a bad deal. Our test car, however, added foglights, the Moonroof and Bose package, and Sirius satellite radio, nudging the as-tested price to $20,025.
For the enthusiast (I assume that’s who I talking to), bear this in mind-the Mazda3s Sport starts at $19,185. Sure, you lose the moonroof and Bose stereo our test car had, but you gain the 2.5L 167hp engine, a 6-speed manual, 17″ alloys (instead of 16’s), fog lights, dual exhaust, rear spoiler and leather steering wheel and shift knob. The Mazda3i makes sense if you can leave out the extras, but priced out as our test car was-take my advice. Leave out the frills and go for the added gusto of the Mazda3s Sport. You will thank me later!