Automotives: All-new Mazda3 replaces the Protégé

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Despite the flurry of extremely worthy candidates for 2004 Car of the Year, some of us on the voting jury may have realized this past week that we may be missing the best new vehicle. The reality check came after the first han...

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Despite the flurry of extremely worthy candidates for 2004 Car of the Year, some of us on the voting jury may have realized this past week that we may be missing the best new vehicle. The reality check came after the first hands-on media exposure to the Mazda3 -- the all-new compact car that replaces the Protégé.

Mazda seems intent on running numbers into letters, and a cynic might suggest that a Mazda3 must be about half of a Mazda6. That, in itself, would be impressive, but the Mazda3 actually takes the compact category to a new peak of proficiency, and it would just as soon take a winding road to get there.

The Mazda3 comes in either a sleek four-door sedan or a five-door wagon, with the two aimed at different targets, both filled with features and a choice of two engines, starting at sticker prices under $14,000 for the sedan and under $17,000 for the squareback.

"We like to think of ourselves as taking the road less traveled," said Jay Amestoy, Mazda's vice president for public and government affairs, when introducing the car at a makeshift parking-lot site on the University of Michigan campus. "For Mazda to succeed, we have to do things differently, and be far more clever."

The Mazda3 is about as clever as a compact can get, although Mazda didn't submit it for Car of the Year consideration, even though it is a 2004 model-year car, and will reach showrooms by the end of November. Mazda didn't want to dilute the chances of the RX-8, or to duplicate last year, when the Mazda6 was introduced in September, and reached showrooms but not media test-fleets, so it pretty well got overlooked by the jury of the nation's top selected automotive journalists.


Actually, I voted for the Mazda6 first last year, followed by the Mini-Cooper, Nissan 350Z and Infiniti G35. My 2-3-4 picks wound up 1-2-3, but my No. 1 choice was justified when the Mazda6 gained car-of-the-year status in a dozen different countries, and piled up numerous other technical awards elsewhere before finding belated success in the United States.

The Protégé has been competitive against the best -- Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus and Nissan Sentra. Still, a brief trial run in both models of the Mazda3 indicate that by taking distinct cues from the RX-8 and the Mazda6, the Mazda3 sets new levels for the compact market.

Compact buyers always have been willing to compromise, accepting obvious cutbacks in rear-seat and trunk room, and knowing that lucrative features of larger and costlier sedans wouldn't be available. Those include structural strength and safety; four-wheel disc brakes; high performance power, handling and braking; interior amenities; navigation systems; alloy wheels; even tire-pressure monitors.

The Mazda3 includes some of those features standard and the rest within a lengthy option list, which includes a navigation system with a pop-up screen atop the nicely textured dash, leather seats, alloy wheels in 15, 16 or 17-inch diameter, and even the Xenon high-intensity discharge headlights generally available only on premium luxury cars. Overdoing the option list to get all the airbags and audio items could jack the four-door price from $13,680 up to around $18,000, or take the five-door from $16,405 up to $23,000.

But even in base form, the Mazda3 meets the company's objectives for stylish design, technically advanced driving dynamics and quality craftsmanship inside and out. All Mazda3 models, for example, come with four-wheel disc brakes ---no compromising or "decontenting," as some of Mazda's top competitors cloak it.

Mazda benefits by its worldly alliance with Ford Motor Company, which also owns Volvo. "This is the most successful collaboration so far," said Robert Davis, senior vice president of marketing and product development for Mazda. "The Mazda3 is built on a shared platform that also is being used by the new Volvo S40 and the European Ford Focus. In the shared engineering, Mazda was responsible for the powertrains, Volvo for the chassis structure and safety, and the suspension came from Ford of Europe."

From there, each manufacturer designed and built unique features into the cars. The Mazda3 is by far the most adventurous in styling, from the Mazda6/RX-8 look of the grille on back.

Mazda took its exceptional new 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine, designed and built as the base powerplant for the larger Mazda6 a year ago, and spun off a 2.0-liter version by shortening the stroke. The 2.0 is the base engine for the Mazda3 "i" model, and is quick and lively in the 2,600-pound car with 148 horsepower and 135 foot-pounds of torque. The 2.3 is available as an option, and is the only engine in the five-door. It boosts levels to 160 horsepower and 150 foot-pounds.


The aluminum engines both have chain-driven dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, and using a chain means there is no worry about changing a timing belt. Horsepower peaks at 6,500 RPMs, which is also the redline for maximum revs, conservative though that may be. The larger 2.3 has variable valve-timing. A five-speed manual transmission with pleasantly wide ratios, and an option is a four-speed automatic with a manual-shift gate.

The Mazda3 is 2.9 inches longer than the outgoing Protégé, with a wheelbase of almost an inch longer, and 2.2 inches taller and 2.0 inches wider. That translates to more interior room in both versions, except in front legroom, which is compensated for by a slightly raised seat position, which have a higher hip-point and therefore legs are slightly more vertical from the knees down, so a 0.3-inch decrease in legroom equates to more room. Besides, there is almost a full inch increase in rear legroom.

Chief designer Hideki Suzuki created the Mazda3 with careful integration of the interior and exterior. He has worked both at the California design studio and at Mazda's home in Hiroshima, Japan. His English is pretty good, and he has mastered such phrases as the stress on "the emotion of motion" of Mazda's corporate objectives, involving an attitude both "athletic and energetic," featuring the "unexpected details" such as the head and taillights and even the door handles, enhancing "greater function and practicality" than a buyer might anticipate from a compact, as well as the promise of "agile movement" from "muscular form."

The four-door and five-door have completely different shapes and all different body panels, with the four-door expected to attract buyers who prefer a touch of sophistication, prestige, and maybe even elegance, while the five-door is intended for the more aggressive, athletic and advanced-utility buyer. Suzuki said that he was striving for a tasteful fusion of "sporty excitement and comfort."

A standard of compacts is fuel economy, and the Mazda3 hit EPA marks of 35 highway/28 city for the 2.0, and 32 city/25 highway for the 2.3, while achieving such low emissions that Davis said that in California, "the Mazda3 exhaust is cleaner than the air taken in."

Safety starts with the redoubtable Volvo structural design, which has a strengthened unibody that is 40 percent more rigid to flexing, and is augmented by Mazda's structural design to disperse force of impact three ways, down and around the passenger compartment. Antilock brakes and six airbags are available, while softer, rounded interior features, a rear structure to limit intrusion and whiplash-countering seatbacks are standard, and Davis said in-house tests make Mazda confident the Mazda3 will attain the highest five-star awards in government crash-tests.

Davis bristles at questions about demographics discovered through market research. "We don't do demographics, we do psyche-graphics, because we're concerned more with lifestyle than age of our customers," said Davis. "Our buyers like a little fun in their driving, they enjoy driving, and they might be more youthful and active." He acknowledged the versatility of the Mazda3, but added, "Our buyers may be looking for enjoyment rather than utility."

Mazda overall is slightly down in U.S. sales for 2003, but company officials say that's because Mazda moved away from fleet sales, which made up as much as 15 percent of their sales, and they anticipate a 3 to 4 percent increase overall by the time 2003 ends. They would like to increase by a modest 5 percent for the 2004 model year, which would be between 290,000 and 300,000 vehicles.


Of that total, the Mazda3 is anticipated to account for 25 to 30 percent, or about 70,000 cars. About 40 percent will be the five-door, which comes only as the "S" model with the larger engine. As for packages, 20 percent of the total should be the basic "i" model, and 30 percent the "S" upgrade, with the sport package, and the rest will be somewhere in between.

Maybe Mazda is the victim of its own cleverness. They could have withheld the Mazda3 for introduction for another two months, declared it a 2005 model, and immediately become the front-runner for next year's Car of the Year.

John Gilbert writes weekly auto columns. Reach him by e-mail at .

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