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First Drive: 2014 Mazda3

Lone Zoomer: If you Liked the '3 Shared with Ford and Volvo, You'll Love the All-Mazda One

You know the old adage: If you want something done right, do it yourself. Sure, where small automakers like Mazda are concerned, that idea flies in the face of all that economies-of-scale biz-school blather, but if the way this new Mazda3 drives is any indication, the little-Hiroshima-company-that-could may be making it work. Here's its argument against conventional wisdom:

By starting the design of this third-generation 3 on a completely clean sheet, with no "economies of scale" parts-bin pieces to work around, every inch of the car could be tailored to suit the task at hand and fit Mazda's zoomy personality. This approach means there are no recessive "Volvo For Life" or "One Ford" genes that could express themselves in awkward ways or force uncomfortable compromises. Note that the same clean sheet was also used to design the basic architecture of the 3, 6, and CX-5 (and a forthcoming CX-9 replacement), but those are siblings, not cousins from different continents.

The suspension is a perfect example of the benefits of such a holistic engineering approach. The team set a goal of delivering the steering feel of a light rear-drive car with manual steering, where effort continually builds with increasing cornering force. To do this, the front strut geometry has 6 degrees of caster -- same as on a Miata or RX-8, and way more than you'll find on anyone else's front-driver. This provides a strong self-centering effect at speed and causes effort to continuously rise with steering input, which the column-mounted electric assist motor simply dials back to a comfortable level. To back that steering feel up with eager turn-in, the Control Blade rear suspension's bushings and geometry are designed to encourage a healthy dose of toe-in under cornering. (Oh, and let the record show that Mazda introduced the Control Blade idea on its fourth-gen Cosmo, contributing it to the original Focus/S40/3.)

Designing the whole car around Mazda's full suite of Skyactiv technologies compounds the efficiency of each. The 2.0-liter engine is a great example. When wedged into the existing engine compartment of the old '3 in 2012, the engine made do with a compact four-into-one exhaust header. At some speeds this allowed the sonic wave created when one exhaust valve opened to reflect up the runner of another cylinder just as its valve was ready to close, jamming some hot gas back into the cylinder and compromising the next combustion cycle. Working with the clean sheet, engineers made room for an elaborate basket-o-snakes 4-2-1 manifold that prevents this from happening. The result: The torque curve is fattened by a healthy 14 lb-ft at 3000 rpm, peak torque jumps 2 lb-ft, and EPA city/hwy fuel economy improves from 28/39 mpg to 29/40 mpg with the manual and 30/40 mpg with the automatic.

Maybe the best Skyactiv story is that of the clean-sheet manual transmission -- Mazda's first since the 1980s. Reducing internal friction makes it 1 percent more efficient, but that wasn't the point. The object of the redesign was to make it feel sublime in the hand, because now that automatics get better fuel economy than manuals, most folks who opt for a stick do so because they prefer shifting for themselves -- not to save money or fuel. Ya just gotta love the sentiment behind this (perhaps ill-advised) new transmission investment.

So how does this perennial compact-class favorite work on the road? About as good as it looks. The steering feel is simply the best I've sampled in a front-drive car (having not yet tried VW's newest Golf or the Focus ST, about which many also rave). In the Angeles Forest above L.A., the top-performing 2.5-liter s GT variant wearing meaty 215/45R18 summer Dunlops turns in crisply and corners hard, and its steering effort builds nicely all the way up, giving some subtle tugs and jiggles as the road surface changes. You take the good with the bad -- there's modest kickback on bumps when the lateral gs are up -- but the trade-off is well worth it. The electric-assist motor can't be heard or felt except when spinning the wheel for a parking maneuver. Oh, and 185 lb-ft produce no trace of torque steer. (Still, we fervently hope the CX-5's AWD system will be fitted to the way more torquey Mazdaspeed3 variant.)

Swapping into a 2.0-liter manual on the base 205/60R-16 Yokohama Avids dials back the peak cornering loads and introduces a bit more tire squeal, but the damping and roll control are still admirable, and there's no head toss. Bumps and imperfections were absorbed with refreshing suppleness in all variants sampled, but then these are the very roads the car's ride and handling were developed on. A definitive ride assessment will have to wait until we can get cars on some meaner streets.

The Skyactiv-Drive automatic transmission claims to match the efficiency of a dual-clutch, and it certainly feels as smooth. Shift paddles on the 2.5 bring instant response, but the shift scheduling in Sport mode seldom caused me to touch the paddles during canyon running. The cable-actuated shifter in the 2.0-liter car has a light and mechanically precise feel, though I missed my intended gate a few times.

Mazda's bias toward engaging dynamics means that some sound deadening may have been sacrificed on the altar of low mass, so road and wind noise trail the class leaders a bit, but we wouldn't have it any other way. And this bit of extra noise doesn't detract from the upscale mood of the new interior, which gets a soft-touch dash, USB audio input, and keyless push-button entry and starting on even the lowest base trim level. Mazda3s have always delivered class-above optional content, and that tradition continues, with blind-spot monitoring and cross-traffic alert standard on the high-volume i Touring variant, while top 2.5-liter models get a head-up display, rain-sensing wipers, and bi-xenon adaptive headlights. To secure absolute C-segment bragging rights, order the Tech Package, which brings a full laser/radar/camera sensor array with adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, Smart City Brake Support (to prevent or lessen low-speed impacts), automatic high-beams, and i-ELOOP.

That's a loopy name for a smart-charging system on steroids. A variable-voltage alternator freewheels while cruising or accelerating, and when you lift or brake, it generates way more charging energy than the battery could accept. A 25-kJ capacitor absorbs the rest and then apportions it to the battery in doses it can accept. Mazda says it might boost real-world fuel economy by around 5 percent when you're running a lot of electrical loads.

Intellectually, we realize that Mazda's long-term viability probably hinges on finding a new Ford-like partner or strengthening existing joint-venture ties with Toyota, Nissan, or Fiat. But emotionally, this new 3 is so good we're kind of rooting for the scrappy, independent, genetically pure Japanese little zoomer to keep going it alone.

 

2014 MAZDA3
BASE PRICE $17,740-$25,890
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan or hatchback
ENGINES 2.0L/155-hp/150-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4; 2.5L/184-hp/185-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSIONS 6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT 2800-3000 lb (mfr)
WHEELBASE 106.3 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 175.6-180.3 x 70.7 x 57.3 in
0-60 MPH 7.0-8.3 sec (MT est)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 28-30 / 37-41 mpg (est)
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 112-120 / 82-91 kW-hrs/100 miles (est)
CO2 EMISSIONS 0.57-0.62 lb/mile (est)
ON SALE IN U.S. September 2013

 

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