Those of us in North America who want a taste of Ford’s new global C-car platform will have to cue up at our local Mazda dealer and test-drive the new Mazda3.
While Europeans are already tooling around the continent in the new Ford Focus C-MAX, those of us on these shores will have to settle for a muchfreshened version of the current car.
Mazda3 is the next-in-line to Mazda’s small car throne, following in the tracks of the Protege and 323, and the new car is a major step up for Mazda.
“Protege represents 33 percent of Mazda’s worldwide market,” says David Matthew, launch manager, Mazda3. “We’ve got to build a C-car that exceeds expectations in design and packaging, driving dynamics, quality, craftsmanship and ownership experience.” The Mazda3 shares its platform with the Focus C-MAX which went on sale in Europe in August of 2003 and the new Volvo S40 which hit showrooms in December 2003.
As part of Ford’s new global platform engineering strategy, all three marque’s engineering teams brought their specific areas of expertise to the product development party. Mazda focused on the powertrains, Volvo focused on vehicle chassis structure and safety and Ford of Europe focused on suspension. “That’s probably the most successful collaboration that we’ve had from an engineering standpoint,” says Matthews.
Mazda says that the new platform is 40 percent stiffer than the Protege. The body structure has extra upper body supports for greater rigidity and safety and a lower dash crossmember that’s unique in the C-car segment. The five-door has additional reinforcements in the tailgate area.
To further stiffen the chassis, three cross members beneath the floor tunnel reduce flex due to steering input and provide a strong linear steering feel.
|Both body styles share the same interior. Comfortable, supportive seats make for an enjoyable driving experience.|
|Optional sportshift 4-speed automatic offers quick up and downshifts.|
|Mazda3 shares many of its interior amenities with the Mazda6 including a lighted IP.|
The Mazda3 is larger both inside and out than the Protege. The wheelbase is just over an inch longer and the car has grown two inches in both width and overall length. While the sedan and five-door share the same platform, powertrain and interior, all exterior body panels are unique to each vehicle. The five-door has a muscular-looking hood sweeping from the door fronts down to the distinctive Mazda grille, planting it firmly in the RX-8 family. The front fenders stretch down over the 17-inch wheels and tires and the rear fenders have carved-in shoulders that add to the look of strength and keep the car from looking slab-sided while still using a tumblehome of only 20 degrees.
The sedan borrows design cues from its bigger siblings, the Mazda6 and RX-8, creating the appearance of an upscale small sedan like a Lexus or Infiniti.
“We wanted to create a strong C-car presence in the world,” says Hideki Suzuki, chief designer. Exterior fit and finish is comparable to Mazda6 and RX-8 and there was a concerted effort in the design direction to get the cars lower to the ground and to get the tires to fill the wheel wells.
“We’re really delivering it with a C-class car with 17-inch wheels, which is unheard of,” says David J. Dildy, Vehicle Line Manager for Mazda3.
The interior is first-rate for a car in this class. Plenty of attention was paid to fit and finish and the use of high quality materials. Dildy says that the focus was on simplifying the upper portion of the IP.
“When you work with a bunch of structure lines, you can’t repeat that in the production process,” Dildy says. “The simpler it is to make, the simpler it is to put together and it stays straight. It’s easily executable and repetitive.”
Mazda3 borrows several interior appointments from the Mazda6 and RX-8 like the illuminated instrument panel and center stack, as well as things like a dampened glovebox, a pocket for a toll tag transponder, bottle holders front and rear, two-stage center console and covered cup holders, things that are normally found a segment up.
The front seats are roomy and comfortable and the 60/40 split rear seat folds forward with no need to remove the headrests.
The new platform actually reduced the amount of front legroom, but Mazda says that a higher hip point not only increases visibility, but the more natural driving position doesn’t require as much leg room.
|The Mazda body-in-white, based on Ford’s global C-car platform uses extrabody supports in the center cage area (in red) for added safety and stiffness.|
Mazda says it’s working hard on exhaust gas recirculation. Both engines feature a stainless steel exhaust manifold that lights the cat a lot quicker and allows for a more efficient catalyst system, improving weight and fuel economy. The 2.3L four uses a variable-valve timing system similar to the one found in the Mazda6 engine and a dual-stage intake from the Mazda 6 and RX-8.
The Mazda3 comes standard with a 5-speed manual transmission. The optional 4-speed automatic is equipped with a sport-shift that changes gears 20 percent faster than previous units. Engineers reduced friction by straightening the shift cable.
The front suspension is a traditional Macpherson strut setup with liquid charged lower control arm bushings (similar to those in the Mazda6) and a 35mm piston in the strut. The position of the steering gear was lowered and the linkage was shortened to give good linear toe-control and minimal toe-out, improving stability.
Out back is Mazda’s patented Elink multilink suspension that’s also found on the Ford Focus. The Mazda3’s E-link is similar in design to the Mazda6 suspension. The spring is separated from the damper, creating better packaging and optimizing the camber control in the roll of the car. Mazda says that this car mimics the ride of the 6. “It’s a very untraditional front drive car,” says Dildy. “With the front and rear suspension working together, you don’t get the huge push in a very strong acceleration steering input like you do in a traditional front-drive car.”
|Base 2.0L engine uses lightweight pistons and connecting rods. The exhaust manifold is specifically tuned for a throaty exhaust note.|
The Mazda3 uses an electro-hydraulic steering system. The hydraulic pump that runs the power steering is powered by an independent electric motor, not connected to the power train. Dildy says that this method improves packaging around the front of the engine and by removing it from the powertain, reduces NVH. The system is similar to the one on the RX-8 though the RX-8 uses a fully electric system. The Mazda3 is available in three basic models and two distinctive body styles.
Mazdaphiles should be happy to note that the new cars will be priced the same as the cars they’re replacing. The 3i sedan with the 2.0L engine starts at $13,680 and the 3s sedan with the 2.3 L is basepriced at $16,405. The Mazda3 five-door is only available in one model, with the 2.3L engine, starting at $16,895. “That’s in keeping with what we did with Protege 5,” Dildy says.
The five-door comes fully equipped with 17-inch 205/50 Vrated all-season radials mounted on 17-inch alloy wheels. There are a few options that can be added like a power moonroof, in-dash 6-disc CD changer, leather interior, Xenon headlamps, navigation system and a tire pressure monitoring system that uses sensors but is not connected to the ABS system.
The base ‘i’ four-door sedan comes with 15-inch wheels and tires and can be built right up to a sport version with the same appearance options as the five-door.
The 3 will be built at Mazda’s Hofu plant in Yamaguchi, Japan, on line with the Atenza (Japanese Mazda6) and MPV minivan.
Mazda is looking to sell 70,000 units a year in the U.S. market with an estimated 40 percent of those being five-doors. Mazda predicts that about 50 percent of the total number will opt for the 2.3L. The cars will be on dealer lots in the first weeks of November with system fill coming by early December. The 3 should account for 25 to 30 percent of Mazda’s overall sales.