Full 2008 Mazda MAZDA3 Review
What's New for 2008
Front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags are now standard on all 's' trim levels.
Now in its fifth year in production, the Mazda 3 continues to show that you don't have to pay a lot to own a sport sedan. Available in stylish hatchback and sedan body styles, the 3 brings a lot to the table in terms of driving excitement and available luxury features while also providing the roominess and thrift expected from today's economy cars. If a sporty drive and getting a lot for your hard-earned cash are top buying priorities, the Mazda 3 should be at the top of your test-drive list.
There are two engines available with the 3, a 140-horsepower four-cylinder in i trim levels and a more powerful 156-hp version in s trim levels. The hatchback, or five-door, is available only with the larger power plant. Both of these engines are smooth and punchy and provide the 3 with plenty of giddy-up -- particularly with the larger 2.3-liter. Neither returns particularly good fuel economy, though, with the Honda Civic besting the Mazda in this regard by about 10 mpg both in the city and on the highway. Mileage is, however, on par with other sporty compact cars like the Subaru Impreza and Mitsubishi Lancer.
The 2008 Mazda 3 is also distinguished by taut, chiseled styling and a handsome interior that hint at the car's athletic personality. A sign of a great design is typically one that doesn't require a sizable midlife refresh, and true enough, only minuscule changes have been made to the 3 over the years. This year, the only updates are the addition of front-seat side and full-length curtain airbags to all s trim levels. This lack of some standard safety features had been a problem in the past, and with items like antilock brakes remaining an option on the i trim level, it still is.
Otherwise, the 2008 Mazda 3 comes very well-equipped, particularly on the s models, as the s Touring and s Grand Touring trim levels come standard or can be equipped with features like 17-inch wheels, xenon headlights, heated leather seats, automatic climate control, moonroof, satellite radio, Bose stereo with in-dash CD changer and a navigation system. Any one of these features would be considered noteworthy in this class of sedan, let alone all of them together.
Plenty of compact sedans and hatchbacks have been introduced since the 3 dawned in 2004, but the little Mazda continues to be a top choice in this segment. In fact, it had been an Edmunds.com Editor's Most Wanted for three straight years until 2007 -- and even then, it still received honorable mention status. The car that supplanted it, the Honda Civic, is its main competition, offering sporty handling, avant-garde styling and much better fuel economy. But for those looking for something a little less ubiquitous and a whole lot of fun, the 2008 Mazda 3 remains the cheapest way to own a new sport sedan.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The compact 2008 Mazda 3 is available as a four-door sedan or hatchback. There are five trim levels available for the sedan: i Sport, i Touring, s Sport, s Touring and s Grand Touring. The hatchback/wagon ("five-door") comes only in the s trims. All i sedans have a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, a 60/40-split-folding rear seat with center armrest and a CD stereo with an auxiliary audio jack. The i Touring trim adds 16-inch alloy wheels, air-conditioning, cruise control, an upgraded stereo, keyless entry, a height-adjustable driver seat and full power accessories. Mazda 3 s models come with all of the above, plus the larger engine, special interior and exterior trim, foglights and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls. The s Touring adds 17-inch alloys and body side sills to the mix, while the top-line s Grand Touring provides leather upholstery (optional on Touring), heated seats, automatic climate control, automatic xenon headlights, rain-sensing wipers and a trip computer. Options include an in-dash CD changer, satellite radio, a moonroof and, for the Grand Touring versions, a navigation system.
Powertrains and Performance
All i sedans use a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine rated at 148 hp and 135 pound-feet of torque, while s models use a 2.3-liter four-cylinder rated at 156 hp and 150 lb-ft. Both engines come standard with a five-speed manual transmission. A four-speed automatic with an automanual mode is optional on i models, while s models upgrade to a five-speed automatic with automanual mode. In our test of a 3 Grand Touring sedan with the 2.3-liter engine and automatic transmission, the Mazda did the 0-60-mph sprint in 8.6 seconds. 2008 EPA fuel mileage estimates for the 2.0-liter engine with the four-speed automatic are 23 mpg city and 31 mpg highway, while the 2.3-liter with the five-speed auto gets 22 mpg city and 29 mpg highway.
Standard on all 2008 Mazda 3s are four-wheel disc brakes, but one must typically go to upper trims or pay extra to get the latest safety features. Antilock brakes, front-side and full-length curtain airbags are optional on the i trims and standard for everything else. Stability control is available only on the s trim levels. In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration frontal-impact crash tests, the 3 scored four stars (out of five). It received three stars in that agency's side-impact tests. In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety testing, the 3 received a "Good" rating (the highest out of four) in frontal-impact crash tests but got a "Poor" rating (the lowest) in that agency's side-impact crash test. It should be noted that all of the above side-impact tests involved a Mazda 3 without side airbags.
Interior Design and Special Features
Especially in s Touring and s Grand Touring forms, the Mazda 3 features a distinctive and upscale interior design that looks far richer than its price would suggest. Controls are straightforward and work with precise action, while high-grade materials and tight build tolerances further the initial sense of impressive quality. Plus, with available luxury features like heated leather seats, automatic climate control and navigation, one can equip this economy car like a budget luxury sport sedan. Even taller drivers will find plenty of room in this compact car's front seat, with generous head and legroom, aided by a telescoping steering wheel. The rear seat is a little snug for larger adults, but those of average height will find a decent amount of space. Sedans offer 11.4 cubic feet of trunk space, while the hatchback boasts 17 cubes behind its rear seat and 31 when it's folded.
Consistent with its upscale interior, the Mazda 3 tends to drive like a much more expensive sport sedan. Thanks to its performance-oriented chassis tuning, the 3 rewards the driving enthusiast with quick and communicative steering, a lack of discernible body roll and lots of grip on twisty blacktop. The s trim level's 2.3-liter engine is smooth and zippy, feeling quicker than its 155 hp would suggest. At the same time, the highway ride is smooth enough to please most commuters, although drivers who prefer softly sprung compacts like the Corolla might think the 3's too firm. All told, the 2008 Mazda 3 has refined road manners that will likely surprise car shoppers expecting the flabby ride and uninspiring handling typical of economy cars.