Warren Clarke, Automotive Content Editor
The budget-priced 2008 Mazda 3 has long been heralded for bringing a touch of superstar athleticism to the everyman economy-car segment. The best athletes, whether they're Tiger Woods or Tom Brady, have an eerie sixth-sense gift for delivering precisely the sort of performance that's a perfect match for the moment. These demigods have pass cards to the VIP room known as "The Zone" -- that place where prowess is guided by nothing less than divine inspiration.
Mazda's 3 is such an athlete, and in a category known for being mostly unremarkable, its trophy-winning game sticks out like a bolt of silk on a bale of straw. Still, the car's enviable performance capabilities are just part of the picture. The 2008 Mazda3 also boasts an appealing list of standard features -- pretty sweet for a car at this Wal-Mart price point. Cabin design is also nice-looking -- not class-leading, but a step above the typical drab econobox fare.
This sedan is no rookie. It was introduced in model-year 2004 and hasn't received any significant updates in the years since. But the formula that powers the Mazda3 has proven potent enough to beat back newer contenders for its throne. Not all drivers will crown this sedan a winner. Its ride is on the stiff side, and this may be a deterrent for some. But if you're one of those motorists who view time spent behind the wheel not as a chore but more a savored indulgence, the 2008 Mazda3 i Touring Value merits a test-drive.
Powering the Mazda3 i is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine good for 148 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque. Our test car was equipped with the optional four-speed automatic transmission. This combo isn't the MVP in the 3's lineup; that honor belongs to the 156-hp 2.3-liter that provides the mojo for the sportier s-trim models. Additionally, Mazda offers a five-speed auto for those models. Still, during our time in the car, we never found ourselves hankering for an upgrade.
The car's acceleration times are solid for the segment, with the 3 i Touring sprinting from zero to 60 in 9.8 seconds. (Note: This time was achieved by using the transmission's manual-shift function; left in Drive, our test car was about a half-second slower.) The 3 screeched to a stop from 60 mph in a respectable 119 feet, and the car's brake pedal felt firm and intuitive, with a good initial bite. The 3's brakes withstood the rigors of performance testing well, with zero fade and only minor ABS noise. Its braking performance earned the Mazda3 a rating of "Very Good" from our test drivers -- an impressive feat for an economy sedan.
Great acceleration often translates into not-so-great mileage, and this is the case with the 3. In the area of combined fuel economy, we observed a figure of 23 mpg. The car's EPA city rating is 23 mpg, and its highway rating is 31 mpg. These numbers aren't horrible, but if fuel economy is a primary concern, others in this category -- such as the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla -- will be better suited for your needs.
On the skid pad, the Mazda3 managed an impressive 0.86g. Steering feel was very sporty, and it was easy for our driver to place the car and maintain its arc. The 3 was a superstar on the slalom, cresting a stellar-for-its-class 65 mph and offering the sort of responsiveness, agility and performance that places it head and shoulders above the norm in the economy sedan category. The car's superlative grip and balance make it fun to run through the cones. The 3 nabbed a "Very Good" rating from our evaluators in the area of skid pad and slalom testing.
Experienced on city streets and on the freeway, the 2008 Mazda3 offers results that live up to its blazing performance on the track. Steering is responsive and acceleration is brisk enough to make you do a double-take at the engine's somewhat modest horsepower rating. Even though automakers are increasingly installing five-speed automatics into economy cars rather than four-speeds, the Mazda's is a step above those offered by others in this segment, delivering shifts that are mostly fluid and intuitive. Ride quality will satisfy those who appreciate sporty connectedness, but may prove a tad coarse for those whose preferences veer toward a softer, more insulated driving experience.
The 3's cabin is accommodating. The sedan's tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel offers calibrations that allow for a wide range of adjustment, making it easy for most to find a workable position for the steering wheel. Height-adjustable seating adds even more breadth to the range of ergonomic options.
Rear-seat room is adequate, even for one editor whose height soars north of 6 feet. Like most cars with a rear seat, the 3 can house a rear-facing child safety seat, but to do so, the passenger seat needs to be pushed close to the dashboard in a way that seriously compromises front passenger legroom.
While not exactly noisy, this Mazda's cabin isn't quiet, either. The 3's engine can get pretty vocal when pushed, and some of this chatter makes its way into the cabin.
Visibility is adequate and controls are within reach and intuitively laid out. Predictability rules; the layout of the car's climate controls, for example, is identical to that of dozens of other economy cars, so you won't have to scratch your head trying to figure out what's what. We loved the fact that the car offers remote auxiliary audio controls on the steering wheel as a standard feature. Touches like this really serve to create an air of luxury.
Luggage capacity is at the bottom of the barrel in relation to others in its class. This is all relative, though; the trunk is big enough to swallow golf clubs (placed diagonally) and a suitcase, and will likely satisfy most people's hauling needs. We like the fact that the roof of the trunk is lined. A lined trunk is getting more and more common in economy cars, but it still stands out in our eyes for the air of refinement that it imparts.
Design/Fit and Finish
Alas, the aforementioned refinement isn't always in evidence throughout the 3's cabin. The main offenders are the car's storage bins, which are lined with removable strips of what looks like cheap Astroturf. The deep bin that lives in the car's center stack feels unfinished, with a tangle of edges. We long for the smooth surfaces and upscale aesthetics offered by competitors like the Volkswagen Rabbit.
Despite the fact that it's grown somewhat long in the tooth, the 3 still manages to look reasonably fresh relative to the competition. To our eyes, this Mazda manages to pull off the hat trick of understatement. Its crisp lines whisper its performance capabilities, without ever resorting to a jarring shout. Fit and finish is respectable all around.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2008 Mazda3 is an excellent choice for buyers in search of a fun-to-drive sedan that won't put a chokehold on the wallet. It's not the roomiest or most fuel-efficient choice in its segment, but when it comes to economy-priced performance, the 3 is undefeated.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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