What's New for 2009
For 2009, all Mazda 3 models now come standard with antilock brakes, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. Also, four-door sedan models thankfully gain a standard remote trunk release on the keyless entry fob.
Cars are usually not like a fine wine: They don't get better with age. Normally, if you plotted a car's year-to-year sales, you would see a downward trend as the excitement of its introduction wanes and newer competitors debut. Not so with the 2009 Mazda 3, a car that's bucked this trend and actually enjoyed greater sales as time has gone on.
While it probably hasn't improved much since its introduction in 2004, the 3 hasn't needed to. Mazda's fine little compact is an example of a car done right. The 3 is akin to a successful indie movie: a good product that slowly gains attention thanks to positive word of mouth and Oscar buzz. In the Mazda's case, years of automotive awards, critical acclaim and positive ownership experiences finally generated the type of marketplace response the 3 has always deserved. This is one of the best cars in its class, and it's nice that people are finally taking notice.
Distinguished by taut, chiseled styling and handsome details inside and out, the Mazda 3 gives the impression of a junior sport sedan -- and it has the driving experience to back it up, thanks to its nimble handling, ample road feel and relatively peppy performance. In a consumer comparison test we conducted, six regular Americans touted the 3 as the most fun economy car to drive (pitted against the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla) and felt like they were in the "most control" when behind the wheel. Our editors are in complete agreement.
With available sedan and hatchback body styles, the Mazda 3 offers a nice practical variety for shoppers. The hatchback in particular should appeal to young families or college-aged folks in need of the occasional dorm moving van. Everyone, though, should appreciate the ample amount of standard equipment that comes with both trim levels, along with the luxury features available on the s Grand Touring. Few other compact economy cars offer such things as leather upholstery, heated power seats, xenon headlights and a seven-speaker stereo.
Of all the many economy car competitors, there are relatively few that can surpass the 2009 Mazda 3. In the aforementioned consumer comparison test, all but one "guest editor" chose the Honda Civic as their choice because of its comfier ride, more spacious interior and better fuel economy. All walked away very impressed by the 3, however, and more than one commented that it would be the best for younger drivers. We agree, as the sportier Mazda is more likely to appeal to younger and single car buyers. Another choice on the sporty end of the compact-car spectrum is the Mitsubishi Lancer, which is also worth a good look.
The Mazda 3 is going to be replaced by an all-new model for 2010. But even after six years on the market, the current car is showing no signs of age. Like fine wine or a quality indie movie (or "Sideways," an indie movie about fine wine), the 3 will continue to please for a long time.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The compact 2009 Mazda 3 is available as a four-door sedan and hatchback. The sedan is available in five trim levels: i Sport, i Touring Value, s Sport, s Touring and s Grand Touring. The hatchback, or "five-door," comes in only the s trims.
The i Sport comes standard with 15-inch steel wheels, a tilt/telescoping steering column, a 60/40-split rear seat with a center armrest, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, a four-speaker stereo with a CD/MP3 player, an auxiliary audio jack and pre-wiring for satellite radio. Air-conditioning and an exterior temperature display are optional. The i Touring Value trim adds 17-inch alloy wheels, foglights, full power accessories, keyless entry, cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, driver-seat height adjustment and six speakers.
The s Sport sedan gets 16-inch alloy wheels (the hatchback has the 17s), but both body styles feature a bigger engine, slightly different front and rear fascias, different interior trim and electroluminescent gauges. The s Touring adds 17-inch alloys on the sedan and body sill extensions. The s Grand Touring gains auto on/off xenon headlights, automatic rain-sensing wipers, automatic climate control, a six-way power driver seat, leather upholstery, heated front seats and a trip computer.
Optional on the Grand Touring are a navigation system (which includes satellite radio) and a seven-speaker Bose stereo with an in-dash six-CD changer. The CD changer and a sunroof are stand-alone options on all Mazda 3s except the i Sport.
Powertrains and Performance
The Mazda 3 i sedan uses a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 148 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed manual is standard, while a four-speed automatic with automanual override is optional. In performance testing, the 3 i with automatic went from zero to 60 mph in 9.8 seconds. Fuel economy for a similarly equipped 3 i rates an EPA-estimated 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway and 25 mpg combined, which is below class leaders. Opting for the manual gearbox improves efficiency by 2 mpg.
The Mazda 3 s sedan and hatchback get a 2.3-liter four-cylinder good for 156 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual is standard, while a five-speed automatic with manual shift control is optional. The 3 s with the automatic goes from zero to 60 mph in 8.6 seconds. Fuel economy with the automatic is an estimated 22 city/28 highway and 24 combined, which is about equal for compact sedans with similar power output.
Standard on every Mazda 3 are antilock disc brakes, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. Stability and traction control are standard on the s Touring and Grand Touring models, but not available on anything else.
In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration frontal-impact crash tests, the 2009 Mazda 3 scored four stars (out of five). In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety testing, the 3 received a "Good" rating (the highest out of four) in frontal-offset crash tests. The Mazda 3 has not yet been tested for side-impact safety when equipped with the now-standard side airbags and side curtain 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 good-quality 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 a navigation system, 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 headroom 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, which is on the small side, but the hatchback boasts 17 cubes behind its rear seat and 31 when the seat is 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 156 hp would suggest. The i trim's 2.0-liter engine is simply adequate and has the tendency to sound like a circular saw.
The 3's highway ride is smooth enough to please most commuters, although drivers who prefer softly sprung compacts like the Corolla might think the 3 is too firm. All told, the 2009 Mazda 3 has refined road manners that will likely surprise car shoppers expecting the unsubstantial ride quality and uninspiring handling typical of economy cars.