Mike Schmidt, Vehicle Testing Coordinator
Hit the snooze button. Rub our eyes. Grab some snacks and head out the door. Don't forget a jacket. Today we test the 2010 Mazda 3 s Grand Touring.
Key in pocket, we climb behind the wheel. At this pre-dawn hour, the cabin remains dark until we shut the door. Crimson backlights bring life to the ringed gauges of the instrument panel. Before our eyes can adjust, the red hue spreads to the center stack, where a digital welcome invites us to Mazda's temple of zoom. Directly below, a horizontal blue band highlights the radio interface and continues south into the dual-zone HVAC dials.
Our introduction to the thoroughly revised and improved 2010 Mazda 3 culminates with a push of the start button.
Premium Thinking Mazda views this 2010 version of the Mazda 3 as an opportunity to enhance its existing recipe for the small sedan. Since the Mazda 3 is already the global leader in sales for Mazda, dramatic changes were deemed unnecessary. Instead, Mazda engineers have simply added value to the Mazda 3.
This has been the Mazda 3's position statement until now, of course, but now the program includes a larger-displacement engine, a stiffer chassis with a fine-tuned suspension, and an exterior shell that's been reshaped for function as well as style. All the while, Mazda has tried to preserve the sporty spirit that has set the Mazda 3 apart from its less ambitious rivals.
Add Amenities Our lanky frame appreciates the driving position afforded by an eight-way adjustable seat paired with a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel. We settle into the slightly larger sport seats of the Grand Touring version of the Mazda 3, and their modified bolsters secure us comfortably into position. Also new for the 2010 Mazda 3 s GT is a three-position memory feature for the driver seat, and with our settings saved, we spin the seat heaters to level five to take the chill off this dark winter morning and hit the road to the test track.
We approach the freeway on-ramp led by a pair of auto-leveling bi-xenon headlights, now standard equipment for the s-model Grand Touring. As we pitch the Mazda 3 into the ramp and press closer to the cornering limit of 0.82 g that the day's test protocol will later define, the adaptive system pivots the headlights to light our way. Adaptive headlights in a compact car are unexpected, let alone as standard equipment.
The ramp straightens out and we merge onto the freeway. The 60-mile trip to the track offers plenty of time for us to delve into the Mazda's multi-information display (MID). A full-color information display comes with the optional Technology package, and complements keyless entry, push-button start and satellite radio. Integrated with the MID is an optional compact navigation system with controls mounted on the steering wheel. Its display screen is smaller than others in the segment, yet this makes it more cost-effective to manufacture, so Mazda expects the system to run about $500, which will enable it to be competitive with portable nav units from the aftermarket.
Add a Zoomy Shape We top off the 15.9-gallon fuel tank with regular unleaded, pull into our test facility and park the Mazda atop the scales. Only now in the morning light do we really get to look over our Celestial Blue Mazda 3. It's slightly longer from bumper to bumper to accommodate a larger fuel tank and the s-model's unique muffler design. The character lines of the hood and body sides have been redrawn to reflect the lineage of the Mazda family face, something that has been successfully established by the RX-8, CX-7, CX-9 and now the Mazda 6. But we can't stop staring at the Mazda 3's grille. It's hideous.
Special attention has been paid to develop the Mazda 3's prominent new beak, and it's functional. The design actually limits airflow to the engine compartment to only what's truly necessary for cooling and combustion, and the result is a lower coefficient of aerodynamic drag. A guide incorporated into the front bumper directs air into the radiator. Meanwhile, a bypass flap opens at high speed to minimize the drag of the cooling fan behind the radiator, while subtle deflectors in the fenders improve airflow around the tires. So for all the visual challenges of the Mazda 3's new grille, the end result is a 0.29 Cd, one of the lowest drag coefficients in the compact class.
Efforts to lighten the vehicle led Mazda engineers to the chassis. By replacing key areas with high-tensile steel, increasing the rigidity of the attachment points and adding structural adhesive, bending rigidity has increased 7 percent, while weight has decreased by 24 pounds. Our tester still weighed in at a hefty 3,035 pounds, with 61 percent of that weight over the front tires. That is 200 pounds heavier than the last Toyota Corolla we tested and 100 pounds more than the most recent Honda Civic. We drive off the scales and pop the hood.
Add an Engine We safety check the vitals before sending the 2010 Mazda 3 through a series of straight-line tests. This new 2.5-liter MZR inline-4 is up 11 horsepower and 18 pound-feet of torque from the 2.3-liter MZR of the 2009 Mazda 3. It also happens to be the same engine used in the 2009 Mazda 6. It generates 167 hp and 168 lb-ft of torque, and this four-banger doesn't redline until 6,200 rpm. From a standstill, the new 3 hits 60 mph in 7.9 seconds (7.6 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and crosses the quarter-mile light in 15.8 seconds at 88.03 mph.
Throttle response and power are commendable for a car in the compact segment. At the same time, when the car is pushed to its limits, the otherwise crisp-shifting six-speed transmission can be cumbersome. Our test driver had trouble convincing the stick to engage 3rd gear during a couple of acceleration runs.
Brake testing is next. Mazda updated the system with a vacuum booster designed to provide a more linear pedal response under light-effort braking. The electronic brakeforce distribution has also been recalibrated to improve handling during hard braking and extreme cornering maneuvers. But when it came time for the Mazda's four-wheel discs to shine, they didn't. The Mazda 3 requires 127 feet to come to a stop from 60 mph, and we've tested a 2009 Corolla with rear drums that needed only 125 feet to complete the same task. We suspect the Mazda's overall weight probably plays a role here.
Add a Suspension As the Mazda shows its stuff through the slalom and around the skid pad, its superior chassis and suspension design take center stage.
The previous-generation Mazda 3 earned our praise for its steering feel and sound body control, and some minor refinements for 2010 ensure that it keeps its personality intact. Its electrohydraulic-assist rack-and-pinion steering gear is now bolted down in three locations (one more than the previous year) to minimize vibration over rough pavement. Recalibrated dampers and relocated antiroll bars improve body control without adding harshness. And the aforementioned upgrades in chassis rigidity work in sync with these suspension alterations to offer excellent handling balance and nicely weighted steering effort through the slalom. The 2010 Mazda 3 records 68.2 mph, a speed identical to the last Honda Civic Si we tested. That is impressive.
We pull the Mazda 3 over to the skid pad and begin our first lap. Well-balanced and highly responsive to throttle input, this sedan handles more like a sports car than an affordable compact car. Its 17-inch Yokohama Avid all-season tires wrestle with freeway expansion joints, but around the smooth surface of the skid pad they grip without distraction to a limit of 0.82 g. Again, the Mazda holds true to its dynamic lineage.
Keep the Heritage With a scent of burned rubber and brake pads in the air, our test day comes to an end. We pack our bags, grab our jacket and head for home.
Mazda has changed the 2010 Mazda 3 without changing its attitude. New ingredients improve its dynamic make-up without compromising the spirit we loved so much in the outgoing model. We expect Mazda also won't compromise when it comes time to announce pricing on the Mazda 3 early next year. It should be comparable to its predecessor.
We appreciate the effort to refine products. But when a redesign is scheduled simply because the product life cycle suggests it's time, the customer usually pays the price for a car that's different but not better. The 2010 Mazda 3 is an example of doing it right. Every improvement here reflects a functional purpose. Of course, as the Mazda 3's grille also proves, sometimes functional isn't always attractive.
Vehicle Testing Assistant Mike Magrath says: You know what they say about assuming, don't you? Well, I've got to raise my hand and admit that when it came to the 2010 Mazda 3, I made an ass out of me.
I just had this crazy misconception that new cars should be better than the cars they replace. Mazda can talk all day about the chassis stiffening and additional bolts on the steering system and new vacuum booster on the brakes, but at the end of the day, these things need to matter.
In the 2010 Mazda 3, they don't. It's a nice car — a good car, really — but the brakes seem to be less effective than the ones in the car it replaces. The slalom speed is slower than the car it replaces. The exterior is, to put it lightly, stupid and busy. It's a new car, and while it is appreciably faster, there's just not enough here to justify the redesign.
Personally, I was waiting for the 2010 Mazda 3 with real anticipation. It was in top contention for my next car, but after driving this one, I've driven to my local Mazda dealership and talked numbers on a 2009 Mazda 3 five-door. Turns out that now's a great time to buy a 2009 Mazda 3. But don't get the pearl-white hatch with cloth upholstery and no sunroof. That one's mine.
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