2004 Mazda 3 Road Test

2004 Mazda 3 Road Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

2004 Mazda 3 Hatchback

(2.3L 4-cyl. 5-speed Manual)

Measuring Success

The Mazda 3 is the latest in a line of nifty, often distinctive vehicles.

My first exposure to a Mazda came early one morning as I pedaled my Schwinn Stingray through the narrow streets of a mobile home park in Roseville, Calif. I was the "paperboy" for that small neighborhood where I delivered the now-defunct Sacramento Union. It was about 5:30 a.m. and a little foggy, and the sun was up barely enough to see well. As I rode in and out of rows of old trailers and double wides that had become semi-permanent homes, I spotted a car I had never seen before. At that age, I thought it was great fun to see if I could name a car before I was able to read the name or see the insignia.

So there was this car that I couldn't name — it didn't look all that different than the Toyota Corolla, Plymouth Cricket and Datsun 510 sedans and coupes that lined the streets and carports of the little community. "Maybe it's something new," I thought. Turns out, it was a Mazda RX-3. Maybe it wasn't that new, but it was new to me. I was especially impressed with the cool-looking logo and its stylized M. As I later learned, the RX-2 and later RX-3 were impressive for reasons far beyond their neat-looking logos.

Cool as they were, one could argue that those early rotary-powered cars were not wildly successful. Sure, success is measured in different ways but in the automotive world, the bottom line is often just that, the bottom line. Sure, companies must be financially successful in order to remain in business, but there are other ways of measuring success. Cars like the abandoned Millenia S, RX-8, new Mazda 6 wagon and the long-gone rotary-powered pickup are all indicators that Mazda really believes in building interesting and alternative vehicles.

So it is with great interest that we observe cars like the 2004 Mazda 3, as it will likely be an indicator of how the public perceives the Mazda brand in the new era of great cars that are often very affordable. Certainly cars like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla are segment leaders in terms of both sales and quality, and no one can deny that Korean brands like Kia and Hyundai have forever changed the landscape of the compact car segment. Still, it is possible that Mazda has something to offer that its competition doesn't. In a 2003 comparison test of economy sedans, the Mazda Protegé came in third out of eight competitors. Many of our editors praised the Protegé's smart styling, fun handling and value proposition, but it lacked the power, refinement and value of the top two finishers. With the new Mazda 3, we expected the same fun-to-drive characteristics, but we wondered if it would take the next step toward challenging the class leaders.

From a styling standpoint, we would call the Mazda 3 a success. The sedan especially is very tight-looking and well proportioned. It has a definite European look that other cars in its class just don't have. The five-door model looks more like a hatchback than its predecessor, the Protegé5, so if you prefer more wagonlike styling, the 3 might be disappointing in the design department. Still, the five-door does offer an impressive cargo area that seems big given the car's overall dimensions, but with just 17.1 cubic feet of cargo capacity behind the rear seats, it is not as big as the Toyota Matrix or Chrysler PT Cruiser. Both of those vehicles offer just over 21 cubic feet of luggage capacity. On the plus side, the Mazda's rear seats fold down easily in a 60/40 split. Despite the unimpressive cargo capacity figure, the Mazda 3 is probably bigger than most people would guess. This is no cramped econobox, as it has a longer wheelbase than the PT Cruiser, Matrix and Subaru Impreza wagon. Of those three vehicles, only the Matrix is wider, and that is by less than an inch.

Inside, the first thing that jumps out is the dash arrangement. The instrumentation looks upscale and the controls impart a real sense of quality whenever buttons and switches are engaged. Chrome-rimmed gauges add a sporty flair and amber lights provide some color. Otherwise, the dash is rather monochromatic and, despite flashes of metallic-looking trim, lacks real pizzazz.

The center stack is arranged in a simple, logical manner, though it's a little flat and doesn't have graceful or flowing lines. The red inserts that surround some of the round knobs add a sporty, modern flair. There are also these really cool lights that brighten up as you raise or lower the stereo volume. It doesn't serve any purpose nor does it communicate any real information, but it is kinda fun-looking — not something we're used to in this price range (outside of a Scion showroom anyway). The front seats are reasonably comfortable and hold you in place quite nicely, but a few more adjustment options would be nice. Both the front and rear seats are covered with a durable woven clothlike material. The only drawback is that our test car had black cloth seats with a blue tint (the only available colors are black leather and blue/black cloth on the five-door) and the material was rather hot and didn't seem to breathe all that well. The rear seats offer surprisingly ample leg- and hiproom. Two adults can sit comfortably for even an extended trip.

Under the hood is a 2.3-liter inline four that provides 160 horsepower, a solid number for the category and considerably more than the previous model. This engine is the only one offered in the five-door, but the sedan can be had with a less expensive, and less powerful, 148-hp 2.0-liter unit. In real-world situations, the 2.3-liter is quite peppy and caught some of us by surprise with its delivery of ample and linear power. If anything, the engine is more torquey than expected (it's rated at 150 pound-feet), and the result is that the car feels quick off the line. Mazda's sporting intentions are not lost on us. The bottom line is that it's a smooth motor that offers composure (even at higher rpm) befitting a more expensive vehicle.

Getting the power to the front wheels is a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual. The automatic transmission in our test car handled the available power well and provided smooth, almost seamless upshifts. Downshifts were equally imperceptible, and the manual mode offered some fun but lacked the precision of similar automanual modes in more expensive cars. That said, we did clock our best 0-to-60-mph time of 9.1 seconds by using the manual mode, a time that would have placed it second out of eight in our previous comparison test. With the 2.3-liter engine, the Mazda 3 has EPA fuel economy ratings of 25 mpg city/32 mpg highway.

On the road, the Mazda 3's chassis matches the composure of the engine. The ride is firm and tight without being busy. Handling is excellent and our test driver through the slalom commented that the car has "communicative steering and chassis," which makes it easy to control. The five-door Mazda 3 offers 17-inch wheels as standard and they're shod with grippy V-rated tires. The car also serves up a four-wheel independent suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars. All Mazda 3s come standard with four-wheel disc brakes.

We found the 3's braking to be excellent as well and our editor in chief commented, "Like the rest of the vehicle, the 3's braking ability is beyond what most economy car buyers need. Kudos to Mazda!"

This car offers an impressive list of performance features, especially when you consider that everything I've mentioned thus far is standard equipment on the five-door. Thankfully, all these performance-enhancing features don't compromise the smooth and quiet interior. At highway speeds, the car remains reasonably quiet with the majority of the noise coming from the engine. Once the transmission settles into fourth gear (on the automatic), the engine really quiets down leaving only a hint of wind noise.

There are plenty of good budget-priced sedans and wagons on the market, but the Mazda 3's strong suit is value-minded performance. This is a pretty sporty little car and the price is right in line with the competition. Priced less than a Subaru Impreza and PT Cruiser, but slightly more than a Toyota Matrix, the Mazda 3's price is neither too high nor too low when you add similar features to the competing vehicles. Although we generally liked the Mazda Protegé, the Mazda 3 improves on its predecessor in key areas like engine power and refinement while maintaining a roomy interior, sporty handling, subtle good looks outside and solid build quality inside.

We feel the Mazda 3 can successfully compete against similarly priced cars from Honda, Toyota and Ford. Honda, of course, does not offer a five-door or wagon version of the Civic, so if that's what you need you'll have to focus your shopping on cars like the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback, Subaru Impreza, Suzuki Aerio SX and Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe. Regardless of whether you're thinking about getting the sedan version or the five-door hatchback, the 3 is a solid performer that should be considered near the top of the list of anyone shopping in the economy car segment. Success is measured in many ways, but the 2004 Mazda 3 has the potential to further the company's reputation with enthusiasts and achieve sales success as well.

Second Opinions:

Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
Mazda is probably the most underrated of the Japanese automakers right now. The company had a strong run in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the introduction of the Miata being an obvious high point. Then, the company sort of lost its way, and lost many of its fans in the process. Now in 2004, Mazda is consistently making some of the most desirable cars in every segment in which it competes (if it seems like the obvious inference is that I wish they competed in still more segments, you're right!).

The Protegé was already one of the best economy cars sold in America, particularly if driving excitement and compelling design were your priorities. Now the 3 resets the bar for Mazda even higher, while simultaneously nuking such stalwarts as the Civic and Corolla. The car has more style, passion and functionality than either the Honda or Toyota offering. The interior layout manages to impart both a premium and performance theme, despite the car's low price tag, and the seat comfort is among the best I've experienced in a sub-$20,000 vehicle (though legroom can be tight if you're over six feet tall). The drivetrain is near Honda-like in refinement but offers all the power you would expect from this segment. I drove the car at night and did feel the red gauge lighting was a bit too bright. The color itself didn't bother me, but it was somewhat distracting due to its neonlike glow, and the dash lighting adjustment dial did little to douse it. Yet, this is a minor annoyance for what has to be one of the most enjoyable cars you can buy without a BMW or Mini badge on the hood.

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
Driving the Mazda 3 reminded me a lot of driving a Volkswagen Jetta. Much like VW's excellent 1.8T power plant, Mazda's 2.3-liter makes the car feel spunky, even with an automatic transmission. This is one quasieconomy wagon that never feels short on passing power. The ride quality is smooth though not as forgiving as that of a stock Jetta, a Ford Focus or a Toyota Matrix. But given the 3's level of handling, a small loss in comfort is a fair trade. I veered off my normal freeway route to the office onto a winding canyon pass and my mood immediately brightened, thanks to the car's responsive suspension and steering, and excellent body control. It was a lot like driving a Jetta with a sport-tuned suspension, only the Mazda felt lighter and tighter. Annoyed that I'd passed him on one of the turns, a Mercedes CL600 driver finally floored it from a stoplight. The 3's four-cylinder engine was no match for his V12, of course, but he quickly had to get on the brakes to prepare for the next curve — whereupon he was foiled again by the small blue hatchback.

Inside the cockpit, the 3 has just about all the style of the Mazda 6 and RX-8, including the signature red backlighting and some unique blue shading around the gauges. Although most of the materials look great, some of them don't feel that way — the hard plastic dash, the cardboard-type headliner and the rough stitching on the leather-wrapped wheel are the main signs of cost-cutting. I was quite fond of the two-tone mesh seat upholstery, though, and the cupholders are some of the best you'll find in this class. The 3 is not a car that I would recommend to taller people. I'm only 5-foot-10, and I had to use all the seat-track travel and lower the seat-bottom cushion to find a good position behind the wheel. Shorter drivers will like the fact that the wheel telescopes, though. Even with the driver seat all the way back, there was still adequate room for me to sit in back (meaning that Mazda could have offered more seat-track travel in the front). Additionally, rear-seat passengers will have plenty of foot room under the front chairs. This, along with the deep bench and nicely contoured back cushion, makes this one of the better backseats in the segment.

Ultimately, I'm a sucker for Mazda styling (inside and out) and driving dynamics, but I'd probably try to swing a deal on a four-cylinder Mazda 6 hatchback over the 3 to get some more legroom and cargo space. For anyone who doesn't need the extra room, though, the 3 should be an entertaining choice.

Consumer Commentary:

"I almost bought a Mazdaspeed Protegé, but after the dealer convinced me to test-drive the 3, I was hooked! It is almost as fast as the MS Protegé, handles on par (for my tastes at least) and doesn't ride like it is a go-kart. Add to that the fact that I got features like xenon headlights, 6-disc CD and a moonroof for $2,000 less than the MSRP, which didn't even offer those features! It is a great car that seems to be well built. I highly suggest buying one!"— Mjd926, March 25, 2004

"The Mazda 3i is a great car. We test-drove the Civic, the Focus and the Sentra … the 3 was by far the better of these choices. It drove better, rode better, had better pickup and better features … all for less money than the others comparably equipped. The 5-speed is a must … this makes the car the ultimate in zoom-zoom!" — mbreed8813, March 24, 2004

"What a fun car to drive. The sport A/T is great. If you are sitting in traffic, just stay in auto. If you want to have some fun, you can shift yourself. I'm having a great time driving this car and it didn't break the bank." — terrymckenna, March 24, 2004

"Love at first sight was just the beginning. Sunlight Silver, black leather interior, moonroof! What more could I say? The car just purrs like a kitten and is so silky-smooth when accelerating I just have to keep an eye on the tach. As for the hugging around bends and corners, off/on ramps…. just blew me away. 17-inch wheels and this car were meant to be. Even at highway cruising speeds this car is such a pleasure and a dream to be a part of I just can't say more." — rickssr, March 21, 2004

Stereo Evaluation:

System Score: 8.0

Components: Our test vehicle came with an optional six-disc changer that loads the CDs right into the dash. This system includes six speakers, as well as steering wheel-mounted audio controls that are really helpful even though the center stack is within easy reach. As an added feature, there are little amber lights that light up as you raise or lower the volume. It serves no other purpose than to look cool, and it does just that.

Performance: This is a surprisingly stout sound system for a car that is priced under $20K. Nice bass response. The highs are bright and clear and never squeak as the volume is raised. The usual Achilles' heel on these budget-priced cars is that the sound systems lack midrange. While this system isn't as perfect as the Harman Kardon setup that is optional on the Mini Cooper (the current apple of our eye when it comes to low-priced audio offerings), it is still a really good stereo. With six speakers and a moderately sized cabin, sound coverage is excellent as well.

Best Feature: Clean, clear sound across the board.

Worst Feature: Some buttons are on the smallish side.

Conclusion: A really good sound system, especially considering the car's low price. This stereo is the perfect exclamation point to a really fun and spunky car. — Brian Moody

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