HOLLYWOOD, CA: The 2014 Mazda3 is being called a game changer, which is exactly what the brand needs.
When it bowed 10 years ago, the Mazda3 was an immediate hit. With one of the best-looking shapes in the segment and signature “spirit of a sportscar” ride and handling, Canadians quickly sent Mazda from the middle of the compact pack to the top, threatening Honda Civic’s lock on Number One.
With the second generation, success made Mazda fearful of tampering with a winner, so they went conservative but it still sold well.
In fact, Canadians have bought more than 430,000 Mazda3s in the past decade. It also accounts for 50 per cent of all Mazdas sold worldwide.
But in the last two years, Mazda3 slipped from perennial Number Two to fourth spot behind Elantra and Corolla respectively.
So for the third generation, Mazda is being aggressive again, starting with the styling.
The 2014 adopts Mazda’s new Kodo design language. Seen from the side, the body looks like it is being thrust forward, but with the steeply raked windshield, it appears laid back at the same time.
It is, in my opinion, the most aero-looking compact car on the market, which is evidenced by a drag co-efficient as low as 0.255 (with available automatic radiator shutters), which markedly outdoes a Ferrari Italia (0.330).
Along with being the lightest car in the segment and the most aerodynamic, it is also one of the most fuel frugal and that is all part of what Mazda calls its Skyactiv design philosophy.
It is a suite of lighter platforms/engines/transmissions, lean-burn engineering, Formula One inspired engine architecture and energy saving/storing technology.
An example of the latter is i-Eloop — the world’s first capacitor-based brake energy regeneration system. It takes unused energy and converts it to electricity that is stored in the capacitor. It does not make electricity, but can be used to supplement the battery/lighting/air conditioning which means less fuel used to top up the battery.
Believe it or not, the capacitor is made with carbon from burned coconut shells and aluminum foil and can store enough “free” additional motive power to lower fuel consumption by five per cent in the real world.
There are two Skyactiv engines starting with a 2.0-litre inline four-cylinder with 155 hp and 150 lb/ft of torque and a 2.5-litre inline four-cylinder with 184 hp and 185 lb/ft of torque. The 2.5-litre is also available with the i-Eloop electric assist.
The 2.0-litre is found on the base GX and mid-range GS with a standard six-speed manual and optional six-speed automatic transmission. Fuel numbers are 6.8/4.8L/100 km city/highway for the manual and 6.7/4.8L/00 km for the automatic.
The 2.5-litre only comes with the automatic and fuel usage is rated at 7.2/5.0L/100 km and that improves to 6.8/4.9L/100 km when fitted with i-Eloop.
In typical Mazda fashion there are three trim levels with the GX and GS topped by GT offered in both sedan and five-door hatch. At the preview in California no prices were available but they will be announced by the time the 2014 goes on sale in September.
When it does arrive, the Mazda3 will offer technology that was unheard of in a compact car only a decade ago.
These will include such advances in safety such as i-Activsense that uses sensing devices such as milliwave radars and cameras to support the driver in recognizing hazards, reducing the possibility of collisions and minimizing damage should accidents occur.
Other available new safety technologies include a Lane Departure Warning System (LDWS), Forward Obstruction Warning (FOW), Mazda Radar Cruise Control (MRCC) and Smart City Brake Support (SCBS).
But if you think the exterior is exciting, wait until you get inside.
It starts where the driver sits. The instrument panel is conceptually divided down the middle at the right hand side of the steering wheel.
The left contains the main instrumentation or what the driver needs to operate the car. On the right is what the driver needs for climate/connectivity. Mazda sees this as taking secondary distraction away from the driver.
Also on the left of the centre console is a very Audi-like Human Machine Interface (HMI) that can, if you own a smart phone, give you just about any kind of information you will ever need.
The cars we drove in California did not have the system hooked up, so I can’t tell you yet how well it works.
But it let me concentrate on how it drives.
I have a Mazda3 at home and the steering is already great but the new one takes that up another big notch starting with suspension geometry canted forward seven-degrees like the MX-5 Miata for fast response. The electric power steering was massively reworked and, in my opinion, could be the most communicative on the market in the segment.
The 2.0-litre with super-slick manual is fun to drive, a bit like a Miata with a roof and back seat. As a commuter car, it’s hard to beat.
The 2.5-litre was different. With the i-Eloop engaged by a “Sport” button, the engine/drivetrain felt very strong. Entering bends, dabbed the brakes and hitting the gas was done with the Skyactiv stuff so finely integrated, it was more like a torque-rich electric car.
With the Miata-like front suspension, it went where pointed and without noticeable understeer one expects in a front-driver especially in the econocar class.
I was driving a prototype that would be similar to the GT with nice high-bolstered front seats which cup rather than pinch you.
But what I liked most of all was the spirit among the Mazda people I talked with in California. They were all smiling.
Mazda is a very small carmaker in the scheme of things, but there was this feeling of confidence that they are on the right track with Skyactiv, Kodo and maybe just a touch of good old Zoom-Zoom.
It couldn’t come at a better time.
Body Style: Mid-size sedan/hatchback
Drive Method: front-engine, front-wheel drive
Engine: 2.0-litre DOHC inline four-cylinder (150 hp, 155 lb/ft torque; 2.5-litre DOHC inline four-cylinder (184 hp, 185 lb/ft torque
Fuel Economy: (Regular) 2.0-litre manual, 6.8/4.8L/100 km city/highway; automatic, 6.7/4.8L/00 km: 2.5-litre automatic, 7.2/5.0L/100 km, 6.8/4.9L/100 km with i-Eloop.
Tow Rating: Not recommended
Cargo Volume: 350 litres
Price: Not available