At one point in time, the 3-or-5-door hatch was as relevant to American highways as a Bugatti Royale (M. Bugatti built – we think – six). The take on hatchbacks among industry suits was ambivalence, believing the 3-or-5-door best suited to those just graduating from a note lot or moving – ever so gradually – to an adult trike. Basic transportation for basic needs was the conventional wisdom, turned on its head by the arrival of vehicles such as MINI’s Cooper and Mazda’s oh-so-excellent Mazda3. And if the 1st-gen ‘3’ rekindled the discussion, the 2014 Mazda3 – especially in hatchback form – effectively closes the deal; the hatch’s downmarket perception is effectively dead among everyone save the occasional suit.
With an ’05 Mazda3 still providing reliable transport for our extended family, I’ve been a fan of both the concept and its execution for roughly a decade. If memory serves, we gave our college-age daughter a choice: Scion xB, Ford’s Focus 5-door or the Mazda. Over eight years, 120K miles and roughly a ½ dozen zip codes, the Mazda is still supplying reliable, attractive and expressive service. Perhaps the key ingredient – beyond running – is its fun-to-drive factor. Although admittedly tough to quantify, you know it when you see it/feel it, and even a Mazda3 approaching its second decade continues to bring it.
This newest Mazda3, while offering more features and refinement, lacks the visceral appeal of the ’05. Our earlier drive – at the 2014 media launch – of a 2.0 liter/6-speed manual came closer to our expectation for the brand, but still wasn’t ‘on point’ relative to what we remember it delivering. So, to use our 1st-gen as inspiration and the all-new Mazda3 5-door as the platform, we’d suggest the following…
Lotus’ Colin Chapman probably wasn’t the first to adapt lightness to his design philosophy; only the most notable. And in an era marked by growing platforms purchased by an increasingly corpulent public, a return to Mr. Chapman’s design philosophy would seem more than timely. Mazda reportedly will follow this less-is-more dictum with its newest MX-5 Miata, but we don’t see much evidence of same with the latest Mazda3. To be sure, this isn’t the size creep we’ve seen in BMW’s 3-Series or Audi’s A4 (there’s been little weight gain, unless you opt for the 2.5 liter/auto combo of our test car), but the new Mazda3 sits on a wheelbase almost 2.5 inches longer than the earlier Mazda3. In point of fact, this ‘3’ would seem to be perfect for those of us that regarded the 1st-gen Mazda6 as, well, perfect.
To that end, we’re gonna’ keep our Mazda3 simple, deleting many of our Grand Touring’s comfort and convenience features. The power-adjustable driver’s seat can go, as can the electric moonroof and 18-inch alloys. Inside, the price point is reduced by taking leatherette out and returning to the Touring’s standard cloth. That trim does, however, retain leather on the more important touch points: steering wheel, shift and brake levers.
Notably, there’s a 200 pound weight difference between the Mazda3 with a 2.0 liter and manual trans and the 2.5 liter with mandatory automatic and Grand Touring trim. That, Faithful Readers, is a deal killer, and fully explains – at least anecdotally – why the 2.0 liter/six-speed is fun while the 2.5/auto is merely functional. Although the 2.5 four delivers 29 more horsepower than the 2.0, we’re thinking a less restrictive intake and catback exhaust can effectively halve that difference, giving us a real 170 horsepower out of the smaller powerplant’s 122 cubes of displacement.
The stock suspension is well controlled and comfortably damped, but (again) we’d ask for something more planted. We don’t need the mandatory discomfort of the current MazdaSpeed 3’s set-up, nor does our revised spec need to imitate the B-Spec Mazda2. A little firmer (ride) and flatter (cornering) would seem about right, along with a slightly lower ride height. In combination with 17-inch all-season rubber on simple – and light – alloy wheels, the end result should put us on the grittier side of grand touring.
With an all-in weight of under 2,800 pounds propelled by 170 healthy horses, our minimalistic Mazda3 5-door could recapture some of the original’s athleticism. And while lacking the ultimate performance of the next MazdaSpeed 3, it should also lack that vehicle’s upper-$20s Monroney. We think $22K sounds about right, leaving you 60 monthlies of under $100/week. You spend that at Starbucks, right?