Despite Clown Face, Mazda 3 is Efficient, Fun to Drive

Njuguna Kabugi | 11/7/2012, 12:59 p.m.

As the price of gas climbs to $4 per gallon, Americans are increasingly adopting small cars as the primary family vehicle. The new breed of small cars, rather than being just cheap alternatives to larger cars, has emerged as a smart, desirable choice of transportation. This is in contrast to the last decade when Americans seemed to shun small cars, despite that these vehicles as a group were more affordable, easier to maneuver and more economical on gas.

For Mazda, building small cars that provide high levels of environmental and driving performance is the key to success. Today's test vehicle, the Mazda 3 is the Japanese automaker's most important vehicle. In the U.S., the small sedan/hatch accounts for close to 50 percent of Mazda's sales. In Canada, it is the best-selling car period; whereas worldwide, one out of every three Mazdas sold is a 3.

The Mazda 3 is available in two body styles: a sedan or a four-door hatchback. The sedan is offered in six trim levels - i SV, i Sport, i Touring, s Touring, i Grand Touring and s Grand Touring. The hatchback comes only in the four upper trims.

The Mazda3 was the first vehicle to feature the first application of the automaker's innovative SKYACTIV fuel-saving and performance-oriented technologies. Together these technologies increase fuel economy to a level similar to a hybrid drivetrain. No matter which Mazda 3 you buy, expect an impressive level of convenience and safety-related equipment for the money.

For our test, we drove the Mazda back-to-back for comparison with the Ford Focus. The Mazda and the Ford share much in common; they are both based on the same platform, whereas each automaker has added variations in power plant and transmission. The Focus and Mazda 3 both perform well, providing the driver with a sportier driving feel than you'll find in most other compact sedans and hatchbacks in this size and price range.

While the Ford has nicer creature comforts - a superb stereo, seating arrangements and interior materials, the Mazda is the champion on the road. If we ignore for a moment the Mazda's demented-clown face, the rest of the exterior is quite pleasant. In addition, its famous "Zoom-Zoom" advertising slogan counts in the department that many driving enthusiasts will appreciate.

Thanks to the 2.0-liter SkyActiv-G engine - along with all-new six-speed manual and six-speed automatic transmissions - Mazda now has a set of powertrains that simply work more precisely and responsively than what's offered in the Focus. The Mazda's accelerator responds more evenly; the brakes feel confident; and the steering feels more confidence-inspiring.

The Mazda 3 also excels in the safety department. For 2012, it has been recognized as a "Top Safety Pick" by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety [IIHS]. Both the sedan and hatchback models received the organization's highest possible crash safety rating of "good" in all four tests conducted.

For a consumer looking for an escape from the overly tech-laden cars of today, the Mazda 3 should be a first stop. The cabin, clothed largely in black hard plastic with a smattering of buttons, seems dated and some of the dash materials felt like the car was straight from another era. There's also nothing to match Ford's SYNC, or GM's OnStar systems in the Mazda 3.

The 3 i's midline touring trim with the SkyActiv powertrain starts at $19,495 for the manual sedan, plus another $850 for the auto. You should expect to get 40-mpg-highway and 28 in the city.