Friday, April 11, 2014

Test Drive: 2014 Mazda3 S 5-door Grand Touring

Mazda has been on a roll, lately (aside from the recall involving the spiders). The Mazda6 is a stunning piece of rolling art and is easily among the most attractive sedans available to the general public in the market today. The latest generation of SkyActiv engines and transmissions have been a huge hit among consumers and the automotive press, who have praised the mix of power, smoothness, and fuel economy. With the 25th anniversary of the Miata coming up, it seems that Mazda is on the verge of being a serious competitor, if not for consumer's wallets, at least for their hearts and minds.

As a former Miata owner, I have a particular place in my heart for the little automaker that could. The Mazdaspeed3 has made my shortlist a couple of times for its combination of oh-shit-that's-a-lot-of-torque-steer power, hoon friendly handling, and surprising practicality. Each time, it was vetoed for the atrocious fuel economy, but it made it to the final round every time. The regular Mazda3, however, has gotten to benefit from the halo of its wild sibling and my general impressions of it have always been that it is a solid driver's car, if not exactly top of class in terms of its interior accouterments. Still, it is a bread and butter car for Mazda, so this latest redesign really needed to do something to capture more wallet share from the competition. Will its sleek new looks and loads of widgets do the trick?

Initial impressions of this new Mazda3 are generally very positive. The new corporate face, shared with its big brother the Mazda6, looks good, even when shrunk down to fit the smaller body. LED DRLs and the available HIDs offer a very upscale appearance to this small car, giving it an edge over the competition. The Titanium Flash Mica paint on our test car had surprising depth and luster, despite the overcast conditions, and is a color that I would not have expected to like as much as I did. The large 18-inch wheels fill the wheel wells and give the hatchback a properly aggressive stance that matches its overall demeanor.

Pop open the door and step into a shockingly premium feeling interior for its class. The materials are mostly of very good quality, though some hard plastics are still used in places, befitting the car's size-class. Some of the trim pieces have a bit of carbon fiber-look to them and are textured to the touch, but still come across as being decidedly fake, though not terrible to look at. One thing that was distinctively down market, however, was the the headliner, which both looked and felt terribly coarse.

The seats are comfortable, though adjustability is a bit limited and the driver's seat lacks memory function, which to me is a big no-no when it comes to power seats. If you are not going to offer memory function, then just give me a manual seat that I can easily adjust back to my exact liking without having to fiddle with it for 20-minutes. Despite this oversight, there is a lot of other interesting tech throughout the cabin. For instance, the HUD, that shows the car's speed as well as navigation directions, if a destination is set, on a small transparent panel that pops out of the dash when the car is started. It is genuinely useful and unobtrusive, although a bit low resolution at the moment, and will hopefully start the trend towards this technology being adopted by other manufacturers.

Of course, one cannot talk about tech without looking at the car's infotainment setup. The primary screen for all infotainment functions sits atop the center stack and looks like someone affixed a small tablet atop the vents. It is not the most integrated look, but seems to the trendy thing to do these days, a la the Mercedes CLA-class. That screen is a touchscreen, but a controller is also available between the front seats. Functionality wise, it is fairly intuitive and does not take long to get familiar with it, though the execution is far from perfect, as most of these systems tend to be at this stage. Nothing is glaringly wrong with the software, as it is relatively quick to react to inputs, but does take a few more steps than is ideal to access certain functions. The hardware, on the other hand, is fairly cheap feeling with a plasticky motion and decided lack of damping, making it feel like it was hastily put together at the last minute from off-brand toy parts.

In back, the nicer materials from the front pretty much disappear and passengers are surrounded by a sea of hard plastics, some of which has been covered in leather or leatherette to try to mask its unyielding nature. The space is adequately roomy, with plenty of head room and knee room for adult passengers even behind an above average height driver, though the seat itself is set too low to the ground, causing taller passenger's knees to have to be raised higher up and making them less than comfortable for anything more than a short jaunt around town. Behind those rear seats, which fold down flat, is a reasonably sized cargo area with enough space to carry stuff for a small family for a weekend out. With the seats folded down, it appears like there is plenty of room, though I suspect that my road bike will not fit back there without having to remove at least the front wheel.

Back in the driver's seat, I head out onto the road, letting the peppy 2.5L SkyActiv motor pull the lightweight hatch around with ease. Power is sent to the front wheels through a 6-speed automatic gearbox with paddle shifters. There is notably little exhaust noise, but the intake track is that of an unpleasantly anemic 4-cylinder econobox and a sharp contrast to the car's overall slightly more premium feel. Stay out of the revs, however, and the cabin noise is maintained at a reasonable calm, with acceptable levels of road noise coming from the low-profile tires. Brakes provide good feedback and are easy to modulate, but are otherwise unexceptional. They certainly are not going to stand up to serious abuse, but seem more than adequate for around town use.

Handing is very front wheel drive, which is to say there is plenty of understeer. However, I do not feel like the car's suspension is entirely to blame for this as the overriding sense I got from behind the wheel is that this car is chronically under-tired and would benefit from another 10-20mm of width or stickier rubber to better match the handling capabilities of the chassis. It just runs out of grip long before the chassis is even remotely upset. Unfortunately, the steering is not as good as the last generation car, with a slightly dead on-center feel, but is quite linear and is well weighted, if a bit slowly, as you apply any angle to the wheel. Luckily, the ride is pretty good, though leaning more towards the stiff side of the class. It is never uncomfortable, but never lets you forget this car's sporty intentions.

On the road, the car acquits itself well, but I cannot shake the feeling like there is something not quite right about it. This top spec package seems like it is a good balance of power, handling, technology, and practicality. Sure it could stand to get a bit of an upgrade in interior materials, but overall, it is a nice driving car and has several unique features that none of its competitors offer. So what is it that I cannot make sense of? Ah...yes...that's it: the price. This top spec, loaded out Mazda3 with the larger motor and 5-door body comes in at a staggering price point of nearly $28,000. And all that is before the optional Technology Package that adds radar cruise control, and Mazda's i-ELOOP regenerative braking technology. At that price, it is treading into territory that a lot of much larger vehicles play in and where a number of serious performance hot hatches reside. Sure the Mazda3 has some of them beat on amenities, but it cannot compete with others when it comes to pure performance.

So while this compact hatchback definitely feels a class above cars like the Corolla and Civic, it is also priced accordingly. And while it has a solid chance of beating out those cars by providing a greater value, it lacks the performance chops to go up against the VW GTI or Focus ST. Perhaps when Mazda decides to give this car the Mazdaspeed treatment, we will see a credible performance competitor. In the meantime, it is a decidedly upscale entry in the compact class with lots to offer those who are looking for all the latest gadgets in a smaller, more urban friendly package.

Tags: automotive, hatchback, Mazda, review, test drive