At first glance, the 2010 Mazda Mazda3 s Grand Touring appears to be merely a face-lifted version of the first-generation model. The proportions and measurements are about the same. The previous generation Mazda3 received much praise from the automotive press, so we naturally expected the 2010 Mazda3 to be fairly good for a compact economy car.
However, a closer look reveals more than just simple aesthetic updates for 2010. For example, there are the new swept-back headlamps in our Grand Touring model house HID projectors that move with the steering to better illuminate turns. Behind the 3's new jack-o'-lantern grin is a larger, more powerful engine. Meanwhile, the cabin tech package receives substantial upgrades by way of keyless entry and push-button start, a new navigation system, and better digital audio sources, including Bluetooth audio streaming and iPod connectivity.
However, the more things change, the more they stay the same. While the new 3 is a more comfortable compact car, it still managed to impress us with its peppy performance and balanced handling.
On the road
Our first experience with the 2010 Mazda Mazda3 s was when we were given an opportunity to pilot the hatchback around the Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, Calif. While the chassis showed promise, the suspension components and transmission did not. The combination of an automatic transmission that couldn't seem to find the right gear until we were already out of a corner, and a suspension setup that heavily favored understeer, made the Mazda3 was one of our least favorite cars for the day.
A track car, this is not.
However, when given a second chance on public roads, the 3 completely redeemed its self. The suspension was comfortable for long road trips and compliant over some of the Bay Area's roughest patches of highway. At the same time, the vehicle felt quite nimble and planted at legal-ish speeds.
While there was a bit of slop in the automatic transmission's shifts, changing gears was a smooth and relatively quick affair. The manual shift mode didn't seem to firm up or quicken the shifts considerably. However, it did let us downshift in preparation to pass or to take advantage of slight engine braking on steep incline, so the mode is not completely useless.
No, you wouldn't want to drive the Mazda3 on a racetrack and, if you spec the automatic transmission, even autocrossing is out of the question. However, it's still a vehicle that one could enjoy on a sweeping back road every once in a while.
Mostly though, our peek at the potential in the 3's chassis has our mouths watering for the upcoming Mazdaspeed3 variant, which should sharpen the performance considerably.
In the cabin
The Mazda3's cabin has undergone a transformation analogous to that of its exterior. Compared with the first generation, everything is more or less in the same place, yet the elements have been pushed, stretched, and massaged into a configuration that Mazda's designers and engineer think is more beautiful and functional. We're inclined to agree.
Soft plastic and leathers make up an interior that approaches (yet doesn't surpass) that of the Volkswagen Jetta. If we may be subjective for a moment, the Mazda's interior has a bit more character than the VW's, which some drivers may like.
The center stack has been split into two zones. At top center of the dashboard is the display zone where two LCD screens reside, one color and one monochromatic. Below that is a control zone where the audio controls and climate controls are located.
The monochrome screen displays climate control information and a single line of audio source information. The 4.3-inch color screen alternates between detailed audio source information, fuel economy information, and service intervals with each press of the steering wheel-mounted Info button.
Controls for the navigation also reside exclusively on the steering wheel. Pressing the Nav button activates the system. Pressing the enter button brings up a menu where addresses and points of interest can be chosen. Because there is no touch screen, destinations are entered one letter at a time with a rocker switch on the steering wheel, which is a bit tedious yet still tolerable, thanks to Mazda's predictive text function.
Like most Mazda navigation systems that we've encountered, destination entry and advanced menu functions can only be accessed while the vehicle is stopped. The system will let you, for example, find the five nearest gas stations to your current position or your destination, but will not let you scroll beyond the fifth if the vehicle is moving. A more convenient search option for long road trips would be searching along the chosen route, which would prevent going miles out of your way for the nearest point of interest.