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.
While the automatic transmission was a liability on the track, it proved to be an asset on the street.
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.
Entering destinations character by character can be a tedious endeavor.
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.
Mazda's Bluetooth hands-free system is accessible via voice control using more steering wheel-mounted buttons. As was the case with previous Mazda systems, there are no onscreen controls so you'll need to listen closely to the voice prompts to know what to say to, for example, pair a new phone.
This time around, the Bluetooth connection sports a new trick: A2DP audio streaming. Using this wireless protocol, compatible music phones and MP3 players will be able to stream audio through the Bose audio system with nary a wire.
Audio quality from the 10-speaker premium Bose system was quite good, with a powered subwoofer supplying the bass-heavy sound that we've come to expect from Bose systems. However, the bass is tight, controlled, and does not overpower the delicate highs and strong midrange sounds. Centerpoint Surround uses a discrete center-channel speaker to enhance stereo separation for front seat passengers, staging the music directly ahead of the passenger, instead of at the center of the windshield.
In addition to Bluetooth audio, users can connect to a center console auxiliary input, listen to AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio, or pop up to six CDs into the MP3 compatible in-dash changer.
Also available as a dealer-installed option is an iPod/iPhone interface cable for direct access to your iPod's music. One minor complaint about the iPod connectivity is that while the system lets you choose artists, albums, and genres, it doesn't nest its taxonomy. For example, on an iPod you can chose an artist, then an album, then a song. With the Mazda system, choosing an artist results in an alphabetical list of every song on the iPod by the artist, which can be annoying to people who like to listen to complete albums.
People who wan to bring mass storage devices or other non-iPod MP3 players along for the ride will be out of luck, as the Mazda3 offers no USB connectivity option that we could find.
Under the hood
For 2010, Mazda has bumped the Mazda3's 2.3-liter inline-four up to 2.5-liters of displacement, which also bumps output to 167 horsepower and 168 pound-feet of torque. The torque gains are where the new 3's improvement can be best felt, adding more grunt to the midrange powerband for more confident acceleration. The Mazda3's 2.5-liter can also be had in a PZEV flavor, for states with stricter emissions laws. The price paid for a cleaner tailpipe is only 2 horsepower and 1 pound-foot of torque, which sounds like a deal to us.
The 2.5-liter engine provides adequate power and smooth acceleration.
While the four-door Mazda3 can be equipped with a smaller 2.0-liter engine, the five-door model is only available with the more powerful 2.5-liter.
We haven't had an opportunity to test the six-speed manual transmission available to the Mazda3 s. Instead, our tester was equipped with a five-speed automatic box with manual-shift mode. Fortunately Mazda's automatic transmission is actually quite good compared with most of its competition and does a fine job of zipping us around at low to moderate city speeds. The tall fifth gear, combined with the extra torque of the bigger engine, allows for quiet highway cruising at low RPMs.
The EPA estimates that the Mazda3 s will get 22 miles per gallon city and 29 highway mpg with the transmission that shifts for you. Despite being down one gear, the automatic transmission manages to beat the manual's fuel economy by 1 city mpg, while matching it on the highway.
Say what you will about the 2010 Mazda3 5-door's new aesthetic, but the fit and finish of the vehicle--particularly this leather-trimmed Grand Touring model--is top notch.
We also found the Mazda3 s Grand Touring's performance to be quite pleasing, despite our initial rough start at the track. The small changes to the vehicle's power train and handling amount to a much more grown-up feeling compact car.
In the cabin, we were also surprised by the unorthodox manner in which Mazda chose to integrate its cabin tech, particularly the smaller, center-dash mounted navigation display and its steering wheel-mounted controls.
As tested, our Mazda3 s Grand Touring is $24,960 and includes $1,395 for the Moonroof/Bose Audio package, $1,195 for the Technology/Navigation package, $200 for Crystal White Pearl Mica paint, and $800 for the five-speed-automatic transmission.
Compared with its chief rival (the Honda Civic EX-L with Nav), the Mazda3 5-door Grand Touring has more power, better handling, and more space for about the same price. The aggressively styled Mazda3 makes even the futuristic Civic look dull when the vehicles are parked side by side. However, the Honda's navigation system is slightly more intuitive and offers more extensive voice control than the Mazda can.