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Offerred as a distinctly new model range, the Mazda3 succeeds the Mazda Etude and Sportwagon while moving upmarket in terms of its specification.
There are two distinctive versions - five-door Sport hatchback and four-door sedan - and two engine variants, 1.6-litre and 2-litre.
The 1.6-litre engine delivers 77 kW at 6 000 r/min and torque of 146 Nm at 4 000 r/min, while the 2-litre has 104 kW at 6 500 r/min and 182 Nm at 4 500 r/min. Both drive the front wheels via a 5-speed manual gearbox.
Mazda has taken steps to clearly differentiate between the hatch and the sedan, aiming the former at a younger market, with a sporty appearance, while the sedan targets a more sophisticated, more mature audience.
Fit and finish are of the same high standards pioneered by the Mazda6 and continued with Mazda RX-8, and this is especially noticeable inside, with first-class fit and finish.
Both the Mazda3 sedan and Mazda3 Sport version offer four similar specification levels:
- 1.6-litre Original
- 1.6-litre Active
- 1.6-litre Dynamic
- 2.0-litre Individual
The Mazda3 1.6 Active/Dynamic and 2.0-litre Individual models include innovative new features not seen before in a Mazda in this segment, such as an auto light system (which automatically switches on the lights when entering a tunnel, or when night approaches, but will not switch on the lights when the car momentarily enters shady areas) and rain sensor wipers.
Both models also feature water repellent glass on the exterior mirrors and front doors.
The Mazda3 2-litre Individual models have a sport appearance package which includes a body-coloured slotted front grille, sports-type front and rear bumpers, side-skirts, rear roof (on the Sport) or boot (on the sedan) spoilers, front fog lamps and unique rear combination lamps.
Other features include a fully automatic air conditioning system and in-dash 6 CD changer, an innovative blackout lighting system which provides indirect blue lighting for the instrument panel when a door is opened, gradually adding amber-red backlighting after the ignition is turned on.
This, says Mazda, reduces eye fatigue.
All versions have a neat and uncluttered instrument panel, combined with neat cloth upholstery and door trim, with three deeply-dished instrument dials containing speedo, revcounter and a multi-dial that includes water temperature and fuel gauges.
Rear seat room
The long wheelbase and cutouts in the back of the front seats give good knee room for rear passengers, while a higher hip point (approximately 30mm higher than the Mazda Etude) gives a better view of the road and easy entry and exit.
Getting the right seating position is easy thanks to a steering column which offers tilt (up to 40mm) and telescope (up to 50mm) adjustment and a driver's seat with 55 mm of height and up to 250 mm of reach.
Four interior trim packages are offered, and door trim armrest, centre console armrest and other often-used areas are covered with soft-touch materials.
The Mazda3 Original and Active models have a grey environment with grey and blue or grey and grey alternative combinations. The Mazda3 Dynamic and Individual models have a black environment with black and blue or black and red possible combinations.
There's a metallic-look finish on door handles, shift lever gate and lever surrounds.
Interior storage compartments include a huge locking glovebox big enough to hide your laptop computer or up to 16 CD cases - in fact it's big enough to store a two-litre coke bottle.
In addition there's a double-level centre console box which features an upper tray with space for a mobile phone or other similar-sized items, and a lower box with 3.6-litre capacity, sufficient for 13 CDs.
The front section of the console box has two cup holders (for one large-size and one medium-size cup) with a flip-back lid.
The Sport hatchback version is more than a metre wide between the rear wheel wells, giving a generous load capacity, and when the seats are folded forward (there's a 60/40 split) leave a flat floor.
The front floor section of the Sport's luggage compartment can be used to separate the luggage space into upper and lower sections, and the rear floor section can be raised to create a partition between the front and rear of the luggage compartment.
On the sedan, the high deck design and location of rear coil springs under the floor results in a large boot of 419 litres capacity, while double-link hinges don't obstruct luggage whether the boot is open or closed.
In terms of styling, the Mazda3 sedan features a long wheelbase, short overhangs, a short but high rear boot, and a compact-looking cabin.
There's a distinct difference between the sedan and Sport hatch in terms of styling details. On the former there are convex styling lines on the bonnet to give a more sophisticated look, while on the Sport these are convex to give the impression of a bonnet power bulge.
The sedan also splits the grille and bonnet in the conventional way, while on the hatch the bonnet extends further downwards into the grille area.
Despite the wide body (1 755 mm), the distance between the outermost points of the door mirrors is just 1 935mm, and there's a long wheelbase (2 640 mm) and wide track (1 530mm front /1515mm rear) and good overall height (1 465mm).
Under the skin there's a MacPherson-type front suspension system employs a four-point rubber mounting system to provide crisp handling, while fluid-filled bushings - similar in size to those on the Mazda6 - are used at the rear of the lower arms.
There's a multi-link rear suspension with separately positioned springs and shock absorbers to reduce damper friction and free luggage space.
ABS brakes with electronic brake distribution and brake assist are standard across the range, while 1.6-litre models get 278 mm ventilated front discs and the 2-llitre 300mm.
Rear discs are 265 mm on the 1.6; 280 mm on the 2-litres.
Mazda3's all-new body structure provides high levels of torsional and flexural rigidity for excellent handling stability and low noise levels.
Dual-stage front airbags as well as front and rear curtain airbags and driver and passenger side airbags are fitted to all models.
There's electro-hydraulic power-assisted steering on the 2-litre Individual models, with electronic controlled hydraulics.
The Mazda3 has 15 000 km service intervals, three-year/100 000 km warranty, and the Mazda Motion five-year/ 60 000 km maintenance plan and roadside assistance.
On the road
Only the sedan versions were available at the launch, but we managed to drive both 1.6-litre and 2-litre versions. Both impressed with the high quality of fit and finish, and there was no evidence that rattles or squeaks would develop, tribute to the stiffness of the body shell.
This also contributed to the taut handling and precise steering response on the road, with the new rear suspension design giving the Mazda3 the sort of driving charateristics normally associated with a rea-whee drive car while adding the inherent built-in safety of front-wheel drive.
Power output from the 2-litre was excellent, but at times we felt the 1.6 was struggling for breath, even at sea level.
However, if there's anything to complain about it has to be pricing. With the rand at its lowest levels in years, we would have thought Mazda would have taken the opportunity to go in aggressively and undercut the opposition.
There is no outgoing model with "resale values" to protect, and with the Golf 5 and a new Opel Astra on the way, the company could have stolen a march on the rest.
Instead Ford Motor Co. of SA has chosen to spec. the car high in a bid to attract a more "upmarket" audience, a move that I feel will limit sales.
Both sedan and hatch versions are the same price.
Mazda 1.6-litre Original R159 990.
Mazda 1.6-litre Active R168 990.
Mazda 1.6-litre Dynamic R179 990.
Mazda 2.0-litre Individual R206 990.
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