by Richard Russell

The announcement that the Mazda3 had been named Canadian Car of the Year by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada came as no surprise to most of us involved in the testing and voting process. But it did bring a few inquiries from south of the border.

The typical question was along the lines of “great car, no question about that, but what is it with Canadian journalists and Mazda? Why do Canadians in general have such a thing for Mazda?” Great questions. Mazda entered four vehicles in the 2004 Canadian Car of the Year comparo and walked off with five awards. The assembled team of more than 50 auto scribes named the RX8 the “Best new Sports/Performance Car”, the Mazda6 the “Best new Family Vehicle”, the Mazda3 Sport Hatchback the “Best New Sports Coupe/sedan under $35,000″, and the Mazda3 the “Best new Economy Car.” In the overall rankings the Mazda3 won the whole shebang.

Obviously those of us who make a living out of driving a wide variety of new vehicles – typically more than 100 a year – think Mazda does a pretty good job. But more importantly, so do Canadian consumers. Mazda’s share of the Canadian automotive market is approximately double that in the U.S. and most other markets it competes in around the world. This inordinate success is difficult to explain, but has been the case for many years – long before it brought to market the current crop of new cars.

Why do Canadians hold Mazda in such high esteem? We asked some cohorts and Mazda competitors and came up with three general explanations – value, wagons/hatchbacks and image. Canadians have less take-home pay, making us more value conscious than Americans and Mazda is associated with value, from purchase to trade-in. We are more akin to Europeans in our interest in hatchbacks or wagons compared to our SUV-loving neighbours to the south. The Protege5, for example, was a raging success here and barely accepted in the U.S. Mazda has also been successful in creating an image of being sportier and more fun to drive than the competition – even when the cars have not necessarily been even remotely sporty!

Test Drive: 2004 Mazda3 GT Sedan car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2004 Mazda3 GT Sedan car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2004 Mazda3 GT Sedan car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2004 Mazda3 GT Sedan car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2004 Mazda3 GT Sedan car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2004 Mazda3 GT Sedan car test drives mazda
Click image to enlarge

But starting with the Mazda6 sedan, the RX8 and now the Mazda3, the Mazda6 wagon and hatchback, and the turbocharged Mazdaspeed Miata, the company is in the midst of a new model roll-out that is bringing truly exciting vehicles to market. All will likely find a ready market here.

The Mazda3 sedan stands out in a sea of dull compact sedans. The styling is dynamic with bulging wheel arches wrapped around beefy wheels and tires giving a strong impression of performance. The long wheelbase, short overhangs and high rear deck lend an aggressive coupe-like look. Inside you’ll find plenty of room for five – class-leading room in fact with a back seat that will actually hold real-size people.

One look at the instrument panel and you quickly forget you are in an economy car. This stylish array would not look out of place in something costing two or three times as much. The IP wraps around the front and continues unto the upper door panels with the same material and texture. A combination of metallic accents and amber coloured lighting softened by indirect blue illumination adds to the impression of refinement. Important instruments and information are clearly presented in a trio of round dials centered in front of the driver. The modular centre stack houses the sound and ventilation controls in a logical array, and each can be operated by large knobs or buttons. There are redundant controls for sound and cruise on the steering wheel of mid and upper level models and three trim packages, each with a distinct flavour.

Mazda is particularly proud of the seats in the Three. The front buckets are shaped and have pressure distribution patterns meant to provide both comfort and support for long periods of time. Careful attention to the springs in the backrest and area supporting the pelvis and sides contribute to the ability to emerge after several hours rested.

Our tester was the line-topping GT model with the optional leather interior and GFX package – the whole ball of wax – resulting in a $23,340 price tag. The GFX package, includes a bunch of tacked on lower body panels, a blacked-out grill, unique bumper and fog lights. The only functional upgrade is a set of 17-inch alloy wheels wrapped with all-season performance rubber. You might consider investing the cost of the GFX package in a spare set of 16-inch wheels and snow tires and enjoy near equal handling and an improved ride on our less-than-perfect roads.

Base prices start at $16,295 for the GX version but things start to get really interesting the next step up the ladder with the GS model. This $1,500 is well spent because it brings a serious stereo upgrade with steering wheel mounted controls, power locks with remote keyless entry, rain sensing wipers, automatic lights, height-adjustable driver’s seat and alloy wheels. I’d also recommend the $1,395 Sport Package as it gets you not only larger wheel/tires and a sunroof but also the all-important ABS which is sadly optional on all but the top model.

The Mazda3 can be had with two different dohc four-cylinder engines. The new 2.0 litre version powering the GX and GS models puts out 148 horsepower and is a smooth and silky performer and in some ways more refined than the larger 160-horse 2.3 litre version in the GT model – and the Mazda6. But there is no replacement for displacement so the 2.3 gets the nod because of its superior torque (150 lb. ft vs 135 lb. ft.) and ability to pull from lower revs so effortlessly. The standard five-speed manual gearbox features a good linkage, wisely chosen ratios and a light clutch. A four-speed automatic transmission is an extra $1,000.

Beneath the dramatic new skin is a totally new and very rigid global platform developed in Europe for a family of vehicles that include the next generation European Focus and a new small Volvo. Its European roots are clearly evident the first time you throw the Three into a corner. Instead of laying over on the sidewalls and squealing with pain, it takes a set and asks for more. The steering is quick, direct and provides plenty of feedback. This is a fun small car.

Style, space, attitude, performance and value. It’s no wonder Canadians have a thing for Mazda.

Technical Data: 2004 Mazda3 Sedan GT

Base price $21,445
Options 1,995 (GFX package 17″ alloy wheels, 205/50R-17 tires, sporty bumpers, side sills, body coloured grille, fog lamps, power moonroof ($1,095); leather seats ($900)).
Freight $925
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $24,465
Type 4-door, 5 passenger compact sedan
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 2.3 litre 4 cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves
Horsepower 160 @ 6500 rpm
Torque 150 @ 4500 rpm
Transmission 5 speed manual
Tires 205/50R-17
Curb weight 1,253 kg (2762 lb.)
Wheelbase 2,640 mm (103.9 in.)
Length 4,540 mm (178.7 in.)
Width 1,755 mm (69.1 in.)
Height 1,465 mm (57.7 in.)
Trunk space 323 litres (11.4 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 9.2 l/100 km (31 mpg)
  Hwy: 6.7 l/100 km (42 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/80,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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