Test Drive: 2004 Mazda3 Sport GT car test drives mazda
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Story and photos by Greg Wilson

Protege5 replacement fun and rewarding


The Mazda Protege5 is a very popular car in Canada, particularly in major urban centres – so why did Mazda change the name of the next generation model to Mazda3 Sport? Well, it’s a global marketing thing. Protege and Protege5 are North American names and Mazda3 is a world name. It’s clever too – now you know right away that it’s a Mazda, not a Toyota or a Honda. My guess is that people will just start calling it the the “3″ or the “Sport”, which should really upset the Mazda image-makers.

As before, Mazda is offering two bodystyles: a four-door sedan and four-door hatchback/wagon. The sedan ranges in price from $16,195 to $21,345 while the Sport hatchback is offered only as the well-equipped GS ($20,185) and GT ($21,385). There’s no increase in the base price over the 2003 Protege5. A Mazda3 replacement for the turbocharged MazdaSpeed Protege sedan has not yet been announced (Mazda3Speed?)

Test Drive: 2004 Mazda3 Sport GT car test drives mazda
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My test car was a top-of-the-line Mazda3 Sport GT with the new optional leather seats ($900), air conditioning ($1,000) and moonroof ($800). With Freight and federal A/C tax, the as-tested price came to $25,110. My car had the standard 5-speed manual transmission, but a 4-speed automatic transmission with manual shifting mode is offered for an extra $1,000.

Though it just arrived in the Canadian market, the 2004 Mazda3 Sport has already been awarded “Best New Sports Coupe under $35,000″ by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. As well, the Mazda3 sedan was awarded “Best New Economy Car”. Canadian auto journalists drove the Mazda3′s at the annual Car of the Year “TestFest” in late October and the awards were presented on December 2nd. You can read Autos’s coverage of the Testfest by clicking here.


Bigger, roomier and more streamlined

While the Protege5 is a sporty-looking car, it’s rather “chunky” in my opinion. The Mazda3 Sport has a more streamlined appearance, more European than Japanese, I’d say. The car’s key character line extends in an unbroken arc from the lower grille around the hood down the sides merging with the taillamps. Its headlamps and taillights are covered by wraparound clear plastic covers, and the lamps are set in a black background for dramatic effect. My test car had the bigger 17 inch tires and alloys, body-coloured grille, front fog lamps, sportier bumpers, and side sills which gave it an even sportier look. In my opinion, the Mazda3 Sport looks well proportioned from just about any angle.

Test Drive: 2004 Mazda3 Sport GT car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2004 Mazda3 Sport GT car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2004 Mazda3 Sport GT car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2004 Mazda3 Sport GT car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2004 Mazda3 Sport GT car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2004 Mazda3 Sport GT car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2004 Mazda3 Sport GT car test drives mazda
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It’s not immediately obvious, but the Mazda3 Sport is larger in all dimensions than the Protege5. It’s longer by 154 mm (6.0 in.), wider by 50 mm (2.0 in.), and taller by 46 mm (1.8 in.) with a wheelbase that has grown 29 mm (1.1 in.).

As a result, the Sport’s interior is noticeably roomier than the Protege5 with more headroom and legroom for both front and rear passengers. All four doors have easy-to-grip pull handles, and the door openings are larger than the Protege5s. The Sport will seat four large adults comfortably, but the cabin is too narrow for three across the back seat. The hip point of all the seats is higher, and the raised front seats provide more legroom for rear passengers. I noticed there is no rear centre armrest.

For a car in this price range, the quality of the interior materials and the fit-and-finish is well above-average. This is despite the fact that the “metal” accents are really plastic and the “carbon fibre” trim is definately not carbon fibre. The old Protege5 was nice too, but this is better.

The gauges and centre instrument panel are backlit in bright red, which looks very sporty – but I found it hard on my eyes. Fortunately, the gauge cluster and instrument panel backlighting is adjustable for brightness.

My car had the optional leather seats which had a very smooth surface, perforated inserts and substantial side and thigh bolsters for support. Seat heaters are not offered, an lamentable omission. No one likes to freeze their butt off in the morning – or for that matter, in the afternoon.

In theory, the Mazda3′s new tilt/telescoping steering wheel and manually height-adjustable driver’s seat should make it easier for drivers of all sizes to find a comfortable driving position. Personally, I like to position the steering wheel at its lowest level, but in that position in the Mazda3, the rim obscures the instruments. I tried lowering the seat so I could see the instruments but then I felt too low in the cabin. Eventually, I settled on a position where outward visibility was good, the steering wheel felt comfortable, but the top edge of the gauges was obscured. I’m 5′ 9″ of average build – I’m not sure if it’s me or the car that’s the problem.

At the top of the centre stack is a liquid crystal display backlit in red with a digital clock, and radio station indicator – simple and easy to read. Below that, the standard AM/FM/CD stereo has an unusual arrangement of dials: the volume control is in the middle of the stereo while the Tune dial is on the left and the Audio dial (bass, treble, mid-range, etc.) is on the right. The Seek function is operated by a push-button on the left. While unusual, I soon got used to this arrangement.

A unique feature of the radio is red lights that flash across the radio as you increase or decrease the volume – I suspect the ‘Wow’ factor here will wear out pretty fast. Additional Volume, Station select, and Seek buttons are located on the left steering wheel spoke. The CD player is a single disc unit – a 6 disc in-dash CD changer is a $729 option.

The stereo features three pre-set sound variations called ALC 1, 2, and 3. After experimenting with the different options for about ten minutes, I came up with these “ideal” settings for the best sound: ALC 2, Bass 2, Mid-range 5, and Treble 3. I’d rate this stereo 7 out of 10 in overall sound quality.

The Mazda3′s simple three-dial system for the heating/air conditioning system is straightforward and uncomplicated – nice. Two cupholders are located under a cover, just to the right of the driver, and behind the gear lever. Tall cups located here could be bumped when changing gears.

For storage, the cabin has a two-level centre bin under the armrest, a large glovebox, a small open bin to the left of the steering wheel (for coins or garage-door opener) and door pockets front and rear with integral bottle holders.

With the folding rear seats in the ‘up’ position, the Sport has about 15% less luggage space than the Protege5. With the folding rear seats in the ‘down’ position, the overall cargo capacity has climbed by 22%. Obviously, much of the Sport’s extra room has gone into the passenger compartment.

The 60/40 split rear seatbacks fold down almost level with the cargo floor, and feature carpeted backs to match the cargo floor. The trunk itself is nicely shaped and easy to access with a lightweight rear hatch which has a handle under the ledge. Underneath the cargo floor are two separate, hidden storage compartments made of durable and waterproof plastic.

In terms of safety equipment, the Mazda3 has standard dual-stage front airbags with a seat sensor for the front passenger, five 3-point seatbelts, four height-adjustable head restraints, child door locks and tether anchors. As well, the Mazda3 has a collapsible steering that minimizes chest injuries in a collision, and a collapsible brake pedal that brakes away in the event of a severe frontal accident to minimize foot injuries.

Unfortunately, side airbags and side curtain airbags are not available in Canada, although they are offered as an option in the U.S. Considering the importance of side airbags in a small car, I can’t understand why Mazda Canada wouldn’t offer them.


Driving impressions

While 2004 Mazda3 four-door sedans get an 18 horsepower increase to 148 in a new 2.0 litre base engine, the Sport model gets a new standard 160 horsepower 2.3 litre four cylinder engine that features variable valve timing and a variable intake system for improved torque and fuel efficiency, and twin balance shafts to reduce engine vibrations.

Test Drive: 2004 Mazda3 Sport GT car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2004 Mazda3 Sport GT car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2004 Mazda3 Sport GT car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2004 Mazda3 Sport GT car test drives mazda

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

It develops 160 horsepower at 6500 rpm and 150 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm (compared to the Protege5′s 2.0 litre four banger which offered 130 horsepower and 135 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm). The new engine also has a timing chain which needs no maintenance, unlike belts that require replacement every 100,000 km or so.

I found the 2.3 litre engine to be a willing, free-revving engine that’s more responsive and quieter than the Protege5′s engine. Acceleration is brisk with some tire-chirping on aggressive acceleration. 0 to 100 km/h takes just under 9 seconds according to independent tests conducted by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. The five-speed shifter is a delight to whip from gear to gear, and clutch effort is not heavy. I found the gear-shift lever perfectly shaped to allow the fingers a sure grip – not the case with some vehicles I’ve driven lately.

At 100 km/h in fifth gear, the engine pulls 2,750 rpm; and at 120 km/h it does 3250 rpm. It’s surprisingly quiet at freeway speeds – so are the tires – only wind noise and external noises intrude on the quiet.

Interestingly, though the Mazda3Sport is heavier and more powerful than the Protege5, it offers slightly better fuel consumption: 9.2 litres per 100 kilometres on the city, and 6.7 litres per 100 kilometres on the highway.

I consider outward visibility to be one of the most important safety features, and this respect the Mazda3 Sport excels (few cars do nowadays). In particular, note the triangular-shaped third side window, and the large rear window. When shoulder-checking or backing up in the Sport, it’s easy to see what you shouldn’t be hitting. I appreciated the rear washer and wiper, which has an intermittent setting, which is very useful for clearing mist, ice, dirt and snow from the rear window.

The electro hydraulic, variable power assisted rack-and-pinion steering has a quick, responsive feel with low effort at city speeds. The Sport’s turning circle of 10.4 metres (34.1 ft.) is really tight.

An independent MacPherson strut front suspension and a mult-link rear suspension borrowed from the Mazda6 provide a good blend of handling and ride. Even with a 60/40 front/rear weight distribution, the Mazda3 exhibits little brake dive or lean when cornering, and the tight body doesn’t shudder over manhole covers or uneven pavement. The Mazda3′s new platform offers more than 40 percent greater bending rigidity and improved torsional rigidity over the Protege5, according to Mazda. The standard Goodyear Eagle RS-A P205/50R-17 inch on five-spoke alloy wheels performed well on dry and wet pavement, although I noticed some wheel slip while accelerating on wet pavement. The Mazda3 Sport’s ride has less chop than the Protege5′s.

Overall, I thought the Mazda3 Sport was a fun and rewarding car to drive – and I wished I could have kept it for another week.


Competitors

Competitors for the Mazda3 Sport GT ($21,385) include the Toyota Matrix XRS FWD $24,640; Pontiac Vibe GT FWD $26,975, Ford Focus ZX5 Premium $21,560, Suzuki Aerio SX FWD $19,895, Subaru Impreza 2.5 TS $22,995, Chrysler PT Turbo Touring Edition $25,085, Mini Cooper S $29,950, and VW GTI 1.8T $26,550.


Verdict

The Mazda3 Sport is a joy to drive, gets good fuel economy, has lots of cargo space, and is priced well. The downside? Side airbags, curtain airbags, and front seat heaters are not available; the red instrument backlighting is harsh; and I had trouble finding a good seating position relative to the instruments.


Technical Data: 2004 Mazda3 Sport GT

Base price (GS) $20,185
Base price (GT) $21,385
Options $2,700 (leather $900; moonroof $800; air conditioning $1,000)
Freight $925
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $25,110
Type 4-door, 5-passenger hatchback wagon
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 2.3 litre 4 cylinder, DOHC, 16-valves, variable valve timing
Horsepower 160 @ 6500 rpm
Torque 150 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual (4-speed automatic with manual mode)
Tires P205/50HR-17
Curb weight 1281 kg (2826 lb.)
Wheelbase 2639 mm (103.9 in.)
Length 4485 mm (176.6 in.)
Width 1755 mm (69.1 in.)
Height 1466 mm (57.7 in.)
Cargo area 484 litres (17.1 cu. ft.) rear seats up
  883 litres (31.2 cu. ft.) rear seats down
Fuel consumption City: 9.2 l/100 km (31 mpg)
  Hwy : 6.7 l/100 km (42 mpg)
Fuel type Regular unleaded
Warranty 3 yrs/80,000 km
Powertrain Warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km




About Greg Wilson

Greg Wilson is a Vancouver-based automotive journalist and contributor to Autos.ca. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).