First Drive: 2004 Mazda3 mazda first drives
Photo: Richard Russell. Click image to enlarge

by Richard Russell

Chantilly, France – Mazda chose the home of one of the largest thoroughbred racehorse stables ever built in Europe for the worldwide introduction of the replacement for the Protege – the 2004 Mazda3. “We felt it to be the ideal location for launching our new thoroughbred,” Hideki Suzuki, chief designer said.

Another explanation for the European location might be proximity to Cologne, Germany where the car was developed. The Mazda3 is the first progeny of an all-new global architecture that will also serve as the base for the next generation European Ford Focus and the Volvo S40 unveiled at the Frankfurt Auto Show. Mazda sent more than 100 engineers to Cologne to participate in the development of the new car.

The benefit of this platform sharing is that each of the players brings something to the party: Ford of Europe – expertise in driving dynamics, Volvo – safety technology and Mazda’s – quality and reliability.

Known world-wide as the C-class, this is the arena where the likes of Civic, Corolla, Cavalier et al do battle. The Protege has continually fared well against these and the dozen or more others in the class – particularly in Canada where the it enjoys a higher market penetration than anywhere else in the entire Mazda global system. The challenge of replacing such a strong success was daunting. But executed with typical Mazda flare.

First Drive: 2004 Mazda3 mazda first drives
Photo: Richard Russell. Click image to enlarge

The newcomer, unfortunately for Canada, has a new name because the Protege name did not carry much equity in other larger markets. Mazda Canada brass here admitted they fought to keep the Protege name, but were swimming against the tide. They were successful in ensuring the Mazda3 had all the good stuff – more power, more people and package space and a lengthy list of new features. And they claim, little if any price increase when it starts arriving in Mazda in late November.

The Mazda3 will be available as a four-door sedan or five-door hatchback/wagon in three trim levels. The sheet metal, interior and just about every piece you can see are unique to the Mazda3 – they will not be shared with the platform siblings from Ford and Volvo. It is a nice looking piece to these eyes, particularly in the sportier five-door guise. The crisp exterior styling gets away from the cookie-cutter, plain-Jane school leaning more toward the edgy side. The five-door is particularly appealing from the rear three-quarter view where the fenders, hatch and rear come together.

One of the longest, widest and tallest vehicles in the class, the Mazda3 offers terrific space and comfort. There is enough room in the back seat to accommodate a six-footer behind another of similar size. The driver’s seat adjusts for height and the steering wheel for both reach and rake, making it easy to get comfortable and a safe distance from the steering wheel, even for the height-challenged! The H or hip-point is 30 mm higher than the Protege for easier entry/exit, better visibility from the driver’ seat and a more comfortable seating position.

Mazda quality and craftsmanship are evident throughout. Fit, finish and extremely narrow panel gaps are worthy of cars costing many times more. The tall greenhouse and narrow tumblehome angle (more upright side glass) result in a delightfully light and airy cabin and added elbow room.

The instrument panel consists of a trio of analogue instruments arrayed in an uncluttered layout with amber-red lighting softened by indirect blue illumination. The centre stack is topped by a digital readout for both sound and ventilation systems a la Mazda6. The glove box displaces a massive eight litres providing enough space for a two-litre beverage container or 16 CD cases. The center console houses a dual level secondary storage system with the top layer able to house a cell phone and the lower another 13 CDs.

Not only is the Mazda3 more stylish than the frumpy Protege, but infinitely more fun to drive thanks to considerable work on the driving dynamics. Mazda has taken the high road on this one, pouring the costs saved by sharing architecture development into ensuring steering, braking and handling are all a significant step above the current car – and others in the class. After several hundred kilometres of rapid driving through the farm country near here in pre-production cars with European trim but North American drivetrains, we can attest this newcomer rides and handles like no Protege before it, barring those wearing the MazdaSpeed logo. Steering is razor sharp, transient response in the sports car league and the chassis engineers did yeoman work in arriving at the ride/handling balance.

First Drive: 2004 Mazda3 mazda first drives
Photo: Mazda. Click image to enlarge

The base engine on the entry and mid-level sedans will be a new-to-North America DOHC four from Mazda. Displacing 2.0 litres and producing 148 horsepower and 135-lb. ft. of torque it is a smooth, quiet and strong unit that easily outperforms any other normally-aspirated Protege to date. Developed by Mazda for the Ford family of vehicles, this engine has been used in Europe for the last year and will find its way to our shores beneath the hood of more upcoming Mazda and Ford products. The optional engine (standard in the 5-door) is the same 2.3 litre DOHC four found in the larger and heavier Mazda6 and the B2300 truck. With 160 horsepower and 150 lb. ft. of torque it endows the Mazda3 with a serious and welcome dose of steroids, clearly evident at all speeds.

The standard transmission will be carried over from the existing Protege but benefit from many changes designed to improve shift feel. Tolerances and cable-bend angles have been reduced, linked double-cone synchronizers employed and special surface treatments applied to numerous parts resulting in a 50% cut in friction. The Activematic automatic transmission is adapted from the Mazda6 and recalibrated for this lighter vehicle. It incorporates provision to manually change gears and “Slope control” giving smooth natural deceleration on downhill gradients and delaying shifts when climbing hills.

Volvo’s presence on the project is evident. In addition to the significantly-stiffer, more crashworthy platform and up to six airbags [Note: side air bags and curtains are not available in Canada - ed.], the Mazda3 will be available with ABS and Dynamic Stability control allowing it to avoid nasty incidents.

A Sporty Appearance Package (SAP) will be available on both sedan and 5-door bringing a unique body-coloured grill, side skirts, different bumpers incorporating fog lamps, a front air dam and a unique trunklid or hatch with spoiler. It also means an interior upgrade, bigger (17-inch) wheels and tires, unique suspension tuning and bigger brakes.

A stylish new body, wonderful driving dynamics and way more power – make this newcomer worthy of a new name.