Review and photos by Chris Chase

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2005 Mazda3 GS
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I’m a big proponent of the don’t-knock-it-till-you’ve-tried-it philosophy, so I don’t like to dismiss something before I’ve had a good, long look at it. I think I get that from my dad, who always considers all of his options when a decision needs to be made. When he got an opportunity to participate, along with me, in Autos’s 50-litre Challenge a few weeks ago, he jumped at the chance to drive some of the best compact cars on the market today. One of those cars was the same Mazda3 that is the subject of this test drive. At one of the rest stops we made that day, he gladly took the Mazda’s keys and tried out this little car for himself.

And then he knocked it.

“The steering’s too quick,” he said. “I can’t make small directional adjustments on the highway without the car zig-zagging all over the place.”

My jaw dropped. First off, it’s rare for my dad to come to such a quick judgment about anything; and secondly, until this moment, I had yet to meet anyone who came away from driving a Mazda3 with anything but a big grin on their face.

After I got over the shock, it occurred to me that maybe Mazda’s latest take on the economy car wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. After all, here’s a car that’s priced to compete directly with a number of great little cars from Japan, Korea and North America, while offering performance and responsiveness on a level normally reserved for more expensive – and often less practical – cars. We’re talking about a class of car that has changed greatly since the days when compacts were bargain basement beaters – cars you might have been embarrassed to drive – and the Mazda3 is a shining example of this change.

2005 Mazda3 GS
Click image to enlarge

While most of the hype that’s surrounded this car has centred on the up-level models with their 160-hp, 2.3 litre engine, my tester was a mid-level GS model with the smaller 148-hp, 2.0 litre engine and manual transmission and a few choice standard features, including a four-speaker CD stereo with steering wheel mounted controls and power locks with remote keyless entry (which comprise a convenience package that’s optional on the entry-level GX model) and a $795 power package that adds power windows, cruise control and power adjustable outside mirrors. My tester also had air conditioning, which is a $1,000 stand-alone option on GX and GS models.

2005 Mazda3 GS
Click image to enlarge

GS models also get automatic headlights and rain sensing wipers, features that really stand out in an economy car, and both systems work very well. With those options, my test car had an M.S.R.P. of $19,695.

While the extra power goodies are great, you don’t need them to enjoy the Mazda3’s terrific performance. More money will get you more power, but the base 2.0 litre engine is a terrific unit and moves this car with authority. It feels a little weak below 3,000 rpm, but keep your right foot down and let the revs build and you’re rewarded with smooth, linear power delivery as the tach needle swings towards the engine’s 6,500 rpm redline. The throttle is quite touchy and until you get used to it, it’s easy to summon way more revs than you need when pulling away from a stop.

2005 Mazda3 GS
Click image to enlarge

Good sound deadening keeps engine noise in check at cruising speeds despite short-ish gearing that has the motor spinning at about 2,750 rpm at 100 km/h in fifth gear. Still, there’s enough engine noise during hard acceleration to let the driver know what’s going on under the hood.

The four-speed automatic has a ‘manumatic’ shift feature, but the manual transmission is the gearhead’s gearbox of choice. The shifter has a wonderful mechanical feel that few small cars these days can match, transmitting just enough engine vibration to your right hand to remind you that the lever is actually connected to something. Shift effort is nice and easy too, but the lever moves into each gear with a satisfying “thunk” that’s reminiscent of the manual shifters in mid-90s Volkswagens. Likewise, the clutch operates beautifully and makes it easy to launch the car smoothly.

The brake pedal is just as nice to use as the ones to its left and right. The standard four-wheel-disc brakes bite hard initially but are very easy to modulate for drama-free stops from any speed. The brake and gas pedals are spaced nicely to allow for heel-and-toe downshifting, if you’re so inclined.

2005 Mazda3 GS

2005 Mazda3 GS
Click image to enlarge

Every Mazda3 is fitted with the same springs and shocks, so that no matter what the trim level, the only variable in what’s isolating the car from the road is the tires. My test car had the 15-inch wheels and 195/65R15 tires that are standard on GX and GS models. A 16-inch wheel-and-tire package is optional on the GS and standard on the GT model, while 17-inch wheels are optional on the GT.

In my opinion, though, the 3’s excellent suspension renders the larger wheel and tire packages unnecessary. Remember my dad’s comment about the darty steering? Well, he’s got a point. At highway speeds, it takes very little driver input to change directions so driving in strong crosswinds can take some getting used to if you want to stay in one lane. This car loves curves, and the twitchy steering is a trade-off for the car’s excellent cornering abilities. Hit a highway onramp at double the posted speed and the car leans into the curve and hangs on.

2005 Mazda3 GS
Click image to enlarge

The tires talk to you, but they’re not complaining. Where most cars – even many with sporting pretenses – default to resolute understeer in hard cornering, the Mazda3’s suspension allows the rear end to slide out just enough to give the car a wonderfully balanced feel in quick corners.

If you try – and I stress try – to drive this car sedately, you get the feeling that it’s getting impatient. It always seems to want to go faster, brake harder or turn sharper. And if you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself indulging the car’s every wish – you’ll keep your right foot in it much longer than you should, you’ll wait to brake until the last minute and you’ll take the long way home just to spend more time behind the wheel. It’s not hard to tell this car was designed and built by the same company that created the Miata. Seriously, if you can find a better sub-$20,000 car with four doors and seats for five that’s this fun to drive, buy it.

There’s a little more road noise inside the 3 than you’d get in some of its cushier competitors, but that’s a trade-off that’s easy to take, considering the Mazda’s sporty handling.

2005 Mazda3 GS
Click image to enlarge

The downside to all this fun is that it takes its toll on fuel economy. This particular car consumed fuel at a rate of 6.6 L/100 km during the 50-litre Challenge, but the best I managed during a drive from Ottawa to Kingston and back was 7.3 L/100 km, and the car’s average fuel consumption during my week with it was 9 L/100 km. That’s a far cry from Natural Resources Canada’s ratings of 8.5 L/100 km (city) and 6.2 L/100 km (highway).

The front seats are very comfortable, providing good lateral support for all that aggressive cornering. The driver’s seat is adjustable for height and lumbar support in addition to the usual fore-and-aft and seatback adjustments.

2005 Mazda3 GS
Click image to enlarge

The driver gets large, red-backlit gauges framed by a perfectly sized steering wheel. Secondary controls for the stereo and ventilation system are simple to use and fall easily to hand. Interior storage space is ample, with map pockets in each door and a massive glove box.

In back, headroom is good for rear-seat passengers under six feet tall, but people much taller than that may find the headliner grazes their hairdos. Leg room in the back is alright too, but again, taller passengers will find knee room is at a premium if the front seats are towards the back of their tracks.

2005 Mazda3 GS
Click image to enlarge

I found the rear seatbacks were angled back a little farther than would be comfortable for long trips – no doubt a compromise aimed at maximizing headroom under the sloping rear roofline.

At 323 litres, the 3’s trunk is on the small side of average for its class, but the shape of the space is such that it’s still quite commodious. But thanks to the short rear decklid, the problem isn’t what will fit in the trunk; it’s more what will fit through the trunk’s small opening. If cargo space is a priority for you, the Mazda3 Sport hatchback is the better choice with its big hatch opening. The Sport gets expensive fast though, considering its base price is $4,000 more than that of the GX sedan.

While my dad’s reaction to the Mazda3 was proof that this isn’t the small car for everyone, there’s no denying that it was designed to provide a rare combination of performance, practicality and affordability that no other compact car on the market today can match. Just don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

Technical Data: 2005 Mazda3 GS sedan

Base price $17,795
Options $1,795 (Power package: power windows, outside mirrors and cruise $795; air conditioning $1,000)
Freight $1,195
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $20,885
Type 4-door, 5-passenger compact sedan
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel drive
Engine 2.0 litre four-cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves
Horsepower 148 @ 6,500 rpm
Torque 135 lb.-ft. @ 4,500 rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual
Tires 195/65R15
Curb weight 1223 kg (2,696 lbs.)
Wheelbase 2,640 mm (103.9 in.)
Length 4,530 mm (178.3 in.)
Width 1,755 mm (69.1 in.)
Height 1,465 mm (57.7 in.)
Cargo capacity 323 litres (11.4 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 8.5 L/100 km (33 mpg Imperial)
  Hwy: 6.2 L/100 km (46 mpg Imperial)
Fuel type Regular unleaded
Warranty 3 yrs/80,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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