2004 Mazda3 Sport GT
2004 Mazda3 Sport GT. Photo: Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge
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Mazda 3 Reviews

By Chris Chase

“Style on a budget.”

It could be a headline straight from the cover of some fashion magazine, but for small car shoppers, the same phrase defined the 2004 Mazda3 quite nicely. Finally, here was a terrific-looking car that was also practical, affordable and fun-to-drive.

The Mazda3 replaced the Protege as Mazda’s entry-level model in late 2003. The Protege was a fun little car, and the 3 carried on that tradition while adding healthy doses of slick styling and smooth refinement. Young, image-conscious drivers flocked to the 3: it was a car that just about everyone looked good in.

Not long after the car was introduced, it was so popular that you were in the minority if you didn’t know someone who owned one! (I know about a dozen people who own, or have owned one). In 2006, according to one source, the Mazda3 was the second-best selling car in Canada.

In this country, the first-generation Mazda3 sedan was sold in three trims: GX, GS, and GT. The first two used a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine making 148 horsepower, while the GT got a 2.3-litre engine good for 160 horsepower. The Mazda3 Sport (aka, hatchback) was sold in GS and GT trim only, but both used the larger engine. A five-speed manual was the standard transmission in all cars, and a four-speed automatic transmission was optional with either engine. In 2006, a five-speed auto became the option in 2.3-litre models.

2004 Mazda3 Sport GT
2004 Mazda3 Sport GT. Photo: Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

In 2006, the 2.0-litre got variable valve timing (previously only used on the larger engine), which boosted horsepower to 150. 2007 models got a few cosmetic updates inside and out, but the most important change was the addition of standard front-seat side airbags, and side curtain airbags, neither of which were available, even as an option, in previous years.

Halfway through the 2008 model year, Mazda added a basic GX model to the Sport hatchback line-up; these were sold as 2008.5 models with pricing and options that more or less mirrored those of the GX sedan including the smaller 2.0-litre engine.

2004 Mazda3 Sport GT
2004 Mazda3 Sport GT. Photo: Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

A turbocharged version of the Mazda3 Sport – the MazdaSpeed3 – was introduced in 2007, but that car will be covered in a separate review.

In 2004, fuel consumption was average for the class: 8.7 L/100 km (city) and 6.5 L/100 km (highway) for a 2.0-litre model with manual transmission. The thirstiest powertrain was the 2.3-litre/automatic combo, which was rated at 9.8/7.5 L/100 km (city/highway).

The addition of variable valve timing in 2006 helped bring the 2.0-litre’s (with manual transmission) ratings down to 8.4/6.1 (city/highway), while the also-new 2.3-litre/five-speed auto combo’s consumption dropped to 9.5/6.9 (city/highway).

The 3’s reliability has been good, but the car has not proven as trouble-free as some of its Japanese competitors.

On the minor problem side of the ledger, the radio display is a common trouble spot; when it goes, it will either show jibberish, or nothing at all.

More serious is a corrosion issue that has been well documented in this thread at TorontoMazda3.ca. Only 2004 and 2005 models appear to be affected, but it remains to be seen if that’s because Mazda fixed the problem for 2006, or if those cars simply haven’t been around long enough for the problem to manifest.

2007 Mazda3 GT sedan
2007 Mazda3 GT sedan . Photo: Haney Louka. Click image to enlarge

The rust issue is noted in Consumer Reports’ reliability data in their “paint/trim” category, and the publication also notes “minor engine” and fuel system problems.

There don’t appear to be any serious transmission issues, either automatic or manual, but automatic cars may exhibit “shift flare” (where the engine speed increases briefly as the transmission shifts) when moving from first to second gear in cold weather. This is apparently not serious. The alternative scenario is a rough 1-2 shift in cold weather, before the car has reached normally operating temperature. This too, is “normal.”

A Mazda3 that won’t start may have a loose wiring contact at the starter; details can be found here.

Many owners complain of a clunking sound from the front end of their Mazda3; in some cases, it’s been traced to a worn suspension component (shock/strut or sway bar endlink) or a bad motor mount.

2008 Mazda3
2008 Mazda3. Click image to enlarge

A 2010 recall was issued to fix electric power steering pumps that could fail, causing a loss of steering assist.

So, there are a number of things to be aware, but little in the way of alarming mechanical problems, though the rust issue certainly is troubling. Consumer Reports rates the Mazda’s reliability as above average across the board and names the car in its list of “good bets.”

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gave the Mazda3 its “good” rating in its frontal offset crash test. However, cars without side airbags (in Canada, this means anything before the 2007 model year) scored “poor” in the organization’s side impact tests.

In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) tests, the 2004 Mazda3 earned four stars each for driver and front passenger protection in frontal impact tests, and three stars each for front and rear side impact protection.

The NHTSA has tested a 2008 Mazda3 Sport with side airbags, but curiously, didn’t conduct side impact tests on that particular car.

Resale values are strong, but not quite on the same level as those for a Honda Civic, for example. My advice is to look for a
Mazda3 from 2007
or newer, if only for the side airbags that were made standard that year.

The Mazda3’s good looks are a bargain in this price range, and while this car hasn’t proven as robust as it could have been, given its Japanese heritage, reliability is good enough to recommend the car as an attractive, fun-to-drive vehicle at a reasonable price. Look for a car that comes with service records, and before you buy, make sure the power steering recall has been looked after on 2007 through 2009 models. Also, have the car checked thoroughly for signs of corrosion, or recent corrosion repairs.

Online resources

Regional forums don’t often make the cut with me, as there’s often not a lot of useful content. Not so at TorontoMazda3.ca, which is a busy place. While we’re on the topic of regional sites, our French-speaking readers might want to take a look at Mazda3Quebec.com. Otherwise, Mazda3Forums.com is a good spot, as is Mazda3Club.com, though this last one covers the Protege, whose owners are the majority.


Transport Canada Recall Number: 2004360; Units affected: 25,115
2004: On certain vehicles, a crack in the housing of the airbag crash zone sensor may allow water to enter the sensor and cause a short circuit. This will illuminate the airbag warning light. Until the problem is remedied, the airbag will not deploy as required in a frontal crash, increasing the risk of injury to the seat occupant. Correction: Dealers will inspect and, if necessary, replace with a modified sensor.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2004418; Units affected: 9
2005: On certain vehicles, due to a crack in the solder connection attaching the acceleration sensor in the airbag control unit, the airbag may not deploy when the vehicle is involved in a frontal crash. Correction: Dealers will replace the airbag control unit.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2010274; Units affected: 91,000
2007-2009: On certain vehicles with Electro-Hydraulic Power Assist Steering (EHPAS), rust had formed inside the high-pressure pipe on the power steering system during manufacturing due to improper processing. Rust particles may detach from the pipe walls and enter the motorized power steering pump, causing damage to the pump bearings. As a result, gear lubrication may be reduced, leading to an increased load on the motor. Should this happen, there is the potential for the power steering system to enter the fail safe mode in order to prevent overheating, resulting in the power steering warning lamp to light and the motorized pump to stop which could lead to a loss of power assist and the required steering effort will increase. Correction: Authorized Mazda dealers will repair the vehicles affected by this recall.

Crash test results
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