The Mystery of the Mazda 3.

The Mystery of the Mazda 3.

The Mystery of the Mazda 3.

Reviews of cars, trucks, and other autos.
June 20 2005 4:41 PM

The Mystery of the Mazda 3

Or the Curse of the Excluded Middle.

Mazda 3
Click image to expand.
Mazda 3

Practically everybody loves the Mazda 3. It was Automobile Magazine's "All-Star for best small car." It just won a five-car Motor Trend comparison test. Consumer Reports recommends it. Gearbox recommends it! But there's a "but."

The 3 certainly looks bitchin' —in five-door form it's perhaps the highest modern expression of the Japanese atomic cockroach aesthetic, an origami battlestar with one of those blind rear quarters that (like the one on the upcoming Toyota FJ) makes you think the interior must go on forever. The locomotive cowcatcher prow takes some getting used to, but that happens. And the interior, while itdoesn't go on forever, is a couple of orders of magnitude better than anything else you can get for $19,000. With a nice swath of fake carbon fiber (way better than fake wood!) and lots of little, precisely fitted, Bang & Olufsen-like buttons, the "furniture" is fabulous. A bit too zoomy around the instrument binnacles—they picked a cheesy typeface—but extremely well made. (It's made in Japan, Japan, I couldn't help notice, not Mazda's Michigan transplant factory.)

You feel happy getting in this car, and smart, like you've just found a restaurant that serves a delicious steak meal for $5. BMW wishes it could offer an interior this good for $40,000. GM wishes it could offer it for any price.

Like the Mazda RX-8 sports car (in which Instapundit once gave me a ride), the 3 makes a mechanical, tinny, almost hissing sound in motion—but it's pleasant and Swiss-watch reassuring, not annoying. There's plenty of power, at least with a manual transmission. The gear lever not only falls readily to hand but lets your hand move it around without any of the remote-linkage waffling common to front-drive cars like, say, a mid-'90s Volvo 850. The 3's stiff-but-not-jarring ride contributes to a hard, mechanical feel.

So, where's the "but"? Here's the "but": It didn't seem to like going around corners. At least when I drove it. And I'm not alone here! Car and Driver drove the 3 back in April and remarked:

Still, for all its competence and substance, the 3 somehow fails to be as immediately seductive as its Protegé predecessor. Why is that? We're not entirely sure, but we do have a couple of theories. Although it answers the helm without a hint of reluctance, there's a sensation of heaviness here that goes beyond the 162-pound difference between this Mazda five-door and the one that came home first in our 2002 hatchback derby. In the same vein, although it's almost two seconds quicker to 60 mph than the Protegé5, it doesn't convey that sense of quickness to its pilot, due to the combination of a quieter cabin and the electric-motor operation of the 2.3-liter engine, which is devoid of any peakiness, pulling smoothly and steadily right up to its 7100-rpm redline.

Another take: Mazda's entry-level offering has lost the lightness of being that made the Protegé so appealing, which is the price of the 3's clear improvement in substance and quality.


I don't know as much about cars as Car and Driver, but I have some theories too. First, open the Mazda's hood. The engine is way forward, even (it seems to me) for a front-drive car. Motor Trend says the 3 has 62 percent of its weight in the front, 38 percent in the rear—far off the 50/50 ideal. But I suspect even that stat understates how the weight is hung way up front. It means that turning the Mazda is like swinging a pole with a watermelon on the end.

To enjoy the 3, I found, you have to abandon any anthropomorphic notion that the car is an extension of your body, revolving around your solar plexus. You have to think, more accurately, that you are Linus, clinging to a blanket and being pulled around corners madly by Snoopy. Once you perform this mental exercise, normal driving in the 3 becomes momentarily enjoyable—or rather, it would be enjoyable, except for the steering.

Again, I don't know what makes for great steering, but whatever it is got left off the 3's rack. It's heavy initially—doesn't want to cut—then seems to slip off to either side. Even this would be fine if it had a central spot in the middle where it felt locked-in. But it doesn't. In highway driving I found myself having to constantly readjust.

A car that brands itself "zoom zoom" should have better better steering steering! The 3's gear wasn't nearly as bad as the tragic mechanism in the otherwise perfect outgoing Lexus IS, which felt like stirring batter with a spatula. Still, a schlocky old Ford Focus hatchback (already replaced in Europe by a car based on ... the Mazda 3) has much nicer steering.

My second uninformed theory explains why the steering's so-so: The tires are too wide. They look tough and grip the road, but they give up too much in directional precision. Narrower tires—and higher-profile, dorkier-looking tires, with more rubber between the tread and rim—might improve the feel while softening the ride. One of the car mags (I forget which one) suggested narrower tires too, so I don't feel completely alone here either.

But none of this clears up the mystery in any satisfying way. After all, the people who designed the 3 aren't idiots. They know about tires and steering. Why'd they do what they did?

I was stumped, until I went to a dinner attended by the editor of a prestigious auto "buff book." Seeking cheap guidance, I whined that the Mazda all the car mags were raving about wasn't that much fun for me to drive around town. The editor gave me a withering look. "Did you take it up on the Angeles Crest highway?" he asked. Translation: "Did you drive it really fast on curvy roads?" No, I didn't. Because I don't know how to drive really fast on curvy roads and I don't want to really die. But I admit that the one time I took it on a winding two-lane and started hurling it with what seemed wild abandon from side to side (overcoming its initial reluctance to veer) it performed well. Still,, how often do I engage in this rough physical activity? About as often as I play touch football—once every five years.

Mystery solved. The Mazda's one of those hi-lo cars that very good drivers (who drift and brake at the last minute) love, and very bad drivers (who don't even notice what they're doing) love.