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New Cars Review: Engineers sweat the small stuff to refine the excellent new Mazda3

The 2019 Mazda3 sedan.

JAMES HALFACRE/Mazda

A type of stool you can buy in Japan, used as an exercise chair, is basically a flat seat on a spring. It forces you to sit upright and use your legs for balance. Mazda put one in the new Mazda3 to demonstrate how the car has evolved.

Don’t worry – this was a feature just for me. An engineer drove slowly around the parking lot as I perched on the chair in the passenger space beside him. It was a comparison between the current generation’s ride and the new sedan and hatchback, which will arrive in Canada in February.

It’s not comfortable, this exercise chair, and it works the thigh muscles as you try to stay upright. The point is, it was a little easier to maintain balance in the new-generation car than in the older model. Not much, but a little, and this is what Mazda’s been working toward with all the small changes made to this fourth-gen vehicle.

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Both the sedan and the hatchback, pictured here, have subtle curves and no side creases.

JAMES HALFACRE/Mazda

The engineers didn’t want to reinvent the compact wheel. The Mazda3 is the company’s bestselling vehicle, with six million sold worldwide since its introduction in 2004. The first three years of those first-generation cars became rust buckets in Canada’s salt-heavy winter. Even though they were redesigned with different materials that pretty much fixed the issue, Mazda’s been fighting the rust reputation ever since.

The thing is, Mazdas are very competitive in price, and the quality is remarkable compared with the cost. The new Mazda3 is no different, and the attention to detail is considerable. I thought I’d found fault with the hinge gap of the lid that covers the centre console’s cup holders (now moved forward for easier reach while driving) – it is just wide enough to see the reflection of the hinge. That’s intentional, an engineer explained. If you drop a coin or a card in there, you should still be able to fish it out. Maybe they really did think of everything.

The rear seats have been redesigned to encourage better posture.

JAMES HALFACRE/Mazda

The engineers spent a lot of time to manage the car’s levels of noise, vibration and harshness, and it is certainly a quiet and pleasant drive. Los Angeles is filled with ridged, concrete freeways that are both noisy and harsh, yet I never had to raise my voice to speak with the engineer in the passenger seat.

Interior space is about the same as before, with reasonable room on the back seat for two passengers and three in a pinch. The seats, however, are totally redesigned for encouraging better posture, and on a two-hour drive, they were very comfortable indeed.

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

Tech specs

  • MSRP: $18,000-$30,400 (sedan), $21,300-$31,400 (hatchback)
  • Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder/2.5-litre four-cylinder
  • Transmission/Drive: Six-speed automatic or six-speed manual/Front and all-wheel (available in March)
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km, city/highway): 8.4-9.8/6.6-7.4
  • Alternatives: Subaru Impreza, Volkswagen Jetta, Chevrolet Cruze, Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla

Looks

There are two Mazda3s – the “sporty” hatchback and the “elegant” sedan. Both have subtle curves to their shape with no side creases, which are supposed to play with light and reflection and look like a single flowing brush stroke. “I think you will want to stare at its alluring body all day long,” says Kota Beppu, the car’s program manager, hopefully.

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It’s true the Mazda 3 will look great on the dealership floor and even here in the dry and sunny L.A. hills, but good luck next month on the Don Valley Parkway or the Lions Gate Bridge. There’s nothing wrong with the looks of the cars, but neither will stand out in a mall parking lot. Of course, that’s either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your taste.

Interior

The central display can be controlled by buttons mounted on the steering wheel.

JAMES HALFACRE/Mazda

Definitely an improvement on the “good enough” interior of the previous generation, the cabin of the new Mazda3 is focused on the driver and everything is clear, intuitive and attractive. All trim levels share the same design, with the only real differences being the choice of seat surface: fabric, leatherette or leather.

There’s a central 8.8-inch display screen that is now moved farther from the driver to make it easier to focus on. It’s not touch-sensitive – this is intentional, to counter potential distraction. It’s controlled by a larger and easier-to-use dial on the centre console, by buttons on the steering wheel or by voice command.

Performance

Don’t get into the new Mazda3 and expect to burn up any asphalt, but it’s no slouch. “We’re not about zero-to-60,” says Ichiro Hirose, Mazda’s manager of powertrain development. “We want to deliver a oneness between the car and the driver, where the car is like a part of you.” The mantra is “comfortable quietness,” and yes, the car is both comfortable and quiet.

The 2.0-litre and 2.5-litre four-cylinder SkyActiv-G engines are carried forward from the previous generation, and they’re suitably powerful and fuel-efficient; higher trim levels with the 2.5-litre now offer cylinder deactivation, which shuts down two cylinders when not needed to potentially save up to 5 per cent in fuel.

There’s a Sport button in the automatics for a livelier drive, but all it does is hold the gears a little higher in the revs before shifting. The six-speed manual transmission is still available (for a $1,300 saving, as before), and it’s a very satisfying short-shift, but Toyota’s new Corolla Hatchback now offers an electronic rev-matching feature that is better and smoother.

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Mazda’s promised SkyActiv-X engine, which uses a mild hybrid 24-volt system to add more power and use less fuel, will not be available in the Mazda3 until the end of 2019, and even then, it will be introduced first in Europe. Mazda Canada is making no promises it will ever be sold in our country, but if it is, it won’t be before 2020.

Technology

As you’d expect now from any next-generation car, the Mazda3 has a longer list of available technologies than before, many of which are only offered at higher trim levels. This makes sense: If you don’t want it, you don’t have to pay for it.

There’s active cruise control, lane-departure assistance and forward-collision warning, but you need to upgrade to the mid-level GS trim to get them. There’s even Driver Attention Alert, which uses an interior camera to monitor the driver’s rate of blinking and – a sign of our new, distracted world – the amount of time the driver looks away from the view ahead. If the driver seems drowsy, a warning light and tone will sound; if the driver seems distracted, the collision alert will add a little extra time for its warning.

The sound system in the new car is one of the best I’ve experienced for the money. Sound engineers repositioned the speakers to avoid clashing with the doors or bouncing off the glass; the result is sound quality that would rival any premium experience from a decade ago. Afterward, I was astonished that this was the standard audio system with just eight speakers – there’s a higher-end Bose system in the top-of-the-line GT trim.

In March, we’ll finally be offered an all-wheel-drive version of the Mazda3, although I didn’t drive it here and cannot vouch for it. It’s more than 90 kilograms heavier, which will affect performance, and will cost $1,700 on top of the MSRP of the mid- and top-level trims. The least expensive AWD Mazda3 will ring in at $26,000 – far above the $20,000 cost of an AWD Subaru Impreza.

Cargo

Pretty much unchanged from before, both the sedan and hatch offer plenty of room, with 60/40 folding rear seats.

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The verdict: 8.0

A comfortable and refined drive at any price, let alone for less than $30,000 on all but the highest trim levels. Mazda’s been sweating the small stuff to provide a car that really is greater than the sum of its parts.

The new Mazda3 offers remarkable quality for its cost.

JAMES HALFACRE/Mazda

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