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Tim O'Brien | Dec 16, 2009 | 15 Comments

2009 Mazda3 Maxx Sport Road Test Review

IT IS INTERESTING suddenly finding yourself upside-down, wheels in the air, and swinging on the steering wheel as though it's useful. There is a perspective that comes with those moments.

“Is my old man right? Am I really wasting my life half-arse-ing around? Is there a deeper meaning to it all? So it’s not amusing when you throw up on yourself in a dinner-suit?” These and other thoughts about life’s essential paradox can enter an upside-down head when you’re sliding through a paddock.

Maybe not immediately. Depending upon the suddenness of the exit from a conventional vertical plane, your more immediate concern might be with the state of the pants region and whether or not that clammy feeling there is something altogether more serious than sweaty buttocks.

But, in that brief post-event hiatus, you will find yourself visited by any number of little epiphanies. One of which will centre on the character and robustness of the vehicle followed by a nod of thankfulness.

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In my case it was a red Mazda RX3. And, until the exact point in time that it decided to muck around on its roof in a paddock, it was a very nice one.

But it left me in one piece and still with most of the more important marbles. You don’t readily forget a favour like that. It colours your view of things.

I have had a very healthy respect for Mazdas ever since. I feel ‘close’… like we’ve shared something special.

And even when Mazda decided to experiment with some decidedly fugly and monumentally crappy models in the late 90s, I could forgive them.

This brings me to the new Mazda3. It has taken us a while to get around to reviewing it, but this is a seriously terrific car. It has real personality and is great to drive. (If that is all you need to know, stop reading now and just put it on your shortlist.)

It's not without its faults, and others in the segment have closed the gap on the former class leader, but here’s why it’s terrific (and it doesn’t involve a paddock).

 

Styling

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Ok, so the huge 'carnival clown' grin is not for everybody. Some like it, some don’t, some are still trying to work out where to stick the golf ball.

Here, at TMR, opinion is divided. Me, I don’t mind it. It perhaps works best with the 'tougher' MPS nose, but give it time and it will grow on you. After all, it is just one element in a balanced and quite expressive design.

There is a fresh, crisp and youthful style to the 3 that sets it apart from others in its segment. The sculptured lines that rise over the front wheels and terminate in muscular haunches are a little Alfa-esque – and very appealing.

Front to back, the Mazda3 oozes character. It manages to blend sporting muscularity with pert cheeky charm.

The last model, the first Mazda3, achieved a kind of cult status for its individual style and on-road dynamics. It was universally admired – particularly by younger car buyers – and quickly became Mazda’s number one seller. Worldwide, it accounted for over two million sales.

The new model therefore has big pantaloons to fill, but VFACTS results would suggest it is filling them rather nicely. November sales were up 8.7 percent over November 2008 sales and are up 4.1 percent for the year.

Available as a five-door hatch or four-door sedan, we had the Maxx Sports hatch: to these eyes the better-looking twin. The hatched ‘boot’ area is surprisingly large, easily accessed, and provides ample cargo space for a young family or for the Saturday mega-shop.

The Maxx Sport comes with nice-looking 16-inch alloys, fog-lights, leather-wrapped steering wheel and other minor visual enhancements and features to distinguish it from the Neo and standard Maxx.

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The 2009 model sedan is 105mm longer than the previous model, the hatch 60mm longer. Importantly, the new model doesn’t look like it’s grown.

Its size is just right (plaudits to Mazda for keeping it that way). It also retains the low centre of gravity and relatively light weight of the outgoing model.

With a drag coefficient (Cd) of only 0.31 for the sedan and 0.33 for the hatch, the 2009 model offers improved aerodynamics, more efficient drivetrains, and improved dynamism at the wheel.

The design improvements extend to the engineering below the 3’s flowing wedge style. The new chassis provides increased suspension rigidity, and increased body and panel rigidity. These improvements are apparent at the wheel (as we'll explain shortly.)

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All panel gaps are tight and, to these eyes, as good as flawless. The Mazda3 is an exceptionally well-built and thoroughly engineered car.

There is no unnecessary weight – at the wheel, the 3 feels quite light – but for reliability and robustness, Mazda products have an enviable reputation.

 

The Interior

I like the sporty style of the interior, it works ergonomically, it's not fussy, and it fits with the edgy youthful character of the car.

But I'm not so sure that the 'feel' is quite up to the mark.

In this, in the impression it makes of quality and robustness, the Mazda is bested by some in the segment... and one or two that might surprise. Like the nicely styled Kia Cerato. Even the Tiida has the edge on the 3. And the Lancer is a clear step ahead.

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There is nothing overtly wrong with the 3's interior, everything works as it should and the fit is good, it is just that it feels thin and a tad insubstantial. Knock on the dash and it sounds like an ice-cream bucket.

And the centre console moves a little too easily if you rest your knee against it.

Too be fair, nothing creaks, nothing shimmies in the dash, and the test car was completely free of rattles, squeaks and noises even on rough gravel.

(And it will last forever at least, that's what Mazdas do.)

That said, the quibbles don't extend to the seats, which are well-shaped for both comfort and enthusiastic driving.


They are trimmed in an appealing and hard-wearing fabric, provide support in the right places and are topped with stirrup-shaped head restraints (to be less intrusive).

It is easy to get 'set' at the wheel. The relationship between pedals, wheel, seating, controls and gear shift is as good as you'll find.

With clear sports dials placed just right ahead of the driver, and with intelligently laid out and easily-navigated audio, air-con and communication controls at the wheel and dash console, the overall impression is of a well thought-out and user-friendly interior.

But while things work well inside the Mazda3, it is its more elusive charms on the road that will win most over.

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At the 'workbench', with a nicely-weighted wheel, the gear-shift (ours was the auto tiptronic-style Activematic) falling nicely to hand, brilliant brake pedal feel and with a delicious rising buzz emanating from under the bonnet, the 3 has the soul of a driver's car. (That “zoom-zoom” thang…)

So, for an interior that works, that looks good (even if it doesn’t feel like a vault) and that enhances the joy of the drive, chalk one up to the 3.

 

Equipment and features

The Maxx Sport sits at the second rung (we‘re not including the turbo rocketship, the MPS), just one step below the SP25.

At $28,845 plus on road costs (for the Maxx Sport auto, manual $2k less) , it’s no ’cheapie’, but it is comprehensively featured. Sat-nav, air-conditioning, electric mirrors, remote central locking, engine immobiliser and electric mirrors are standard.

The steering wheel is tilt and reach adjustable, driver’s seat comes with height adjustment and rear seat split folds 60/40 improving the versatility of the hatch.

There are other nice touches like the integration of the radio aerial into the rear glass, a neat rear spoiler and halogen headlights.

There is also a six-speaker audio system with AM/FM tuner and MP3 compatible CD player (single disc in-dash), aux-input, and 12-volt power outlet.

The Maxx Sport also features cruise control, multi information display (4.1-inch colour TFT), steering-wheel mounted audio and sat-nav controls, Bluetooth® phone connectivity (HFP version 2.0), ambient temperature display, service reminder and trip computer (with speed alert), and leather-wrapped gear shift knob and steering wheel.

With a 5-Star ANCAP rating, the 3 is well catered-for with dynamic and passive safety features.

There are active front head restraints, driver and passenger front airbags, and side airbags (front) and curtain airbags both front and rear.

There is also dynamic stability control (DSC), traction control, anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and emergency brke assist.

The fitment of an intrusion-minimising brake pedal, and clutch pedal on manual versions, is also a nice touch.

Outside are body-coloured door handles and 16-inch alloys, rear spoiler (sedan only), fog-lamps and side skirts.

That’s one full equipment list. Is there anything missing? Doubt it; at the price, the 3 Maxx is well-configured.

 

Mechanical package

Nothing too world-shattering here in terms of layout and workings. Up front there is a 2.0-litre 16-valve DOHC four-cylinder S-VT engine producing 108kW @ 6,500rpm and 182Nm @ 4,500rpm.

That is neither a lot of kW nor spade-loads of Nm. But not all kilowatts and Newton metres are equal. Some seem to work harder and perform better than others.

In the Mazda3's case, it has the best kind of kilowatts. It performs better than those relatively modest numbers would suggest.

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This comes from well-matched gear ratios, a lively free-revving DOHC engine, good throttle response (electronic drive-by-wire) and a body not overburdened with unnecessary flab. (Who else hates the way so many cars are getting fatter and flabbier?)

The auto weighs in at 1317kg, the manual a full 100kg lighter at 1214kg. For the dimensions of the 3, and the space it offers, this is a more than reasonable result.

Mazda has done a good job of stripping out the kilos without compromising robustness – the new 3 has improved panel, chassis and torsional rigidity over the previous model (and a 17 percent increase in use of high and ultra-high strength steel).


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This partly explains why it feels so agile, unflappable and balanced at the wheel.

We had the five-speed Activematic auto transmission, but the Maxx Sport can be also be had with the six-speed manual.

Down below the Sport are 15-inch alloys; a conventional MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear keeping things in contact with terra firma.

Steering is electro-hydraulic power assist; well weighted for steering ‘feel’ but light at carpark speeds. With a turning circle kerb to kerb of a tight 10.9 metres, you can forget three-point turns.

 

The drive

Yes, this is what the Mazda3 is all about – the drive. On the road, for engagement with the driver, the Mazda3 is masterful.

It feels alive at the wheel and is simply fun to be in. Whether grinding out the daily commute, or low-flying through a set of curves, you can't help but enjoy the car.

This – the 3's agility and the way it connects with the driver – is one of the many reasons the Mazda3 wins so many hearts.

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Few in its segment can get close to matching its elusive dynamism. And if this is the total measure of things, then this model 3 – like the model before it – has the ‘best-in-segment’ crown sown up.

But unfortunately, that is not all there is to it, and the advantage the 3 once enjoyed is now a narrower one.

It is lively away from the lights, has beautiful on-road balance, and the wheel communicates precisely what is happening between road and tyres... but it is still a little coarse.

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Like the 3 before it, the shearing of the tyres can become intrusive on blue-chip road surfaces. While refined and quiet on smooth tarmac, it loses its refinement on secondary roads.

This is no 'biggie'; it is certainly not bad (and not worst in the segment), but despite Mazda's improvements to noise suppression, it could be better and takes a bit of gloss off the drive.

Dynamically though, the 3 still stands apart. For turn-in at speed, precision, the communicative suspension and for the nice rasp it makes when stretching its legs, the 3 remains a standard-setter as an affordable dynamic drive.

We found the 'Activematic' auto crisp and decisive with swift changes (no waiting for a snoozy torque converter to catch up) and with no flopping around looking for the right gear when pressing on.

You can take things in hand with the lever or simply leave things in 'sport'. This will have the adaptive logic putting the right gear underfoot whether changing up or down.

The 3 is all about balance. At its price point, as a versatile sporting-ish drive while still providing seating for a small family, it is very hard to toss.

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And it does it without sacrificing the wallet at the petrol bowser. The manual returns 7.9 l/100km, the auto 8.2 l/100km.

In our care, with mostly highway driving and some city commuting, we did a tad better than that, returning 8.0 l/100k for the week.

The verdict

Open the door, get settled into the nicely supportive front buckets, take hold of the wheel and even before you’ve turned the key in the Mazda3, things feel right.

The 3 is that kind of car. Mazda is like the Japanese Alfa Romeo. Its cars are curvy, single-minded, stylish and purposeful.

In the Mazda3, passion and personality is engineered in; this car is far more than just transport. The 3 involves, it speaks to the driver and its crisp handling is a delight.

Despite some misgivings about the interior, and, yes, its NVH shortcomings on coarser secondary roads, we can commend the Mazda3 in a heartbeat.

Some, like the surprising and handsomely-styled Kia Cerato, are catching quickly. Others, like the Golf 118TSI, arguably now have it bested.

That said, the 3 will always win hearts for its youthful zest and super on-road balance.

And it will last forever. Having once passed a 626 Wagon through the family for nearly 15 years, I can attest to the bullet-proof engineering of Mazda products.

A beautiful friendship began with that altercation in a paddock a long time ago.

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