When Mazda replaced the Protégé with the Mazda3, in 2004, it was one of the smartest things the company ever did. Virtually an instant success, the Mazda3 has gone on to become one of the best-selling cars in Canada - sometimes, it's been the best seller, occasionally nudging perennial favourite Honda Civic out of top spot.
How popular is the Mazda3? It accounts for almost 40 per cent of the company's total sales, worldwide, and one out of every three cars sold by Mazda is a 3 of some kind. By any measure, it has been a home run for this company.
But all things must change, and for 2010, the 3 has been on the receiving end of a facelift and various tweaks and adjustments. It has the same wheelbase as before and most of the changes have been in the form of refinements, but the newest iteration of Mazda's best seller is a bit larger than before and, alas, has a completely new front-end treatment, among other things.
Bad move. One of the big pluses of the original was its styling. It conveyed a sense of European-ness and looked like the "world car" Mazda was hoping it would be. The new model, with its grinning front grille and unnecessarily busy side panels, has missed the mark completely when it comes to visuals.
The front end reminds me of the happy-face spaceship piloted by drug-sniffing aliens in the animated movie classic Heavy Metal. Some models are even less visually appealing than others; the GS version, which I drove this time around, is close to being downright ugly, as far as I'm concerned, and I really wish Mazda had left well enough alone with this car. Were I in the market for an affordable hatchback, the 3's stylistic drawbacks would stop me in my tracks.
Fortunately, it's still nice to drive. Mazda has redone the interior (again, should have left things alone here) and, if nothing else, the ergonomics are sensible, easy to deal with and more mainstream than before. The previous generation had a distinctive interior layout and while the changes don't affect the car's driveability, it could be any other Japanese compact once you slide behind the wheel. Mazda designers have bland-ified the inside of the car - and corrupted the exterior, in my opinion. It all seems somehow de-contented.
The engine remains the same for the GS and GX models, however. It displaces 2.0 litres and develops 148 horsepower. That's more than enough to propel this 1,328-kilogram sedan, considering the market it's in, and fuel economy is pretty good, though not exemplary: 8.7 litres/100 km in town and 6.0 on the highway.
My tester was equipped with a five-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift mode ($1,200) and I have no complaints with the drivetrain. This transmission is also new and replaces a four-speed automatic. A five-speed manual is standard issue with the GS and GX models, with the GT getting a six-speed manual. Most buyers will likely opt for the automatic.
Apparently, Mazda also stiffened up the body structure for the 2010 model (every manufacturer in the world stiffens up the body structure of their cars when they redesign them - does that mean the previous version was flimsy? Just wondering). It now has better NVH (Noise, Vibration, and Harshness) suppression than the Civic, for example.
Suspension duties are handled by the usual arrangement of struts up front and a multi-link setup with coil springs in back. The GS comes with 16-inch wheels and tires and compared to some of the competition - Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Versa - has a firm stable ride.
My tester was equipped with the Comfort Package, which includes a power sunroof, a traction control system and a vehicle stability control system. It adds $1,495 to the sticker price and, if you plan on driving with enthusiasm or need a sunroof, sure, knock yourself out. But I see this trim level of the 3 as being primarily an econo-box, and I'd save the money for gas.
As well, the standard equipment level of the GS is reasonably high, and you get things like air conditioning, power windows, central locking, keyless entry, tilt/telescoping steering and cruise control, so it's not like you'll be suffering.
Safety equipment includes four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, and dual front, side, and side curtain airbags.
In just about every respect, the new Mazda3 GS represents the state of the art of making efficient, affordable econo-boxes. It's reasonably comfortable, reasonably thrifty, reasonably lively, and - well, reasonable.
It has a nice sense of size and balance, is fairly nimble, all things considered, and it does everything it's supposed to. But it's difficult for me to get excited about the changes, although the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada has named the 2010 Mazda3 the year's Best New Small Car under $21,000.
The previous version was exceptional and a stand-out in virtually every department, which was why it sold in such huge numbers. Will the new model match its sales success? Only time will tell.
2010 MAZDA3 GS
Type: Five-passenger compact
Base Price: $18,995; as tested: $21,690
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder
Horsepower/Torque: 148 hp/135 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
Fuel Economy (litres/100 km): 8.7 city/6.0 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Honda Civic DX, Nissan Sentra, Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Corolla LE, Ford Focus SEL, Saturn Astra