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Wise guys, eh? Mazda is driving the agenda

They are a cheeky lot, these Mazda folks.

In a business that is rooted in conservative thoughts and actions – we are talking about the investment-heavy car business, after all – plucky little Mazda is coming out swinging with the arrival of the reinvented 2014 Mazda3.

Cheeky? You want chutzpah? Here's what I mean: Mazda's engineers agree that Toyota's Corolla has long boasted stunning dependability numbers. But the car itself is not what anyone would call a technology trendsetter. They won't say these exact words, but the suggestion is that the Corolla is dull and uninspired. Now who would ever think that?

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Dull or not, Toyota's compact car is an industry leader in reliability. But if you like to drive something with personality, look elsewhere. The technology on board the Corolla, and the design wrapped around it, are all ho-hum. What does Mazda say about the outgoing 2013 Corolla? Well, Mazda engineer Dave Coleman unabashedly asks: "Want to drive a Corolla?" It's not a rhetorical question.

But we're now looking at what's coming for the 2014 model year. No one has yet test driven the 11th-generation 2014 Corolla coming to showrooms this fall, but Mazda knows it's on the way. Mazda is clearly ready for it and all comers. With good reason. It thinks its car is way better than anyone else's in the compact car segment.

Consider: the 2014 Corolla still does not boast a direct-injection engine and the most powerful of the two engines to be offered delivers a modest 140 hp. Mazda's most basic four-cylinder for 2014 is a high-compression, direct-injection smoothie rated at 155 hp, while there's a slightly larger version of it worth 184 hp.

Even with good power, the new Mazda3 is expected to get good fuel economy: 6.7 litres/100 km in the city, 4.8 highway for the SkyActiv-G 2.0-litre engine; the bigger, more powerful 2.5-litre four is planned to get 6.8 city/4.9 highway. Fuel economy is helped by what Mazda calls i-ELOOP technology – a form of electrical regeneration that saves fuel by cutting the amount of energy used to charge the battery. The i-ELOOP thing is clever and imaginative, but too complicated to explain here. Suffice to say i-ELOOP is innovative.

Toyota has not yet shared its gas pump predictions for the 2014 Corolla, but we do know the gains are not coming from direct fuel injection; the next Corolla doesn't get it. But it does get a pulley-type continuously variable transmission with software that "mimics" seven shift points. That means it "feels" like a traditional automatic gearbox, though it isn't one. Toyota itself says the mimicking is a nod to criticism that suggests CVTs have more in common with lawnmowers and snowmobiles than cars.

Regardless, the gearheads running Mazda are not putting any CVT into a single one of their vehicles. Nothing "Zoom-Zoom" about a CVT, they say. Mazda – with driving enthusiasts in mind – is offering the 2014 3-car with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. Both were completely redone just more than a year ago and are class-leading in every way.

This class-leading piece of the story is important to Mazda. Because frankly, over the past few years, Mazda has fallen short of its brand promise with the Mazda3. A decade ago, when Mazda introduced the 3 to world-wide wows and stunning global sales, the 3 was a cut above the competition in almost every way imaginable.

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Much has changed in compact cars since 2003. Back then, says Mazda's Chuck Reimer, compact cars were boring and utilitarian. He says this while showing a slide of the 2001 Corolla and Honda Civic. (Did I mention that these Mazda people are cheeky?) In 2003, Canadians could not buy a compact car with leather upholstery, a navigation system and Xenon headlights. Then along came the Mazda3, which shook up the segment by offering driving dynamics, styling and content not found in the competition, says Reimer.

The 3 exploded into the Canadian new-car consciousness. It was consistently among the top three best-selling cars in Canada from 2005-2011. The three has represented 50 per cent of Mazda sales for nearly a decade; 434,000 sold to date, or thereabouts. I'd argue the Mazda3 is the most important mainstream car introduced in the last decade. It shook up the marketplace in so many ways.

It certainly shook up Mazda's rivals. Most of them eventually saw the error of their ways and went to work. Volkswagen, for instance, reinvented the Jetta compact with a price and package more palatable to North Americans. Hyundai with its Elantra and Kia with its Forte are firmly "seated" in the segment now, too.

Detroit's auto makers all have competitive entries now – the Dodge Dart, Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cruze. And the usual big guns are still formidable – the Civic and Corolla. In short, the compact car segment has seven models each with more than 7 per cent market share. Luxury players are also in the compact game now, as well. The Mercedes-Benz B-Class, for instance, is a serious entry; so, too, is the Audi3 and BMW's Mini lineup.

Mazda Canada president Kory Koreeda concedes that in the last few years Mazda has been working to survive in a cutthroat business during a global financial crisis and near-depression while at the same time revamping the company top to bottom. It's not been easy being Mazda these last five years or so, especially.

In all that, though, his Mazda3 has remained competitive and a powertrain re-tune a year ago helped keep the Mazda3 in the game while a new model was developed – the 2014 Mazda3 due in September. Koreeda is not as brash as some of his Mazda colleagues, but the competitive fire burns just as brightly below the surface.

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Until recently, however, Mazda's people all over the globe had been preoccupied with their work, and haven't had time to tweak the competition. Now they seem convinced that the new post-Ford Mazda (Ford sold its controlling interest in 2008) has found its centre, its meaning and purpose. No one at Mazda wants to be Toyota or Honda or Nissan or Ford, for that matter. Their place is as a small put profitable global car company with gasoline (and diesel and electricity now, too) running through its veins. Mazdas are not transportation appliances. Mazda would never make a Corolla. Mazdas are for people who think the journey is more important than arriving at the destination.

There's a place for that car company in the world, they think. As proof, earlier this year Mazda posted its first full-year profit in five years. The SkyActiv product and branding initiative is under way, too. Mazda Canada's Koreeda notes that, in a recent study, consumers said the two most recognized "green" automotive technology initiatives are Ford's EcoBoost and Mazda's SkyActiv.

So in the summer of 2013, Koreeda, Coleman and the rest at Mazda are confident enough to poke and prod the competition. They're cheeky and it's entertaining to watch.

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About the Author
Senior writer, Globe Drive

In 25 years of covering the auto industry, Jeremy Cato has won more than two-dozen awards, including three times being named automotive journalist of the year. Jeremy was born in Montreal and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. More


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