On an overcast day in New York City, I was bused to an old fruit storage warehouse in the gentrified Chelsea District of Manhattan, sent up an industrial elevator that’s big enough to live in to the top floor where I got to see the 2014 Mazda3 for the first time.
The lights dimmed. A countdown started. “…Five, four, three…three…three…” As plumes of smoke rushed up from the floor, the elevator doors, both 20 feet high, opened, revealing the car’s xenon beams as they sliced through the translucent fog. And then the red hatchback drove forward for a room of auto journalists from all over North America and executives to see. Here was our first sight of the Mazda3.
It looks dramatically larger than the outgoing Mazda3, but it isn’t. At 175.6 in. long, it actually undercuts the outgoing car by 1.8 in. Its roofline is a hair shorter, too, at 57.3 in. But the car has been stretched 2.4 in. between the wheels and 1.6 in. of hip room, an old trick the Detroit automakers would pull in the 1950s to give their cars a sleeker stance. And it still works.
The third vehicle based completely around Mazda’s SkyActiv technology, the 2014 Mazda3 is what happens when design and engineering are managed by a like-minded group of people. Mazda doesn’t pretend its new hatchback is the people’s car that the 2014 Toyota Corolla will be. In fact, one of its representatives joked around that it’s a good thing Mazda released the 2014 Mazda3 after the Corolla because the company didn’t want Toyota to feel too deflated.
Like the original Mazda3, the new one isn’t going to be the value leader of the segment. Spokespeople are saying that it’ll be priced similarly to the current car, which we’d find remarkable. The model on-hand for us to check out was a 2014 Mazda3 Grand Touring, completely loaded with lane departure warning, active cruise control, a head-up display, blind spot monitoring, 18-inch wheels, leather seats, and a new larger infotainment display that sits atop the dashboard like what you’ll see the the current BMW 3 Series and 2014 BMW X5. In fact, the whole car had a bit of BMW pizzazz to it, from its iDrive-like scroll knob in the middle of its center console to its more upright front pillars, pushed back some 3.9 in., according to Mazda, giving it proportions more like those of a rear-wheel-drive car than most automakers would be willing to attempt on a front-driver. The back had a little bit of a Mitsubishi Lancer hatchback vibe about it.
Cargo space is down a little bit versus the 2013 model, but it’s still cavernous for the class. Rear leg room won’t be challenging the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, or any of the other segment stalwarts for the top spot, but it’s markedly better than the car it’s replacing. Materials are slightly better than the current car’s–think Mazda CX-5 and Mazda6–but head room does feel a tad tight in the rear. From a passenger’s perspective, it’s a solid-feeling product.
But that’s not where you want to be. Where you want to be is behind the wheel, where your body is cocooned by a bucket seat that’s supportive like few are in the class. Displays are bold, bright, and right where they ought to be, with a focus around an oversized tachometer. There are plastics here and there that remind you that you’re still in a car that’s likely to start at around $18,000. But overall, the impression I walked away with is that this car is designed to please the driver. It’s designed to show a semblance of practical-mindedness despite the fact that sometimes you still need to be able to drive your worries away on a rambling stretch of road in the middle of nowhere. Because there’s no driving satisfaction in most of the 3′s competitive set.
Mazda touts its new i-ELOOP energy recapture and active shutters for improved fuel economy, a tentative weight reduction of up to 225 pounds, its ultra-low .255 coefficient of drag, and the inception of the 155- and 184-horsepower SkyActiv 2.0- and 2.5-liter engines for duty underhood, of which only the 2.0-liter will have an available six-speed manual transmission at launch. All other models will have a six-speed automatic. But unlike so many other small cars, Mazda didn’t say the car was a greenwash, making fuel economy such a big priority. Its people simply said it would be class-leading and moved on to talk about the car’s performance and features.
Mazda’s PR people have been hounding us to adopt their #gamechanger hashtag on Twitter because the car will be the first major introduction broadcasted live over XBox tonight and because they really believe it is. We’ll see about that. This car does have a whole host of new technologies, and Mazda promises that the 2014 Mazda3 will still be the driver’s car everyone anticipates it to be. That’s the kicker. While Honda and Toyota regularly sell upwards of 250,000 compacts in the U.S. each year apiece, Mazda sells maybe a fraction of that number–3.5 million worldwide since the car’s 2004 introduction. But Mazda doesn’t want to make vanilla; it wants to make a car that will appeal to people who still believe there’s some fun to be had behind the wheel. The sedan version debuting in a few weeks should satisfy slightly more timid shoppers. This car is about expressing Mazda’s “Kodo” design to its fullest, showing that a small car need not be a cheap car, and bringing back driving enjoyment in a class dominated by cars with numb steering and sports packages that consist of a few bolted-on plastic body extensions. If Mazda can deliver–and we shouldn’t doubt it based on how good the CX-5 and Mazda6 are–then we might be forced to used that #gamechanger tag.
Because it will be. Look for our First Drive impressions a few weeks before the car’s September on-sale date to see how it stacks up.