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The first thing that strikes you about the new Mazda3 has got to be that shit-eating-Cheshire-Cat-Tiger-Woods-circa-2000-cheesy-Joker grin. After which you might notice a rust-prone hatchback that has long held the torch for fun-to-drive economy cars.
All of which conspires into an impossible to avoid and impractical to ignore competitor; just ask the 100,000 Canadians who’ve bought one since LA’s finest plastic surgeons did their worst Heath Ledger impression on the 2010 model year. Too soon? I didn’t think so either. But 100,000 units make for a lot of perky smiles on a lot of icy driveways. That’s the kind of number that can’t begs the inevitable and Platonically human question: Why?
Simple question, not so simple answer. Then again, it never is. So rather than developing an elegant sounding but completely unsubstantiated and untestable theory, let’s delve into a few hereto-unexplored details of the Mazda3 in an attempt to highlight some of the little things that make all the difference for prospective buyers like you. For each feature, I’ll give it a Cheese Factor out of 5 to give you an idea of how happy that feature will make you.
There’s no easier way for a manufacturer to show that they bleed maple syrup than to offer Canadian buyers with heated cloth seats. No mandatory upgrade is needed to have your firm(ish) buns toasted like a Timmy’s bagel. No sir, not here. Mazda gets it, and that makes them as Canadian as hockey, Louis Riel, and wide-open spaces. Mazda has gone the extra mile with the 3’s seat heater controls and given you an unprecedented five levels with which to amuse yourself. The-future-Mrs. CarEnvy’s 2009 Mazda3 GT only has one measly setting: Active Volcano. With her ‘09 it’s either Dallol or Oymyakon.
Even on setting 2, the seats quickly get cozy and stay there. I wasn’t even daring enough to try all 5 stages – I’ll leave that to those wackos who sign waivers before eating insanely spicy hot wings.
Once the exclusive purview of German-made nightmares, the switchblade key has grown increasingly popular as a means of inexpensively adding an up-market flair. Kids and adults alike love the idea of carrying a pocketknife. It makes them feel well prepared, and that makes them feel a little better about the road ahead. Curiously, and counter to strict VW Switchblade Key Orthodoxy, the 3’s key opens parallel to the width of the fob, rather than perpendicular. You can put your phone away; I already called the Blasphemy Police. Still, it’s a fun toy that had me thinking of the car even when it wasn’t around.
Yes, it’s the new SkyActiv and no, it’s not a hybrid. Mazda chose not to invest in expensive battery technology, preferring instead to hone internal combustion tech to deliver more power and more efficiency. The pretentiously nonsensical “SkyActiv” moniker was then slapped on by marketing mavens who took this noble engineering triumph and green/blue-washed it. Why? Because that’s what marketers are paid for – they’d be out of a job otherwise – forced to do something ethical with their lives.
But calling SkyActiv an “engineering triumph” in the first place is a bit too kind. SkyActiv isn’t as radical as you’d think; it’s not much more than direct-injection with a stratospheric 12.0:1 compression ratio. In fact, chances are that DI technology is older than you and I put together – it was patented in the 1920’s by John Hesselman and was featured prominently as early as the lust-worthy 1955 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing. If it’s supposed to pass for some kind of blue-sky thinking then I’m Mahatma Gandhi. No matter how you look at it, the marketers are selling you snake oil. This could almost be forgiven if the SkyActiv wasn’t so drearily slow and numbed further by levels of steering feedback not even a Corolla would envy.
It does have a kick ass blue engine cover though. Can’t say we’ve ever seen that before.
The trunk itself is reasonably sized and features the usual 60/40 split, but getting at for the first time was admittedly humbling. I half-heartedly gave up on altogether on several occasion. In my defense, these attempts were in the dark and my Car Superiority Ego precluded me from searching very hard, so I gave up quickly and used the back seat instead. Clearly, the trunk release button wasn’t quite where I expected it to be. You know what it’s like to open an unfamiliar hood, there’s hunting, hounding, fishing and ferreting; but the trunk lid is supposed to be the easy one! Eventually, I stumbled upon what appeared to be the trunk’s back-up camera (uh, despite the lack of back-up monitor inside the car), located skyward from the latchless grab handle, and pressed its little black button.
Well I’ll be damned…
This may be an oversimplification, but you buy American cars because your dad did, you buy German cars because the buttons feel like oiled silk, and you buy Japanese cars because they’ll last forever. And no, I don’t know why you buy Korean cars. Since my Ukrainian-Jewish heritage necessitates a preference for low running costs, I lean towards Japanese cars, swallowing the hard pill of shitty buttons in the process. So when I found the rear defroster button in the Mazda3, I found further proof that Mazda truly bleeds maple syrup. Tucked behind the shifter, separated from the air re-circ button by the double-width A/C button, was the most gloriously Germanic button I’ve ever had the privilege of depressing. I swear I heard angels crying with joy every time I hopped in the cold san (Japanese for “three”), started her up, and caressed the supple rear defroster button. And I just got carried away. So… how about those Oilers?
All in all, Mazda has honed the 3 into a potently pizzazzless, if aggressively priced, contender. It’s a full $4k cheaper than the fancy new Focus, leagues less depressing than the dopey Cruze, and a fair bit classier than the simplistic Matrix. Let’s not even pretend that the soul-destroying xB is even in the hunt, ok? Even in the Sport (read: Wagon) body style, the Mazda3 SkyActiv comes loaded with an automatic transmission, heated side mirrors, those wonderful heated seats and rain-sensing wipers at only $22,790, including freight! At that price, even if the driving experience is disappointingly crashy and imprecise, it’s tough to beat as a pure value proposition. We might not know precisely why there are 100,000 perky smiles on 100,000 icy driveways, but we now know that it was far from an accident.
[Photo credits: author, Mazda]
This vehicle was provided by the manufacturer.