Three and easy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 May, 2009, 12:00am


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Normally, a car will sell best when it's new, but the Mazda3 contravenes this code. The recently-superseded model enjoyed a sales peak right at the end of its production cycle (last year's global sales were up 37 per cent compared with when it was first introduced, in 2004).

The first-series Mazda3 is the brand's best-selling model and has so far accounted for one-third of Mazda's total global sales in the four years it has been on the market. So the new Mazda3 has a lot to live up to. From first impressions by way of a 400km drive through the New South Wales/Victoria border region on Australia's east coast, the new car seems every bit as good as the popular old model.

Although it's slightly bigger and heavier than before, this Mazda3 is more fuel-efficient and quieter. There are new features, too, such as stability control, a central information screen and a new five-speed automatic transmission with steering-mounted paddle shift.

There is plenty of equipment in the Mazda3 2-litre hatch destined for the Hong Kong market. A keyless entry and stop-start system, full leather upholstery, dual-zone climate control, eight airbags, stability control, auto-on wipers and headlights, power sunroof, 31/2-inch multi-information display, steering-mounted controls for the audio system and information display, 17-inch alloy wheels and fold-in power mirrors are all standard.

The new Mazda3 shares much of the previous model's styling, yet takes the latest Mazda trademark design cues, such as the large lower grille and exaggerated, rounded front guards. The new look is sharp and distinctive.

The interior is of fine quality, with the right blend of hues and materials and a reassuring feel to the leather seats, which come as standard. Although some of the minor, less noticeable plastics in the cabin are not perfect, the interior feels as if it's made to last. It's super-quiet inside on all but Australia's coarse chip bitumen, when the reflected road noise becomes really obvious. Important for humid and hot summers is the climate control, which is more efficient with a 20 per cent larger heat exchanger and 50 per cent larger air compressor.

The new 3's body has seen a 17 per cent increase in use of high- and ultra-high strength steel giving an increase in flexural and torsional strength of more than 20 per cent. There's also new MacPherson strut front suspension and new multi-link rear suspension.

Mazda wanted to make sure the driving dynamics were just as good as the old model's, and the marque has achieved its aim. But the new 3 seems less involving than the old model. It has a new independent rear suspension system - a rare thing in the small-car class - which has improved ride quality, but it has been engineered for stability rather than throttle-induced oversteer. Although some drivers may not like the change, the new 3 is still a very engaging drive, even though the new electro-mechanical steering doesn't quite have the connectedness of the old model's hydraulics.

The 2-litre engine is the same unit as in the older 3 with minor improvements including a new air-induction system to make it more responsive. It is not exactly a high-performance block, but it revs out quite smoothly and is easy to drive at low revs all day if required. The new five-speed automatic with a sports mode is a smooth-shifting transmission, although it can throw the odd abrupt shift into the mix.

The new Mazda3 may not be quite as focused in its handling and responses as its predecessor, but there are so many other improvements, such as the ride, the cabin, overall refinement and new features, that it's a better car. Mazda Hong Kong is also importing the 1.5-litre CVT, four-door (HK$159,990), you can see this and the 2-litre test car at Ocean Terminal, Tsim Sha Tsui today and tomorrow, from 11am-9pm.

AT A GLANCE: Mazda 3 Hatchback

What drives it?

A 145hp, 2-litre, MZR four-cylinder engine with a five-speed Activematic box on 17-inch wheels

How fast is it? It's said to bang out 182Nm at 4,500rpm, to hit 98km/h in 10.6 seconds, and to top at 203km/h.

How safe is it?

It has eight airbags, ABS, dynamic stability control, electronic brake-force distribution and more.

How thirsty is it?

It drinks 7.6 litres per 100km (37.2mpg) on combined runs.

How clean is it?

It emits 175 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre.

Available: HK$179,990 at Mazda Hong Kong (tel: 2893 1112).