Mazda 3 – review after a year and a half

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NRMA Motoring and Services
NRMA New Cars

In February 2012 I purchased a Mazda 3 kind of on accident. The local dealer had them, and I was looking for a used car at the time that got better mileage than my Toyota Tacoma (which at 250K miles just had it’s first new clutch.. gotta love Toyota trucks..)

They had just come out with their new SkyActiv system, which essentially just runs the engine at very high compression to get more efficiency out of it, and tweaks the transmission, although I’m still not sure what’s different about the transmission other than it totally sucks. (see below) It was the right price, and 40MPG+ sounded pretty good, so I got it, figuring I’d actually get about 30MPG.

At first

The smell. Seriously, when I was thinking new car smell, that cancer causing stew of plastic, glue and paint that we so love – I really didn’t think of Cosmoline, the stuff they put on guns when they’re in storage for long periods of time.

No, I didn’t, but that’s what I got. By the time I got home the chemical waft that was coming off the car made my eyes water and my nose wrinkle. I called the dealer, and just got their ‘oh – that. It’s cosmoline from the engine. It’ll burn off..’

I think it was doing just that and taking my nose with it. After a week or two it did go away though. Just saying that first week was tough.

Performance

The 2 liter engine puts out 155 horses, and feels pretty peppy. If I put my foot into it, it actually goes – ignoring the transmission which seems to take 10 minutes, six phone calls and an SMS message to shift into a lower gear. Once it shifts I never feel like I’m asking for favors on the freeway. Handling is nice too, it corners pretty well with just a little under-steer if you push it, but again, I wasn’t expecting a sports car.

Braking is AWESOME. It has anti-lock brakes, and 4 wheel disk brakes which I know is more marketing than anything (read about how much more work your front brakes do sometime) – but it seems to stop immediately. From any speed. 80 MPH? No problem, hit the brakes, in 3.2 inches you’ll be at a complete stop. No worries. It’s magical.

As a guy with trucks in various states of repair over the years I’m used to planning months in advance when I need to stop. Slamming on the brakes is just a way to make a lot of smoke and noise, it has nothing to do with stopping. This car is night and day different. The BMW owners out there may roll their eyes, but for me this was an amazing thing.

They claimed it would get 40MPG, and I actually, surprisingly get more than that. I think I’m averaging overall 43MPG right now, including my around-town driving. I’m guessing on the highway I get about 45-50MPG, and around town 35ish, but I’m kind of a lead-foot. If I drove slower I’d get better mileage around town.

Engine

MAZDA_SH-VPTS_DIESEL_1This SkyActiv engine is a trip. When you start it on a cold morning, it sounds TERRIBLE. I thought it was broken at first, but for a minute or so until it warms up, it sounds clacky and clunky and then it starts to purr. I’m sure this is the compression, because at the 12:1 ratio it runs at with gasoline, it borders on diesel compression. It’s horsepower/torque starts to really cut in at about 2700 RPM, and smoothly drives up through 5000 RPM if needed, above that there’s a rev limiter, which is probably good. Like I mentioned 155 horses is enough power, I’d like more, but my trade-off was efficiency or I’d of bought the Mazda-Speed edition.

As I mentioned the mileage isn’t in the 50-60 range of a Hybrid, but close. Considering the price, and features, additional power, and the fact it doesn’t look like a smashed shoebox on wheels, I’ll take this over a Prius any day.

Transmission

WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH THE TRANSMISSION?!? – I mean it’s not broken. It’s a 6 speed automatic with manual override through all 6 gears. If you’re just cruising around it’s fine, it shifts, is quiet, and seems to do it’s job, but when you need to react to something, jump into traffic, change speed quickly, etc – it just sits there in whatever gear your in and stares at you. I’ve taken to putting it in manual mode when I’m preparing to make a move because there’s no other way to make it upshift correctly. Here’s what happens:

  • 0 seconds: I decide to accelerate into the faster lane to my left.
  • 1 seconds: I push on the accelerator, and start to make the lane change.
  • 2 seconds: No acceleration. The engine sounds like it’s trying, but the transmission doesn’t shift.
  • 3 seconds: I’m starting to get mad. The transmission suddenly decouples, shifts down TWO gears to 3rd, and the engine revs to 4-5K, which is at the top of the line, so I have no headroom to actually accelerate. Lots of noise, nothing happens.
  • 4 seconds: I feel like an ass because I’m still going 45 mph in the fast lane, and other drivers are piling up behind me.
  • 5 seconds: The transmission shifts into 4th and suddenly I’m in the right place to speed up.

You see the problem. And yes, although I prefer manual transmissions mostly, I have owned automatics before and they’ve never behaved like this. I keep meaning to ask Mazda in case there’s some special turbo-boost button or something I need to press, or if perhaps I need to send an email to my car before changing lanes so that it can prepare properly.

Interior

2010-Mazda-MAZDA3-Sedan-i-SV-4dr-Sedan-Interior-2Nice layout, the seat isn’t the most comfortable I’ve had, but it works, although when driving a lot it hurts my back more than my pickup did. Go figure. The shifter is in the right place and the one conflict I’ve run into is the dash 12V outlet. If you have an accessory plugged in, it hits the shifter if it’s too big.

My one complaint is the steering wheel is laid out in a T formation. Which means my normal relaxed hand at the bottom hold on things that I’ve done for the past umteen years with my Toyotas, is impossible, so I just cannot get a comfortable hours long grip on the wheel, I have to use muscle energy or two hands to balance the wheel. Dumb. I guess it’s a learned behavior to some degree, but I can’t figure out how to do it comfortably.

Stereo

The best stock stereo I’ve had, ever. I think this is fairly common in the newer cars though, they finally figured out that drivers like a decent stereo. Includes hookups for XM, and also came with Bluetooth phone/audio integration. Bluetooth audio sucks period, but the convenience is there for sure. It also has a 3.5mm jack for AUX in if you want, and a separate 12V plug in the center console for keeping your phone charged, while the dash one remains available for guests.

My one complaint is that the biggest knob in the center of the audio controls is the track/frequency selector, which completely throws me to this day. It’s a giant knob, it should be volume. That’s what the big ass knob is for, to TURN IT UP. Instead I have to hunt for one of two smaller knobs the same size and shape which controls volume or use the steering control which is a button. Lame. Get your UI team on that Mazda, stat.

Sum it up man.

Overall: I love this car. I wasn’t looking for something sporty, and this is no sports car, but it can actually corner (keep in mind I had been driving a 4WD truck) and it stops on a dime, it’s easy to control and low to the ground. It looks nice, has a decent back seat, and is a reasonably comfortable drive. The stock stereo sounds great, and the Bluetooth system works pretty well with my Samsung Note 2.  It drives heavy, and does what you tell it to do (mostly) and I can say I’m pretty happy with my experience.

Pros: Great mileage, comfortable and steady handling. Good price. Dealer oil changes are a rip off.

Cons: The steering wheel is the wrong shape, and the transmission is slow in automatic mode. It’s even kind of slow in manual mode. I can shift an MT with a clutch about a billion times faster.

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