Metro Weekly

Big Fun on a Budget

2004 Mazda 3s

Some weeks are a car lover’s dream — mainly a week in which the driveway is filled with three or four different makes and models eagerly awaiting your time behind the wheel. It’s also the kind of week that makes a car stand out — when you keep coming back to the same car with a plethora of choices available, you know something is working right.

That’s exactly the feeling I had every day I got behind the wheel of the Mazda 3. There was nothing wrong with the other cars awaiting their own review cruising — in fact, they were quite fine. It’s just that Mazda’s small-sized cruiser beckoned for repeated sessions of “zoom zoom.”

I’ve been a fan of the Mazda 3 since the debut of the four-door sedan earlier this year. The front fascia, hood and fenders exude a subtle masculinity that’s rare in any car that could be described as entry-level or economy. It’s an eye-grabbing affair, one that brings a high dose of style to a section of the market that’s often dominated by either plain-Jane practicality or over-compensation by design (see the Toyota Matrix).

This version of the Mazda 3 is a 5-door model — automakers cringe at calling these things hatchbacks in the American market, as we apparently are repelled by a car with a “hatch.” Although one has to wonder how the gate in the back qualifies as a “door.” Semantics aside, Mazda did a fine job incorporating the expanded rear storage area into a hatchback configuration, maintaining the styling cues from the front while maximizing functionality. In some ways it calls to mind the hatchback version of the previous generation of BMW’s Z3 roadster (rare in the U.S.), but without the thrombic bulges.

The Mazda 3, equipped with a 2.3-liter four cylinder engine and a 5-speed manual transmission, makes for a perky and nimble car. The transmission provides a competent interface with the nicely tuned engine, giving you plenty of pop to your daily driving, whether it’s running to the grocery store or ferrying your friends around town.

The interior feels and looks taut, with lots of mod touches that enhance the cabin without taking it into gew-gaw land. A case in point is the stereo face — a glowing horizontal line bisects it, and pulses to the left or right as you change volume, tracks or channels. Pretty but a bit subtle. The same applies to the instrument cluster over the steering wheel, where the red and amber glow is offset by a touch of ice-cold hipster blue.

2004 Mazda 3s 5-Door
Base MSRP: $16,895
Price as tested: $19,765
MPG city/highway (est.): 25 city/32 highway with 5-speed manual transmission — 24/29 with 4-speed automatic
Highlights: Muscular, masculine good looks in a market niche more often prone to boring pragmatism
Lowlights: Hard to find, but the 5-door is a tad more ungainly-looking than the sedan

This is a lot of car for the money — four-wheel disc brakes, hot wheels, and steering wheel stereo controls come as standard equipment for the sub-$17,000 base price. Add in options such as the 6-disc CD player (not necessary, but worth it) and ABS with side air-bags (safety is always a good investment), it still comes in under $20,000. There are other cars that offer similar ratios of quantity and quality for the dollar — the Scion tC comes immediately to mind, as well as the Volvo S40 — but the Mazda 3, with its more distinctive-yet-pleasing design and deeply engrained sense of fun will remain hard to beat for quite some time.

Sean Bugg is Editor Emeritus for Metro Weekly.