2011 Mazda Mazda3

October 21, 2011

For small families on a budget or young singletons new to the work force, the 2011 Mazda3 is a great combination of cute looks, fun driving and sporty value.

Driving the Mazda3 was a blast. Its acceleration was just peppy enough to look forward to it as a daily driver, but the suspension was a bit tight for my taste. The rear seat comfortably accommodated my two youngsters, and the extra cargo space created by the hatchback design easily held all our stuff.

My test car was a Mazda3 s Sport with a sticker price of $23,110. The hatchback starts at $20,045. That's a lot of zoom-zoom for not a lot of cash.

EXTERIOR

The Mazda3 comes in both a sedan and hatchback version. I'm a sucker for a hatchback. Not only are they incredibly functional, but who can resist their sporty, ready-to-prance stance? Add to that a rear spoiler and the Mazda3 makes me feel like I'm 23 again, racing off eagerly to my first big job interview followed by a night out on the town with friends.

I'm not sure how I feel about the smirky grin on the Mazda3's grille. During the day it's equally friendly and inviting, but at night I can't help thinking it looks like a little clown car that's turned evil and is grinning with a sinister plan to swallow my children.

Speaking of children, the Mazda3's low stance makes it easy for even the littlest of legs to climb in. Watch your head though, because the low step-in height also comes with a low roofline.

The Mazda3 has a 167-horsepower, 2.5-liter inline-four-cylinder engine. With the optional five-speed automatic transmission ($800), which has a clutchless-manual mode, my test car got an EPA-estimated 22/29 mpg city/highway. That's fine but not great for such a small car. With the standard six-speed manual transmission, the Mazda3 gets 20/28 mpg.

SENSE AND STYLE

Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Fair

Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Good Times

INTERIOR

For my family, the Mazda3 easily adjusted to our lives. There was just enough room in the rear seat – both in width and legroom – for my two school-age kids plus their overwhelmed backpacks. On a weekend trip to the golf course, the little Mazda kept on zooming along, even when loaded with three children in the backseat, myself and my 6-foot-2-inch fiance as well as three sets of child-sized golf clubs in the cargo area.

While the Mazda3 seats five, it's a tight squeeze to do so. To get three kids to fit in the backseat, my daughters had to first get buckled into their high-back booster seats before the third child could wedge herself into the center position and buckle in. Despite the tight fit, it works for short drives, and I was impressed that I could get three kids in the second row. The child in the center seat probably would have been more comfortable had I used backless booster seats for my girls, giving the child more shoulder room.

Legroom in the second row was definitely tight, and that was with the driver's seat adjusted to accommodate me at 5 feet 3 inches. Move the seat farther back and we would have needed to contort my daughter's legs to get her to fit in the backseat.

The in-door storage bins in the front doors had enough room to hold two water bottles plus other skinny stuff such as some trash and snack bags. The rear doors had just enough room for one bottle of water each. This was enough room to keep extra water bottles close at hand for the trip home from the golf course. A fold-down armrest with extra cupholders was a nice plus in the rear seat. The center console was just the right size for containing a few baggies of snacks, and the removable tray on the top portion kept little things like Polly Pockets and lip gloss from getting lost.

The interior of the Mazda3 was chock-full of fabric and plastic, save for a leather-wrapped steering wheel, which both tilts and telescopes and has steering-wheel-mounted buttons for audio, Bluetooth and cruise control. The black-colored upholstery was like wearing black velvet to a dinner party in a home with shedding white dogs. It collected and showed every speck of dust brought into the car by the kids. The good news is, it vacuumed up easily.

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT

Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Fair

Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Fair-Ample

SAFETY

Buckling little ones into the Mazda3 is a little challenging. Older kids with more developed dexterity will be fine, but youngsters in booster seats might find the seat belt buckles with flimsy bases difficult to use on their own.

The two sets of Latch connectors, which are located on the outbound sides of the rear seat, are also tough to use. They're buried tightly in the seat bight, the area between the seat's back and bottom cushion. If your car seat has rigid Latch connectors, you'll be able to manage with fewer struggles.

While there's enough room in the backseat to fit a rear-facing infant-safety seat, there's not enough space for a rear-facing convertible child-safety seat without moving the front passenger seat really far forward.

Starting in 2010, the Mazda3 was offered with electronic stability control as standard equipment. This essentially helps keep a car from fishtailing and skidding by applying brakes individually to any of the four wheels to help keep the car pointing in the right direction.

The Mazda3 also has standard four-wheel-disc antilock brakes with brake assist, an electronic stability system with traction control, active head restraints and six airbags, including side-impact airbags for the front row and side curtains for both rows.

Photo courtesy of Mazda

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