Smart, and Just a Little Saucy
Sunday, December 7, 2003
ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. --
It's not so much that small cars are making a comeback as it is that automakers are coming back to the truth -- that cars made with equal parts of funk and function yield desire.
That formula works for cars large and small, as evidenced by the public's embrace of little runners such as the BMW Mini Cooper, Subaru Impreza WRX, Mitsubishi Lancer and Toyota Prius.
It will become more evident with the showroom introduction this month of the 2004 Mazda3, which replaces the Protégé as Mazda's entry-level car.
Funk is a matter of styling and attitude, and the front-wheel-drive Mazda3, available as a sedan or five-door hatchback, has lots of both. That is important. Past small cars weren't poor sellers because they were small. They were poor sellers because they were boring, ugly, bereft of personality.
Virtue takes a beating under that visage. No one drives down the street shouting: "Hey, my cheap, ugly econobox gets 55 miles per gallon!"
People are vain. They want to be noticed, loved, appreciated. They want smiles, the kind I got driving the Mazda3 around Laguna Beach, where people generally don't smile at anything considered "economy."
But how could they not smile at a cute little hatchback with a well-sculpted front end, muscular side panels and a tightly tapered rear. There is something sassy about it, something bordering on sexy.
Depending on how much you're willing to spend, you can spiff up the Mazda3's exterior even more with a sport appearance package -- adding bigger wheels and more bodywork to highlight its flared front and rear fenders.
Even the cabin of the Mazda3 hatchback feels first-class. Fit and finish are excellent, rivaling that found in substantially larger and more expensive cars. The materials are high quality. They look and feel rich, and that includes the instrument panel's vinyl, which often betrays the cheapness of many compact automobiles. The feeling is soft, compliant -- as opposed to cold, hard, toy-store plastic.
That tactile superiority carries over to the Mazda3's glove-box lid and roof grab-handles. It's a seemingly small thing. But there really is a big difference, in terms of owner desirability, between a glove box that falls open with a racket and one that gently opens under the control of a spring damping system, as is the case with the Mazda3.
That speaks somewhat to function, but with a voice not nearly as strong as the car's utility and overall performance. I drove the sedan and hatchback version of the car, but spent most of my time in the hatchback.
My first concern was the Mazda3's turning circle, its ability to execute a "U" turn on a single-lane neighborhood street without touching opposing curbs. My interest in doing that test stemmed from the disappointing turning circle of the mid-size Mazda6, which, despite its many good points, can't make a turn between curbs without running over one of them. The Mazda3 handled those U- turns perfectly.
The car also did remarkably well in the late-morning traffic of Interstate 405, which is brutal in terms of speed, when traffic is moving, and density, when it's inching along. Again, I had no problems. The Mazda3 hatchback -- equipped with a 2.3-liter, 160-horsepower, four-cylinder engine -- moved quickly when traffic was rushing; and it handled with aplomb in the give-and-mostly-take internecine motorized warfare of urban-area traffic jams.
But if you are an aggressive utilitarian, a person interested only in a car's emissions ratings and fuel-economy numbers, the Mazda3 has something for you, too. Depending on the model and equipment chosen, it gets California's LEV (Low Emission Vehicle), SULEV (Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle) and PZEV (Partial Zero Emission Vehicle).
It all means a car that doesn't pollute too much and that, depending on whether you choose a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission, you can get from 29 miles per gallon to 35 mpg in highway driving.
Looks like a winner to me.