TDC Contributions is back! TDC’s good friend Keith Desharnais chronicles his quest to replace his beloved Nissan Frontier with something a little more practical and economical. His choice carefully balances sport and economy; think a stylish econo-mobile with sporting pretensions. Read on, and enjoy.
Everyone avoids it, but at some point in your life, it will corner you: The decision to give up something you love for the sole purpose of practicality. About six months ago I was faced with just such a decision. At that time, I was driving a Nissan Frontier pickup truck. That truck and I had a lot of good times, but a 60 mile per day work commute at 17.5 miles-per-gallon forced me to explore other options. After crunching a few numbers I discovered that a car getting 35 mpg would save me an estimated $200 dollars a month in fuel costs, and so the quest for a more economical vehicle began.
After much exhaustive research it came down to the Honda Civic and the Mazda3. I found myself being drawn to the Mazda so I eventually found myself en route to the Mazda dealership. A short walk around the lot brought me to a liquid silver metallic 2011 Mazda3 I 4-Touring edition. The sticker boasted that this Mazda3 had a 2.0 liter 4-cylinder engine, got 33 mpg on the highway, and had a 5-speed manual transmission.
My first thought was that the designers simply couldn’t make up their mind. From the rear, the car looks boring. A single exhaust pipe, no spoiler, and a large section of unpainted bumper brings the term “econobox” to mind. The front, however, is more aggressive. While some of the aesthetic features don’t do much for performance, they do give the impression to drivers ahead that not getting out of the way of a speeding Mazda3 would result in them being consumed like a little white dot into Pacman’s mouth, and with about the same robotic indifference. The intensity of the front transformed to curiosity as I examined the side of the car. The best aspects from both the front and rear fuse together to give the side profile a perfectly subtle allure. Distinctive flared fenders, and the slight downward angle from rear to front, make the Mazda3 look like it could pounce at any moment.
The interior is far more consistent, and it has everything I would expect from a car in its class. The radio display is located in a pod on the top of the dash so the name of the current song playing is a simple eye movement away. The radio also allows you to connect a Bluetooth enabled device for streaming music or sending and receiving phone calls. All of these features can be controlled by buttons on the steering wheel, so you could be power sliding around a turn while decreasing the volume of your music to better hear your squealing tires. There are also plenty of compartments and pockets located within arms reach of the driver, so finding a place for toll money is no chore. The glovebox even contains a second, deeper compartment larger than the trunk on most supercars.
When it was time for the test drive, the salesman gave me the key. The lock and trunk buttons were built into the key fob on one side, and on the other was a shiny chrome Mazda symbol. I pressed a round metal key release on the button side, which flipped out the key like a switchblade, and started the car. At idle, the engine was so smooth and quiet that if I didn’t have an rpm gauge I wouldn’t have even known it was running. The test drive went great and I ended up buying the car, but it has taken me the past four months to get an idea of how this car really drives.
Under normal driving conditions, the Mazda3 feels like any other car. There is normal road noise, and the sport suspension can make for a rough ride, but the pedals, steering, and shifter are still all very solid feeling. While the car has perfectly adequate passing power, the acceleration is a little strange. Below 3,000 rpms, you may as well be nailing the gas under water. Even when the tachometer is approaching redline, there is only a slight thrill of acceleration in the first few gears.
The real fun comes when you get out of the city and onto the winding back roads. Any aesthetic or acceleration drawbacks of this car are instantly forgotten when entering that first corner. There is no body roll, or awkward over/under steer. Just the calm humming of tires sticking to the pavement, working in perfect harmony with the suspension to give the best possible grip. Even when that turn unexpectedly gets tighter, the Mazda3 seems able to pull even more grip out of its errr… tailpipe.
While the Mazda3 seems to have a bit of an identity crisis, I don’t in any way see it as a bad thing. It can be anything you want it to be, any place and at any time. It’s affordable, but not cheap; flashy from the front, and neutral from the rear; filled with gadgets, but still intuitive. This is a car that you can take your grandmother to bingo in, and then use to evade police after she is caught stealing all of the prize money. With so many possible identities I know that even years from now, I will look at this car with the same fondness as I do today.
- Written by: Keith Desharnais, author of the Mindful Automation technology blog www.mindfulautomation.com
- Photos by: Scott Petrili