After months of having to drool at this sleek smaller sibling to the Mazda6 bearing Singaporean number plates, the Mazda3 was finally launched for the Malaysian market on the 23rd of November 2006 by the Mazda Division of Cycle & Carriage Bintang Berhad at its newly refurbished showroom at Jalan Ampang. Sorry for not being able to cover the launch, but to make up for it here is my test drive report on the Mazda3 2.0 in both hatchback and sedan forms. Read my report after the jump!

The Mazda Axela, or Mazda3 as it is known in Malaysia comes in four variants for the Malaysian market – a 1.6 hatchback, a 1.6 sedan, a 2.0 hatchback and a 2.0 sedan. The cars come imported directly from Japan. Mazdas idea of a hatchback is similar to BMWs, looking more like a shorter shooting brake more than the conventional sporty hatchback that were used to, this helps with interior space as well as ensures the cars roofline doesnt make it impossible for taller than average passengers to sit in the rear comfortably. The sedan shares the family look of its older brother the Mazda 6, with a similar horizontal bar wedge grille on the front.

Both body variants look like they have the same front bumper design with a wide air dam flanked by fog lamps, yet in reality, both cars share no body panels! The sedan has its grille integrated with the front bumper, while most of the hatchbacks grille is part of the bonnet. Both the Mazda3 hatchback and sedan have a very planted to the ground looks to them, sitting low to the ground, with minimal wheel arch gaps enhancing the effect. Even more so with the Mazda 3 hatchback, it has a slight wide-body look to it thanks to the design of its shoulder line, making the car look wider despite being no wider than the sedan in reality. Both cars have a sexy rear end with a rear bumper sporting a diffuser-like design. Tail lamps of both cars share a similar nice clear lens crystal design. The sedan has a small tastefully done boot lid spoiler while the hatch has a rooftop spoiler.

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Enter the car and youll be greeted by a predominantly gray sporty-looking interior with dark aluminum trim. Seats are of the fabric kind even for the 2.0 litre model. The sportier hatchback model has some red pattern to the seats, while the sedan model has it fully black. The shifter for the 4-speed automatic transmission is a gate-shift type, and is relatively short, giving it a sporty feel.

Stick the blade key into the ignition and turn the engine on, and the engine smoothly comes to life. Then you notice the meter panels. They look really really good. In daylight, they light up with electro-luminescence in red, and its brightness can be set to suit your preferences, though its not infinitely variable – only in 3 steps. This is how the meter panel looks like in daylight. At night when you turn on the headlamps, there is an additional glowing blue ring around the gauges, which simply looks great .The brightness of the red is also variable in that mode. The 3 gauges of the meter panel are also set deep inside three pods, which protect them against glare from sunlight. One interesting thing about the Mazda3 is unlike most tiptronic cars that only show you which transmission gear you are in when you are manually shifting the gears, the Mazda3 also shows you which gear you are in when you are in fully automatic mode!

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While I would expect leather seats to be offered in the 2.0 litre model (keep the fabric seats for the 1.6 litre), the seats are comfy and supports you well. I found that the default seating position is actually quite high for a sporty car like the Mazda3, but nevertheless a high seating position allows you a good view of the road ahead. Though the interior space of the car is nothing segment-breaking like the Honda Civic, it provided sufficient room for even a tall person to sit behind. Even though from the outside the sedan had a sloping roof, the slope actually begins behind wherever a tall persons head would be. Protons GEN2 designers should take note from Mazda.

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The ICE and air conditioning controls are set out mainly in a set of buttons and large knobs that are easy to turn, they dont feel too loose so they are easy to control. They light up with a dull red at night, as to not be overly bright and distracting. Theres a set of LEDs to the left and right of the volume knob which light up as you adjust the volume – an interesting design feature which doesnt really serve much purpose as it doesnt indicate volume, just how fast and in which direction you are turning the knob. The 2.0 litre model has automatic climate control. The audio system has decent treble and bass but the bass seems to lack a proper deep thump to it due to the lack of a dedicated subwoofer, however for a stock audio system for a car in its price range it is satisfactory.

Interior plastics are NOT the soft kind you see in old cars, but they are not as hard as what you might see in some of the older Korean makes in Malaysia, and most Protons. The different components of the dash are also pieced together well with proper gaps between different panels. The leather wrapped steering wheel has a comfortable size to it, not extra small and sporty like the new Civics and gives you a good grip. The cabin has a mid-market sporty feel to it, which is smart of Mazda, if you want sporty, just go sporty all the way, it is not a weird mix of luxury and sportiness which excels in neither aspect. Overall, the controls are quite ergonomic and the cockpit keeps you sufficiently comfortable and entertained through your journey.

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The same deceiving slope of the sedan also allows the car to look sporty and have a short, almost aeroback-like rump while hiding a surprisingly huge boot space! Double-link boot hinges neither intrude into the boot when the lid is closed nor obstruct the boot when the lid is open. The boot has a full flat floor thanks to specially designed rear suspension which do not intrude into boot space. It fits up to 3 full-size golf bags. Both the sedan and hatchback variant have 60:40 folding seats for you to extend your storage space. As for interior storage space, you have some storage space in the center armrest, as well as a surprisingly large 3.6 litre glove compartment. The cupholders are in a covered compartment in between the center armrest and the gear shifter – you get two of them, and they have a little hole in between them so you can fit longer items like your wallet or cellphone.

The all-aluminium 2.0 litre engine is a DOHC unit with 16 valves, variable length intake manifold and S-VT variable valve timing. It makes 147PS at 6,500rpm and 182Nm of torque at 4,200rpm. It is normally aspirated and behaves like so, no crazy amount of torque at low revs – you got to rev it up for maximum power. The Mazda3 feels nimble around the slalom, and makes emergency lane changing composure a dream. The 4-speed automatic gearbox is pretty smart, downshifting down slopes and whenever else required.

mazda3_gear_left.jpgI especially like the fact that in manual shift mode, which is accessible by pulling the gear shift into the M selection in the gate shift, has the upshift and downshift throws the other way around, which I feel is the right way. Pull back to upshift, and push forward to downshift. The only other car manufacturer that Ive seen set up the manual shift this way is BMW. It only makes sense, as when the car is moving forward, its only natural to pull the shifter back to upshift, matching the inertia you are feeling.

The only downside is I feel that the ratios cause the engine to run out of shove too early, so I wish the car came with a 5-speed transmission instead, like the one thats equipped in the 2.0 litre Mazda6. Even so, the car remains a sporty drive, but cant stop one from wishing for more can you?

The Mazda3 shares the same chassis as the Ford Focus and Volvo S40/V50. It is a good blend of comfort and performance with bias slightly more towards the performance side of things, however going over rough roads will not cause you to throw up your dinner. However you do feel road imperfections, and the low profile tires (Bridgestone Potenza RE030 in 205/50/R17 size) while good for cornering performance (sidewalls do not flex as much) sacrifices comfort a little.

Cabin sound insulation is satisfactory thanks to what Mazda calls Thinsulate, and when you are cruising at about 120km/h to 140km/h on a hot sunny day, you can only hear the air conditioning fan, which is quite noticeable on hot days due to the automatic climate control churning it up to cool the cabin down fast on hot days. But the audio system takes care of this minor source of noise – perfectly capable of drowning it out.

The Mazda3 comes with two airbags for the driver and passenger, as well as the standard set of safety features like ABS and EBD. The brakes are sufficiently powerful for spirited driving, and you do not need to step on the pedal too much for you to have an effect. Floor it and the wheels will surely skid due to the braking power it has, but ABS takes care of that, allowing you to maintain steering control during hard braking.

Overall, I really like the Mazda 3 and I would pick the sedan variant over the hatch as strangely I feel the sedan is sleeker than the hatch, though the minor differences in body panel design give the hatch a more aggressive feel. At RM129,899 for the 2.0 sedan and RM133,899 for the hatchback as well as being fully imported from Japan, it would be a good choice for those who dont want to be like everyone else and drive a Corolla or a Civic, don’t need the large interior space of the new Civic and have inhibitions with going the European way with the Ford Focus. It is a car that simply looks beautiful both inside (lovely interior, though not as futuristic as the Civics, but then not everyone can identify with the Civics space age dash anyway) and out, as well as in the engine bay. Now, I wonder if I can custom order one with leather seats…

Click any of the photos in this post for an enlarged version.

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