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Mazda can be considered something of a maverick amongst Japanese carmakers – it likes to do things differently. While we’re not talking Citroen levels of avant-garde here, things like rotary power, suicide doors on a ‘coupe’, the jinba ittai, Kodo and ‘Zoom-Zoom’ philosophies, and the reincarnation of the no-frills, open-top sports car aren’t, by most standards, run-of-the-mill.

Such unique traits undoubtedly draw enthusiasts, and shine brightest in the brand’s more niche offerings, but how do they manifest themselves in a volume product like the Mazda3? The C-segmenter accounts for 30% of the company’s global volume and 3.5 million sales worldwide. In Australia, it was the segment best-seller in 2011 and 2012, with all-time sales of around 360,000 units.

Add to that Mazda’s strong Oz presence (nearly 80,000 units sold year-to-date for third best-selling carmaker overall), plus the fact that the new third-gen Mazda3 made its global debut in Melbourne, and you can see why it made sense for us to scoot Down Under to try it out at the Australian Automotive Research Centre in Angelsea, Victoria.

Honey, I shrunk the Mazda6? Well, it’s a lot more than that. The latest Mazda to get Kodo’d is certainly the most radically-styled 3 yet, with menacing slit eyes, a prominent, chrome-underlined gaping mouth and a figure curvaceous enough to make Adriana Lima jealous. Adding to the car’s athleticism is its cab-backward stance (A-pillars moved 100 mm back), which gives it that classic long-bonnet look.

Twin tailpipes peek out from a black diffuser-like element on the hatch; the sedan is more modest, pointing them downwards and concealing them behind the rear bumper. The hatch’s tailgate features a prominent arch over the number plate and a roof spoiler; the sedan gets a subtle lip spoiler on its boot lid.

High-grade models get LED light-guide rings and at the back, a wing-shaped illumination signature that extends from either side of the top of the tail lamp rings. The second-gen Mazda3 rode on 15-, 16- or 17-inch wheels; the new one gets aluminium wheels in 205/60 R16 and 215/45 R18 sizes, as well as 16-inch capped steel wheels.

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Both hatch and sedan aren’t any longer than before, maintaining their respective 4,460 and 4,580 mm, but their wheelbase has been stretched by 60 mm to 2,700 mm, resulting in shorter overhangs. Both are wider and lower, too – width has increased by 40 mm to 1,795 mm while height is now 15 mm less at 1,455 mm. The overall result is more cabin room. Both now have the same interior dimensions, where the hatch had slightly more rear headroom than the sedan previously.

In terms of boot volume, the hatch holds 308 litres and the sedan 408 litres – up to the window line and with the back seats up. More high-tensile steel in the body means torsional rigidity is up by 31% for the hatch and 28% for the sedan, while their drag coefficients are respectively 0.28 and 0.26. This also contributes to an overall weight reduction of 38%, or 60 kg on average.

The previous-gen car’s swoopy dashboard, twin-cowl instrument panel, button-infested centre stack and circular side air vents have been replaced by a neater, more angular layout. The gated-shift automatic has made way for an in-line shift-type with gaiter, the accelerator pedal is now a floor-hinged ‘organ’ type and the handbrake now sits on the driver’s side of the centre console.

The front seats have been redesigned to offer more torso and lumbar support, with stiffer ‘vibration-suppressing’ backs that are hollowed to provide more knee room in the back. The rear seat backs are 50 mm taller, and the front seat floor mounts are positioned wide apart to give rear passengers more feet room.

The Human-Machine Interface (HMI), which makes its debut in this car, involves a retractable clear plastic head-up display panel (high grades only), a seven-inch touch-screen and a ‘commander control’ knob. The head-up display, or Active Driving Display as Mazda calls it, shows information such as speed, navigation instructions and safety warnings.

Mazda is keen to point out that the HMI has been designed to minimise driver distraction and be intuitive to use. Summarily, the cockpit has been divided into two distinct zones – such that all driving-related information is confined to the driver’s quarters, while data regarding comfort, communication and entertainment are relegated to the centre stack.

The touch-screen’s location above the dash instead of within it (a first for the company) only requires a 15-degree downward movement of the eyes to look at, and is about 750 mm away from the eyes. The head-up display’s focal point is set at 1,500 mm ahead of the eyes, while the ‘commander control’ features five buttons that sit ergonomically under your five fingers.

Also making its debut is the MZD Connect system, which syncs with your smartphone via Bluetooth or USB to offer conveniences like navigation, SMS readout and voice recognition. In select markets, Internet radio, news, podcasts, audio books and feeds from Facebook and Twitter can be had through the Aha cloud-based platform.

Four cars were available to drive that day: old and new 2.0 litre hatch (manual, low-grade) as well as old and new 2.5 litre sedan (auto, high-grade) – for comparison purposes, of course. The new cars were pre-production Aussie-market prototypes that had been “dynamically tuned.” Yes, the new Mazda3 may already be on sale in the US and Japan, but it will only hit showrooms Down Under next year.

For Australia, the 2.0 litre SkyActiv-G engine makes 153 hp and 200 Nm of torque – 8 hp and 18 Nm more than the old MZR unit. The 2.5 litre version develops 185 hp and 250 Nm of twist – a corresponding 21 hp and 23 Nm jump. Both mills are direct-injected and feature Dual S-VT, a high 13:1 compression ratio (14:1 in markets that use higher-grade fuel), piston cavities and a 4-2-1 exhaust manifold for more efficient scavenging.

Neither engine has i-Eloop regenerative braking (Australian Mazda3s will not get it), but there’s the i-stop system – Mazda claims engine restart takes a snappy 0.35 seconds. Manual and auto ‘boxes both have six speeds (the previous auto was a five-speeder), and combined fuel consumption figures are quoted at 5.7 litres per 100 km for the smaller engine and 6.0 for the bigger engine, when the previous MZR engines did 7.9-8.4 and 8.6 respectively. Quite an improvement.

The European 2.0 litre SkyActiv-G, however, develops 118 hp and 210 Nm of torque in standard tune and 163 hp and 210 Nm in high tune; the latter equipped with i-Eloop. The Continent also gets a 99 hp/150 Nm 1.5 litre SkyActiv-G and a 148 hp/380 Nm 2.2 litre twin-turbo SkyActiv-D. The US mirrors the Australian engine line-up. Japan mirrors Europe, but adds an exclusive hybrid variant.

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The test route was thus – we were to first do a lap of the 4.2-km long banked oval the Australian Automotive Research Centre calls its Highway Circuit, and then turn off just before the start line into the Gradient Section. Meant to simulate a “typical winding Australian road,” this 2.2-km long branch comprises a 5-10% decline and then afterwards, an even 5% incline to rejoin the Highway Circuit at half-lap. Then it’s a banked turn back to the start line.

Unfortunately, we were limited to 100 km/h on the Highway Circuit and an agonising 60 km/h in the Gradient Section, and the officials told us to adhere to those limits in a way that signalled they meant business. So I behaved myself and did my best to make the most out of my short stint with each car.

In a nutshell, the new car has grown up. While the previous-gen Mazda3 is still a fun car to drive, it is so in a more raw and mechanical way; its electro-hydraulic steering gives way to electric power steering in the new car, and the steering ratio has been lowered from 16.2 to 14.1.

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The effect is quicker steering and more gradual yaw that corresponds more closely to steering angle – in other words, more linearity. On the highway, marginally less effort was needed to keep the new car straight and true, or sustain its centripetal force on the banks. This should no doubt help reduce driver fatigue.

In the twisties, the new Mazda3 demonstrated more predictable and less twitchy behaviour – you get accustomed to how much you need to turn the wheel for any given corner sooner, and as a result, you can turn in later with more confidence, accuracy and alacrity. Return-to-centre is also less abrupt.

Although the front-MacPherson strut and rear-multi-link suspension arrangement is retained, the geometry has been revised to yield a smoother transfer of g-forces when cornering, more lateral grip at the back and more high-speed stability. Coupled with more supportive seats and better body control, I could feel I was rocked about a little less in the corners compared to the old car.

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At the end of the Gradient Section was an unpaved road with scattered stones and gravel. The new car’s steering adequately isolated itself from the undulations so that the wheel vibrated and fidgeted less. Although the new car did ride more comfortably here than the old car, it has to be said that the suspension is still on the firm side; more so if you’ve got those 215/45 R18s on.

Mated to the six-speed do-it-yourself gearbox (with a 70-mm shorter gear lever than before), the keen-revving 2.0 litre is capable of inducing a lot of spright in the new Mazda3 in most situations – chiefly because you decide the shift points and how much throttle you want in any given gear. I cannot deny, though, that the motor is rather dependent on revs for some go. Clutch action is light, the biting point not sudden and the gearchange easy and precise, with a light spring bias.

Much has been said about the six-speed SkyActiv auto and its never-ending quest for the highest possible gear in the name of fuel efficiency. Thus, the 2.5 litre unit’s 32 hp/50 Nm advantage over its smaller sister was palpable and welcome, especially when negotiating the sole incline we had in the Gradient Section. On the straight-and-level, however, there isn’t a world of difference in thrust between the two; at least with the 2.5’s gearbox in D.

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Engage the manual override and you get much more control over the power delivery, although the gearchanges are not rapid. Alternatively, make pedal meet metal and the gearbox won’t hold back, treating your ears to a satisfying, contained rumble all the way up to the redline. Ease off ever so slightly, however, and you’ll be back to a sedate gait before you know it.

What about comparing old and new gearboxes? Well, there isn’t much disparity in performance between the 2.0 litre manuals, but where the 2.5 is concerned, the old car’s five-speed auto exhibited a willingness to kickdown that makes it more engaging and responsive than the SkyActiv six-speeder. But the new ‘box shifts more smoothly, and no doubt contributes to the claimed improvement in fuel economy. It’s a give-and-take.

At a constant 100 km/h on the Highway Circuit in overdrive, the corresponding revs were approximately 2,500 rpm for the 2.0 litre and 2,000 rpm for the 2.5 – each about 250 rpm lower than those of the old cars. The new car is noticeably more refined and stable at speed, thanks to a more rigid powertrain that suppresses flexural resonance and more insulation.

Equipment and trim had yet to be finalised at the time, but the low-spec 2.0 litre manual hatch we drove that day had manual single-zone air-con, fabric seats, satin-finished dial surrounds, black dashboard trim and 205/60 R16 wheels, while the high-spec 2.5 litre auto sedan had auto dual-zone air-con, leather seats with heaters, chrome-finished dial surrounds, a carbon fibre-look instrument panel cowl, satin dashboard trim and 215/45 R18 wheels.

Their instrument panel layouts also differ. On the low-spec car, the speedometer is located in the middle while the left ‘wing’ displays a digital bar-type rev counter (I found this small and difficult to read). The high-spec car has an analogue rev counter in the middle with a digital speedometer in the bottom-right of the circle, while the left ‘wing’ here shows gear position.

The high-spec car was also equipped with Blind Spot Monitoring (now operates from 10 km/h, compared to 35 km/h in the Mazda6 and CX-5), adaptive front lighting, Lane Departure Warning and Smart City Brake Support. Standard safety equipment includes front, side and curtain airbags, whiplash-mitigating front seats and Isofix.

Although Mazda didn’t participate in KLIMS13, the brand recently had its own ‘Mazda Motorshow‘ in 1Utama, where the new Mazda3 was shown to the Malaysian public for the first time, as a 2.5 litre auto sedan.

Bermaz has so far confirmed that our 2.0 litre sedan will initially be fully imported from Japan in limited units, with an indicative price of RM139k. Whether we’ll also get other engines or the hatchback has not yet been made official. The order books are open, with deliveries set to begin shortly after the car’s launch, which could happen in March. Not long now!