By the time I get behind the wheel of the Mazda3 sedan, the roof and road of Mazda's Mine (pronounced Mi-ne) Proving Ground have gone through at least four hours of constant rain. And it doesn't seem like it is letting up soon. As such, we're told that the speed limit had to be cut down by 10kph, or up to the discretion of the Lead Car of a six-car convoy. Ugh…
However, with a bit of forward-thinking and not sticking my nose up the front car's derrière allowed me enough space to carry good speed down the wet straight. The downpour might have put a damp blanket on the test drive, and wisdom dictates that I go easy on the throttle, the Mazda3 could still achieve speeds of over 100kph down the straights without distress.
The 2.0-litre engine is pulling stronger and smoother than the previous iteration. Perhaps, it is the cold and crisp Japanese breeze that has a positive effect on the engine. Or it could be the optimised shape of intake ports and piston, the split fuel injection and the coolant control valve that levelled-up the performance of the SkyActiv-G. Power goes down to the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission, a setup which we are all familiar with.
One point to note is that the new Mazda3s on the test is equipped with the North American engines, which produces 155hp and 203Nm. Our SkyActiv-G will be more powerful, producing 162hp and 210Nm of torque. Accompanying the 2.0-litre driver to our shore is the 1.5-litre SkyActiv-G, which we expect to power the base-spec Mazda3.
What we won't be enjoying here are the 2.5-litre SkyActiv-G and the 2.0-litre SkyActiv-X; it'll be priced out of reach for many. This also means that the AWD Mazda3 will give us a skip. That said, there's really no hiding the fact that the new Mazda3 is expensive for a Japanese car. As such, the base spec Mazda3 is estimated to start around the RM135,000 mark and it can only go upwards.
Right now, the only thing that's coming down is the speed. Brake at 100 and turn right, with proper angle increments of the steering. Slower pace notwithstanding, once the steering is dialled into the corner, there is no want or need to make slight adjustments just to stay on the driving line. The steering is reliably quick and finely precise; it is what you'll find in hotter hatchbacks. And the constant chatter of the steering wheel imparts confidence that allows you to hit those corners in the bullseye. With each subsequent turn, it becomes clear that the Mazda3 can skewers the apex in one smooth, gentle and quick movement with alarming consistency.
While it may be that Mazda3's brilliant handling does not come as a huge shock, the new generation Mazda3 is remarkably better than the previous generation. Underpinning the Mazda3 is the Skyactiv-Vehicle Architecture that has a more rigid body and suspension system that curbs unnecessary vehicle movement. The proof is in the pudding, or in this case, on the former racetrack. The Mazda3 doesn't sway side to side through the corners, and its nose continues to sniff the horizon, instead of the tarmac, even under heavy braking.
Not wrong from what might seem to be, at first, a step backwards in chassis technology. Mazda has been catching some flak with their choice of rear suspension, going from a multi-link to torsion beam setup in the rear to partner the Macpherson struts in front.
However, Mazda's version of the torsion beam isn't your typical straight piece of steel attached to two trailing arms. It is so different, inventive even that Mazda had to file a patent for the suspension. Essentially, the 'beam' is really an arch that is wider at the sides but slimmer in the middle. You can read the entire thing here. (Note: we'd appreciate if there's an engineer or someone who knows these things can translate this for us.)
They have their reasons for going this way. A torsion beam setup has fewer parts, which makes the whole rear end suspension package lighter and more straightforward. The suspension's simplicity also needs less space, which means there's now more area for the boot, a department that the previous generation Mazda3 lacks. And unlike a multi-link setup, the torsion beam has fewer variables to contend with, which makes it easier to compose the suspension as intended — to have a more natural driving feel.
Running side-by-side with the new Mazda3 are the outgoing models. Jumping between the two yields very minor differences in handling and control, and ride quality, dispelling any doubts that torsion beam suspension is the lesser of the two. If there is a difference, it would be that the new rear suspension is firmer while the older one is more pliable.
Complementing the chassis are the seats, which are the fruit of Mazda's extensive research on the human movement. The brief — to make the Mazda3's drive feel as natural as walking by tapping into the human's 'natural balance ability'. Boiling the research down to its essence, the geniuses at Mazda discovered that it is the human pelvis and the preservation of the spine's' S curve' when seated in the car.
The newly designed seats cradle the pelvis securely in an upright position, letting the body have an easier time to experience, adapt and compensate for the subtle dynamic changes of the car. The seats also hold snugly the thighs and upper torso, which in turn brings stability to the shoulders, neck and head, significantly reducing the onset of motion sickness.
Don't think that the seats are packed with firm foam as what you might get with bucket seats because it isn't. And rest assured that they aren't weirdly soft, too, as to how some other Japanese manufacturers might make it. To describe it simply — the seats of the Mazda3 feel like it is taken from a European car priced above RM200,000. The materials selected for the interior feels very upmarket, and the layout has been completely redesigned with the driver in the middle of this Baumkuchen.
After two laps around Mine, and a short break, the drive continues on the outer road of the track but still well within the confines of Mazda's Proving Ground. This road was formerly used by the public to drive up to the parking area. I struggle to find the differences in quality of the tarmac between this here and the race track as both feels similar, albeit the road has more elevation and it is much more scenic out here.
The Lead Car pulls further ahead, opening up the gap between the Mazda3, allowing for higher speeds on the wet roads. It is more exciting out here than in there, honestly. There are tight turns and s-bends, which leads to downhills, and sweeping corners that join up with steep inclines; the Mazda3 is in its natural element.
I can easily imagine this drive taking place on one of the many mountain roads that line our fair country, rain included. Surely the real thing will be better, and that's why I, for one, cannot wait to get behind the wheel of the new Mazda3.