Mazda3 1.5 Liftback Review: Punches Above Its Weight, Scores A Direct Hit

Forget all you know about the Japanese C-segment 'entry-level' cars, Mazda has just redefined it

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Mazda3 1.5 Liftback Review: Punches Above Its Weight, Scores A Direct Hit

With a 1.5-litre engine running the show, the question about its power and if it is enough to move the new-generation Mazda3 will always take centre stage. The published horsepower and torque numbers don't help its cause, and many more will ponder if the product is worth the price. 

To begin, this seemingly small naturally-aspirated Skyactiv-G engine generates 118hp and 153Nm of torque. Given that the numbers are close to what one might find in B-segments of other makes — or even the brand's own Mazda2 — giving this hatchback a miss isn't a hard decision to make. However, perception changes the moment you give this Mazda3 a go.

The concern for power, or the lack of it, quickly becomes a speck in the rearview mirror as you start gaining speed. But the Mazda3 isn't a fast car nor does it give you the rush of a turbocharged vehicle at full-bore. 

Instead, the Mazda3 accelerates with purpose and poise. The naturally-aspirated engine's linear drive from 1,500rpm to 4,000rpm is soulfully satisfying. Mechanical improvements to the SkyActiv-G have made a world of difference to making the 1.5-litre engine act like the previous Mazda3's 2.0-litre engine.

Driving around town is comfortable with enough grunt coming in the lower RPM range; perfect for exiting corners to join the traffic flow. Yet, the engine does not let you forget that it is still a 1.5-litre mill under the hood. Travelling at highway speeds uncover the huskiness of the engine as the RPM needle rises.

Transferring power to the wheels is shouldered by Mazda's own six-speed automatic transmission. It shifts with the quickness of a dual-clutch while remain linear from standstill right up to its final drive. Flick the transmission into Sport, if you want the gears to hold steady until the engine hits close to the redline before engaging the next ratio.

The new chassis setup up puts the power to good use. As previewed earlier, the handling is sophisticated even on our Malaysian roads. Turn the wheel hard into a corner and the Mazda3 rewards you with a disciplined body control that doesn't shift you in your seat. And the body remains calm even on bends that are uneven or off-camber.  

You often read about the steering quickness and precision, and the Mazda3 is no different. However, it remains that the Mazda3's helm does require some getting used to. It feels progressive where the angle of the steering wheel matches the action of the front tyres in the same beat. So, what you do is communicated exactly and immediately on the road.

But, turning the wheel a little doesn't necessarily result in a massive reaction which might need mid-corner corrections, which is bad. Old habits brought from the old car may be hard to shake off, but once you do, helming the Mazda3 becomes as natural as writing your name on paper. 

More sublime than the handling is the Mazda3's ride. Despite running on 205/60 R16 tyres, the ride is a touch firmer than the conventional Japanese setup but not as jarring as those you'll find on a typical German make. Driving over rumble strips, rough roads and rippled surfaces are just as smooth as warm butter running down a hot pan. The suspension dispels impacts and dissolves harshness without thought. More importantly, if you didn't already know a torsion beam is holding the fort in the rear, you wouldn't even notice the difference.

It is not just the suspension that is responsible forthe ride's comfort, the seats have their role to play, too. By design, the furniture is made to cradle your pelvis to keep it upright that stabilises your centre of gravity no matter which seat you take. It adds on to the high levels of comfort of the interior.

Noise, vibration and harshness weren't dealt with entirely in the older Mazda3. With the new 3, Mazda has reduced the size and numbers of apertures to seal off sounds intruding the cabin. The biggest hole they've closed up, in fact, is the large speaker that usually resides on the front door. That same speakers have been moved in front, just below the a-pillar, behind the front wheel well. 

As if that's not enough, parts of the frame are laced with damping nodes and damping bonds that soaks up the NVH, while keeping the decibels inside at an ear-pleasing level. In fact, the damping is good enough to hush 'music' from within the car to ever escape into the wild.

No matter what your music tastes are, only crisp and clear sounds are channeled through the standard sound system. We don't get the option for the 10-speaker BOSE system, but you won't need to. Music is reproduced with clarity without the bass being too boomy or the trebles being too shrilly. And even though you set the volume on the high side, you could still carry out conversations between you and your passengers without it becoming a shouting match. Clearly, this is impressive.

If not already evident, the Mazda3 is an excellent example of how minimalism can be sophisticated without the need to apply multiple large screens across the dashboard. C'mon, some of them don't even make sense! There are only two screens, the first is mounted on the instrument panel that does an excellent job in displaying important driving information. 

The other is an 8.8-inch display mounted in the middle of the dashboard and far beyond reach, which is placed there because it is quicker for the eye to refocus going from screen to road. The centre display is not a touchscreen, but you can control it from the dial on the transmission tunnel.

Materials used inside feel premium but more so because every touchpoint has been measured to give more quality feedback. For example, all rotary knobs have a standard distance between two clicks, and all rocker switches provide the same feedback when pressed. If I can be honest, you won't feel any of Mazda's obsession with the small stuff unless you're conscious of it, yet it is these little details that elevates user experience.

Space is something Mazda has improved from the previous generation. Strutting around with a torsion beam at the back does free up more space in the boot, which is now deeper and wider. A longer wheel base of 2,725mm also adds legroom in the rear with more shoulder room to enjoy. Having said that, the sloping roofline and the large C-pillar might make the passengers feel closed in. 

You won't have any problems appreciating the bodywork. Just as the interior, the exterior follows the same thinking that 'less is much more'. So, erased are the hard lines, angles and edges that all modern cars have. Instead, the definition is created by light reflected off the flowing curves of the body. The long and sharp nose, paired with the gaping grille and squinty headlights makes the Mazda3 look aggressive. The rump, although significant in real estate, does it in well to put a dynamic-looking finish to the design. 

Not everything is good, though. The large C-pillar makes it challenging to spot motorcycles, especially when you throw a glance over the left shoulder before merging lanes. The side-mirror can sometimes miss the bike as well; having a blind-spot indicator here would be great. 

Despite it being the 'base-spec' Mazda3, this hatchback is anything but basic. Premium materials and the obsession with fine details have lifted the quality of Mazda3 far beyond its Japanese counterparts. And, the ride and handling is better than some of the German makes. The Mazda3 has completely redefined what a Japanese affordable luxury vehicle should be; a real standout in the segment.  

Specification: Mazda3 1.5 SkyActiv-G Liftback

Engine 1,496cc., DOHC, 16-valve, 4 cylinders with VVT | Transmission 6-speed Skyactiv-Drive automatic, front-wheel drive | Power & Torque 118hp @ 6,000rpm / 153Nm @ 4,000rpm | Performance 193kph max speed, 5.8l/100km | Price RM139,620.00, on-the-road without insurance | Score 9/10

Why the angry face?
With this, you can already imagine how the 3-door version might look like.

The boot space is bigger by that much.
This? Or would your prefer a dashboard made out of touchscreens only?
The screen is digital but you can't run away from analog meters.

Better looking than the previous generation's interface. The font is designed in-house.
Rotary dial, NOT touchpad, is still the best.

Tall people rejoice! The little notch in the front seats gives your knees more room.

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