Motoramic

The new 2014 Mazda3 is here… but is it a game-changer?

Motoramic

The Mazda3 has always been somewhat of an enigma among compact cars. Unlike its peers that lean towards the efficient and practical side of the econobox equation, the Mazda3 has always been a spunky alternative that nicely balanced efficiency and performance. Consequently, it’s the most fun-to-drive vehicle in the C Segment and a serious value, relatively speaking. It surely isn’t boring like some of the other boxes.

For months now, unsubstantiated rumors about the redesigned Mazda3 have been swirling around the web, along with several fuzzy spy images and ambiguous artist renderings. In addition, there has been lots of speculation, particularly with how the zoom-zoom automaker was going to incorporate its new Kodo design language -- which is intended to “embody the tension of power and speed caught in motion” and made its first appearance on the automaker’s Shinari concept back in 2010 -- as well as how the company’s lineup of Skyactiv technologies would affect the vehicle’s fun-to-fling character.

All of that conjecture -- well, most of it -- was put to rest today, as Mazda unveiled its all-new 2014 Mazda3 in New York City this morning.

Lower and leaner than its predecessor, the new Mazda3 shares almost nothing with the previous generation. As expected, it’s based on the same platform that underpins the CX-5, and takes it styling cues from the new Mazda6, complete with muscular fenders, a distinctive greenhouse and a sloping roofline, which also gives the car a strong family resemblance to the new Mazda2. The longer wheelbase helps to give it a more commanding stance and shorter overhangs front and back.

While Mazda claims the infamous “smiley face” that has adorned the car’s front-end for years is a thing of the past, I disagree. Check out the photos: It has been softened somewhat, but it’s there. In fact, it looks bit buck-toothed like Tow Mater from Pixar’s animated feature Cars. After saying that, it doesn’t look bad or cartoonish. The aggressive headlamps and upright grille translate nicely and, thus, are quite appealing.

Inside, the Mazda3 has gone upscale – pure and simple. It’s still small, but there are plenty of nice appointments and soft-touch surfaces. One of the most notable features is the new human-machine interface (i.e., the in-dash LCD based Navi/Infotainment system) that motors out of the dash as it does in the Mazda6.

Under the hood, there are two options: an updated version of the current 2.0-liter Skyactiv four-banger that pushes out 155 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque, as well as the new Skyactiv 2.5-liter gasoline engine, the same one fitted to the CX-5 and 2014 Mazda6. As compared to the outgoing 2.5-liter, the torque output of the new engine at low- to mid-range speeds is increased by 10 to 15 percent, and its weight is reduced by 10 percent. The Skyactiv-G 2.5-liter produces a peak of 184 horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 185 lb-ft of torque at 3,250 rpm, both an improvement of more than 10 percent over the previous engine. Models with the 2.5 will also feature an active grille shutter mounted in front of the radiator, which automatically opens and closes to improve the cars aerodynamics. Both engines will be offered with a Skyactiv-MT six-speed manual and a Skyactiv-Drive six-speed automatic.

Finally, the 2014 Mazda3 introduces several all-new safety systems under the i-Activsense banner that help the driver recognize hazards, avoid collisions and minimize damage should an accident occur. They include high beam control (automatically switches headlamps between low and high beams when necessary), blind spot monitoring, and lane departure warning.

Sadly, that’s pretty much it for the specifics. Mazda’s Head of Product Planning Tim Barnes was very vague when it came to details, especially regarding trim levels, pricing and fuel economy figures, saying that all will be revealed “at a later date.”

Barnes did give us a few hints on pricing, saying it will be “somewhere in the heart of the segment.” Meaning that it will be more expensive than some its peers, thus hurting its value factor.

And as far as fuel economy goes, we are guessing that the nearly 200-pound lighter 2014 Mazda3 will return improved fuel economy and performance since there's not only less heft to cart around, but also because of the slippery coefficient of drag (0.255 for the sedan, 0.275 for the hatchback). Currently, the 2.0-liter Mazda3 returns up to 40 miles per gallon on the highway. It won’t be any lower.

Although the specs on paper may not bedazzle, the Achilles' heel of the Mazda3 has long been its lackluster sheetmetal that betrays the car's zippy dynamics. Hence, the much-needed aesthetic overhaul could be enough to steal marketshare away from the duller mainstream offerings like the the Honda Civic.

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