Two engines are available, both four-cylinders. Mazda 3s models come with the larger, more powerful 2.3-liter engine, and are available as a four-door sedan or five-door hatchback. The Mazda 3i available only as a four-door sedan comes with the smaller, 2.0-liter engine.
The Mazda 3i 4-Door sedan ($13,710) comes with wind-up windows and manual door locks, four-speaker AM/FM/CD audio, tilt and telescope steering wheel with audio controls, 15-inch steel wheels with 195/65HR15 tires, side repeater lights, and a stainless steel exhaust system. A five-speed manual gearbox is standard, a four-speed automatic transmission ($900) is optional. Air conditioning is optional ($880) and comes with a pollen filter.
The 3i Touring sedan ($15,990) comes standard with air conditioning with the pollen filter, plus power windows, locks and mirrors; remote keyless entry; cruise control; a height-adjustable driver’s seat; and six-speaker audio; and 16-inch cast aluminum wheels with more aggressive 205/55HR16 tires.
The Mazda 3s sedan ($16,880) and 5-Door hatchback ($17,370) come with the more powerful engine; all of the i-Touring equipment, plus anti-lock brakes (ABS) with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD); variable-intermittent windshield wipers; leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob; brighter interior upholstery and trim; electroluminescent gauges that adjust for intensity; and delayed courtesy lights. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, and a five-speed automatic is optional ($950).
The 3s Touring sedan and hatchback list the same manufacturer’s suggested retail price ($17,615). They start with all 3s equipment and add side-impact and side-curtain airbags; side-sill extensions; and 205/50VR17 tires on 17-inch alloy wheels.
The 3s Grand Touring sedan and hatchback ($19,165) add heated leather seats, automatic climate control, trip computer, xenon headlamps with automatic on/off, rain-sensing front windshield wipers, a tire-pressure monitor, and a more sophisticated security system.
An option package ($890) combining a power glass sunroof with a six-CD changer is available for 3i Touring, 3s, and 3s Touring. For the 3s Grand Touring only, Mazda packages the sunroof and six-CD changer with a 222-watt Bose premium sound system ($1335). DVD-based satellite navigation ($1750) is also available on 3s Grand Touring only. Leather seating is available ($590) on 3s Touring. Spoilers, cargo mats, fog lights, stereo upgrades, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror with Homelink are available as dealer-installed accessories.
Safety features include dual front airbags that sense the driver’s position and the weight of the front passenger. Side-impact and side-curtain airbags are standard on 3s Touring and 3s Grand Touring. Optional safety packages add the additional airbags to the 3s ($245) and full airbag protection and ABS to the 3i ($395). ABS with EBD is standard on all 3s models.
Both the 3i and 3s are available as Partial Zero Emissions Vehicles (PZEV) in California, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont and New York. The no-cost option trades 5-7 horsepower for significant reductions in emissions. All Mazda 3 models meet Tier II Bin 5 Federal standards for near-zero evaporative emissions.
The larger, more powerful 2.3-liter engine that comes with the Mazda 3s has plenty of spirit, but you need to work the manual shifter to get the full benefit of it. It makes 160 horsepower, but it is, after all, a normally aspirated (not turbocharged) four-cylinder, so there’s not a ton of torque at low rpm. At 1000 rpm it generates only 120 pound-feet, which climbs to 140 at 3000 and peaks at 150 at a relatively high 4500 rpm. Be prepared to downshift to accelerate suddenly, either with the manual five-speed gearbox or the five-speed automatic.
Open the door and you’ll be greeted by an instrument panel that would look at home in Mazda’s racy RX-8 sports coupe. The instrument panel features three deep bins, with the tachometer and speedometer pointing straight down at the 6 o’clock position at rest-very sporty. The idea comes from racing where you want to have the higher rpm on the tach in your line of sight.
Redline is 6500 rpm, but the engine is happy zooming to 7000. The 16-valve head is quite sophisticated, with variable valve timing and a variable induction system that optimizes intake efficiency and torque. The block is aluminum, there’s a cam chain rather than a belt, and the exhaust manifold is stainless steel. The engine is very smooth and quiet at consistent freeway speeds, and has a nice sporty sound when it’s revving under acceleration. The 2.3-liter Mazda 3 with the manual transmission rates an EPA-estimated 26/32 miles per gallon City/Highway.
The MAZDA3 is built on a platform that’s shared with Volvo’s S40 sedan and V50 wagon, as well as Ford’s European Focus. The result is a very stout chassis-a whopping 40 percent stiffer than the Protége-that’s designed to give a smooth, quiet ride with the responsive performance you’d expect from a premium European brand. That you get the very same goodness in the MAZDA3 is a wonderful bonus for buyers in the know.
For 2006, Mazda has adapted variable valve timing and variable-length intake runners to the smaller, 2.0-liter engine as well. The spec sheet shows a why-bother gain of only 2 horsepower (from 148 to 150, both at 6500 rpm), and no change in rated torque (still 135 pound-feet at 4500 rpm), but those are only the peak number. The biggest benefit of both variable valve timing and a variable intake is usually a flatter torque curve while maintaining good peak horsepower. So while we haven’t driven a 2006 Mazda 3i (or even seen a torque curve for one on paper), we suspect that that’s the case here. And if so, it could mean a palpable gain in performance, across a broad rpm range, that is much larger than those 2 horsepower would suggest. EPA estimates for the smaller engine are 28/35 city/highway mpg with manual transmission, 26/34 with the automatic.
The standard five-speed manual transmission shifts beautifully, especially the upshifts, which were almost as smooth as an automatic, with no real driver effort. Mazda worked hard on designing the synchronizers and cable linkage for reduced friction.
Mazda now calls the optional automatic transmissions Sport A/T. (Last year it was Activematic.) Either way, it’s a fancy name, but these are fancy transmissions. You can just put the lever in Drive and go, but they also feature a manual mode programmed for quick shifting. Left to shift on their own, they’re smart, maintaining a gear going downhill for engine braking or uphill to reduce hunting. Sport A/T has four gear ratios when ordered on 3i, and five ratios with 3s.
Handling is quick and nimble, making the Mazda 3 fun to drive. It’s a blast on winding country roads. It’s also sharp, true and steady in emergency lane-change maneuvers. Mazda’s Electro-Hydraulic Power-Assisted Steering (EHAPS) minimizes drag on the engine compared to a conventional belt-driven hydraulic system. Mazda claims it also reduces noise, vibration, and harshness. The Ford group in England designed the Mazda 3 suspension, but the final tuning was done by Mazda at its long, rolling test track in Hiroshima.
Mazda 3s models with the 2.3-liter engine come with slighter larger brakes than those on the 2.0-liter 3i. We found the brakes on the 3s to be quite effective and sensitive; a mere light touch on the brake pedal around town works nicely.
The 3 is certainly great fun to drive. Power is supplied in the 5-door (and the 4-door s) by Mazda’s 2.3-liter 4-cylinder that pumps out a very respectable 160 horsepower and 150 lb.-ft. of torque. This is the same 4-cylinder found in the larger MAZDA6 and, while it gives the larger sibling plenty of zip, it really makes the smaller MAZDA3 fly. This is one of those engines that feels good throughout the entire rev range. Ultra-smooth, there’s lots of low-end power to make commuting a breeze, but give it the spurs and, thanks to variable valve timing, you get a lovely lunge to the redline accompanied by a delightful snarl through the exhaust.