Arriving at dealers in February, the 2010 MAZDA3 is a major remake of the automaker's most successful offering, both here in America and worldwide. Building on the solid platform credentials of a vehicle that has remained a benchmark in its class since being introduced for 2004, the Gen II version takes styling and sophistication to a completely new level. Although our initial encounter with several preproduction versions of the new car was confined to sedan models, Mazda will offer the new MAZDA3 in both conventional four-door and five-door liftback versions in "i" and "s" spec when it does go on sale. We're told a MAZDASPEED3 variant also is in the works, albeit a bit farther down the road.
Seeking to make a more aggressive visual statement, Mazda gave its compact charmer striking sheetmetal that reflects a stronger corporate identity. This is most evident in its powerful front-end design and crisp character lines backed by meticulous attention to aero detailing, efforts that resulted in a class-leading 0.29 coefficient of drag. Both front and rear lighting treatments on the MAZDA3 incorporate jewel-like design elements, with top-line models offering standard Adaptive Front Lighting that features bi-xenon headlamps, a first for the compact class.
Although the Mazda3's interior dimensions are basically unchanged, new materials and a revised dash design add a more contemporary flavor while maintaining excellent overall ergonomics. The central gauge cluster is now supplemented by a separate and centrally located Multi-Information Display that also houses a small but high-definition screen for the car's optional low-cost navigation system. While adults are welcome in both the fore and aft quarters, the front buckets deserve special note, having been recontoured for greater comfort and lateral support.
The new MAZDA3 sedan lineup consists of "i" models (SV/Sport/Touring) models as well as "s" configurations (Sport/Grand Touring). As with the 2009s, the 2010"i" variants are fitted with a 148-horsepower 2.0-liter four. While the five-speed manual transmission carries over, a new five-speed automatic replaces the current four-speed option, a choice that bumps both its city and highway mileage ratings -- by one and three mpg, respectively. The premium "s" models swap the existing 156-horse 2.3-liter four for a new 2.5-liter engine introduced in the 2009 MAZDA6. Although its EPA numbers are nearly identical to those of the 2.3-liter with either the standard 6M or optional 5A transmission, this new motivator is smoother, quieter and corrals 11 extra ponies while delivering nearly 15 percent more torque for quicker acceleration.
The MAZDA3's basic chassis architecture carries over for 2010, but well-engineered revisions to the unit-body add stiffness and strength. Building on that more robust foundation, modest suspension tweaks endow the new MAZDA3 with even greater agility and better roll control. That same crispness and linear response are evident in the feel of its steering and anti-lock brakes, all qualities evident from our very first encounter with a twisty two-lane.
We'll reserve final judgment on this newcomer until driving a production model. But with its new look, new features and enhanced performance, the 2010 MAZDA3 seems well prepared to carry on the zoom-zoom tradition.