New York, June 26, 2013

Busy little Mazda. It's working extra hard to make us pay attention. This morning deep in the Lower West Side of Manhattan, the American automotive press herded into a very industrial freight elevator. The door closed, shutting out nearly all light, and we were beamed up to the neon-infused inner reality of Mothership Mazda. In murky mid-morning twilight, fortified with canapés and mini-quiches, we were to be exposed to Mazda's blinding new C-Segment weapon, the all-new 2014 Mazda3.

But it would be foolhardy indeed to take this Mazda floorshow lightly. Seemingly forever, this iconoclastic company has been battling a case of the "smalls" -- and recently, the malady has become threatening. But Mazda showed a profit last year, which is nice, and historically, it's been responsible for some wonderful game-changers. The Mothership displayed several -- the highly advanced Wankel-powered 1967 Cosmo, the charismatic 1979 RX7 sports car, the late-1980s MX5 Miata, which is the best-selling sports car of all time.

But what's Mazda done for us lately?

Quite a bit, actually. The 2013 CX-5 and 2014 Mazda6 are impressive products and becoming something vastly more -- serious players in the marketplace. Derek Jenkins, Mazda Director of Design, makes it clear that the Mazda3 we're about to see is the third sibling in this Mazda family of Kodo design, or "soul of motion." Jenkins says, "Kodo has three elements: Speed, the sleekness and proportioning of the body lines; Tension, the forward thrust and gathered strength at the rear of the body lines; and Allure, the facial "expression" of the car's front and rear."

Design that gets international attention

Typically, when stylists start talking, it's a good time to take a phone call. But pondering the Mazda6, with its flowing muscularity, Jenkins' words are more than hocus-pocus. Mazda has found a design language that is so impressive that in the most recent World Car of the Year Award, the Mazda6 was one of three finalists, with no less than Jaguar's F-Type and the Aston-Martin Vanquish. The Jaguar won, but Toyota wasn't even in the parking lot.

After an intergalactic drumroll, the Mazda3 finally motored onto the Mothership mezzanine, surrounded by smoke but no mirrors. It was clearly a good little Kodo. This was to be strictly an unveiling -- no heavy-duty technical briefings, no package breakdowns, pricing or EPA ratings. The car is not to be released until the beginning of September, and a lot can happen between now and then.

But interestingly, the model they chose to show was not the sedan but the five-door hatchback -- this in a country that can only be attracted to hatches if there's a keg on the tailgate. But even this hatch embodies the leaping Kodo dynamism. It has much the same muscularity as the Mazda6, and even in hatchback form, it avoids the square-butt finish of many such cars. As a styling matter, Jenkins says rightly, "Buyers want to get more than they're paying for. They don't want a five-door hatch, really -- they want a coupe-styled sport sedan. So we give them both."

The Mazda3's gathered up rear section, though, has a slightly stubby look, which isn't helped by the rather squinty rear side windows. Jenkins says, by contrast, the mainstream four-door sedan is wonderfully proportioned. If it's anything like the Mazda6, it's worth waiting for.

The Big a good way

As a C-Segment entry, the new 3 is a big C+. That's not a letter grade; it's a size description.  It's pleasantly roomy, even in the coupe-styled rear area, which provides decent headroom by keeping the rear seats set low. (In some coupe-styled competitors, rear seat headroom is minimal.) Vital interior dimensions include increased front and rear shoulder room of 57.2 and 54.5 inches. The ceiling is 0.6 inches lower than the previous model, without losing available headroom, and 1.6 inches more hip room is provided. The rear seatbacks are nearly 2.0 inches higher, and scalloped rear surfaces on the front seats contribute to a liberal 35.8 inches of rear legroom. Externally, the new 3 wheelbase measures 106.3 inches, up 2.4, yet the overall length of the five-door is 1.8 inches shorter, at 175.6 inches. Height is 57.3 inches, and width is 70.7 inches.

Trim levels are unannounced, but there will be three wheel-and-tire combinations -- a 16-inch steel wheel, a 16-inch aluminum alloy wheel, and a top-line 18-inch aluminum alloy wheel. To accompany various trim levels, an active grille shutter will automatically adjust airflow over the 3, reducing aerodynamic drag and improving fuel mileage. According to Mazda, the Kodo shape of the five-door and sedan will deliver best-in-class coefficient of drag values of 0.275 and 0.255, respectively -- excellent figures perfectly in keeping with the high performance/high mileage goals of Mazda's much-heralded Skyactiv technology.

Power and more power

In North America, the new model will use either Mazda's Skyactiv 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine, producing 155 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 150 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm, or the Skyactiv 2.5-liter four, producing 184 horsepower at 5700 rpm and 185 lb-ft at 3250 rpm. The news here is, compared to the previous 2.5, the new engine's torque is 10 to 15 percent greater at low to mid-range, and it weighs 10 percent less. This same engine produces good performance in the Mazda6, but in the smaller, lighter Mazda3 (no curb weights were available) it should be a very potent combination. Combine that with Mazda's renowned agility, and the 3 could be an enthusiast dream.

Additional provisions mentioned for the 3 include brake-energy regeneration, which contributes to fuel efficiency, and considerable use of lightweight chassis materials and a 30-percent increase in chassis rigidity. Provided the final suspension is right, these will improve agility and performance -- but all that remains to be seen.

A full range of safety provisions include automatic high-beam control, blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, forward obstruction warning, radar cruise control, and smart city brake support (which operates below 19 mph to prevent or minimize collision, in some cases, initiating full braking). Front, side, and full side-curtain airbags will be standard.

Seating in the prototype was excellent, comfortable, and ample. The instrumentation was enthusiast-oriented, with a large-face tachometer dead center just as it is in Porsche dashboards. The other instruments were dummied and impossible to judge, but the look of the bezels and materials was disappointingly low-scale. The materials, too, like the dull-black dash cover and the "sporty" but unconvincing gray-and-white paneled leather upholstery on the seats, were not as attractive as they could be. Production-model refinements, of course, could change all that.

Innovative instrumentation

A large standup screen on the center of the dash above the console, replacing the usual lower screen placement, was an excellent idea. It provided eye-level engagement with the full suite of connectivity interfaces, infotainment, programmable functions and navigation. Among its provisions is the powerful app consolidator "Aha," which makes over 32,000 stations and apps available -- everything from Spotify to NPR to MOG to Twitter, on and on. A head-up display of speed and navigation directions on a clear panel near the base of the windshield continues the theme of keeping the driver's attention up and away from the dash to the road ahead.

The Mazda3 will be produced in Japan. When Mazda's new plant in Mexico comes on line in spring, 2014, it will supplement the Mazda3 build. Meanwhile, if you're out driving some night and two demonic white eyes appear in the mirror, with a menacing bullhorn-shaped trace of light tying them together, relax -- it's just a Mazda3 out for a quart of milk.


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