Nobody ever said that the switch from large SUVs to small, fuel-efficient cars was going to be easy. As Americans scramble to get out of vehicles that were probably too big for them in the first place, many still crave the added convenience SUVs provided when it comes to cargo room. One of the largest, and fastest, transitions in the automotive industry may see the loathed station wagon and hatchback become a popular car on American streets.
One of the front-runners in the hatchback race is the 5-door version of Mazda's popular Mazda MAZDA3, more commonly referred to simply as the MAZDA3. Building off the already impressive looks of its sedan counterpart, the 2008 Mazda MAZDA3 5-door offers comfortable room for five passengers plus their luggage and fuel economy that won't make a road trip painful. Throw in the fact that the MAZDA3 rides on the same platform as the Volvo C30 that we tested not too long ago and it's easy to see why the 2008 MAZDA3 is one of the most fun-to-drive, fuel-efficient cars on the market.
Successor to the Mazda ProtÃ©gÃ©, the MAZDA3 was originally launched as a 2004 model. For most cars, the five-year mark represents the point where the design starts to appear old and worn, but the 2008 MAZDA3 looks as fresh as the first one did in 2003. In both sedan and 5-door guise, the MAZDA3 possesses an athletic and sporty look that was introduced on the MAZDA6 and has since been incorporated, in one way or another, into the designs of some of Mazda's latest iconic vehicles including the CX-9 and MX-5. Although many competitors have sprouted up over the years, few can match the MAZDA3's style and attitude.
From its pointy front end to its sculpted rear haunches, the MAZDA3 has an athletic look that is instantly recognizable. With its main competition coming from cars such as the Toyota Matrix and Dodge Caliber, the MAZDA3 offers a sportier, more attractive design. The 'standard'? hatchback look is somewhat reduced thanks to the sloped roofline and unique rear quarter windows. From the rear, the clear-lensed taillights and blacked-out rear 'diffuser'? gave the low-slung MAZDA3 an aggressive look. Our test car came in Golden Sand Metallic and topped off with 17-inch, five-spoke bright aluminum alloy wheels wrapped in Goodyear all-season rubber.
Inside, Mazda's entry-level hatchback continued to impress. The Touring package features a leather-wrapped sport steering wheel and piano black inserts that accentuate the three large electroluminescent gauges, while the soft, cloth seats provide extensive comfort and support. For added driver convenience, the MAZDA3 offers tilt and telescoping steering column, steering wheel mounted audio and cruise controls as well as adjustable driver's seat height and lumbar support.
Adding to the fun/quirky operations inside the MAZDA3, during station or volume changes a series of LED lights would illuminate in a directional manner that instantly brought back memories of Knight Rider's K.I.T.T. The only disappointments that stuck out to us in the MAZDA3's cabin are the small, cluttered stereo display and the vast expanse of hard plastic along the top of the instrument panel that lacked the high-quality feel as some of its competition.
The main advantage of driving a hatchback over a sedan is the increase in cargo capacity, and the 2008 Mazda Mazda3 does not disappoint. While being slightly outmatched by the Matrix and Caliber in terms of maximum capacity, the MAZDA3 still offers a respectable 43.8 cubic feet of cargo room with 17.1 cubic feet of that located behind the 60/40 split folding rear seat. For wet or dirty items, the MAZDA3 provides a hidden, plastic-lined storage area under the rear cargo floor with a lid that doubles as a cargo divider.
In addition to the Volvo C30, the MAZDA3 also shares its platform with Europe's spirited version of the Ford Focus giving it surprising handling capabilities over similarly sized cars. Coming in at just under 3,000 pounds, the MAZDA3's suspension is nimble and the steering is precise providing handling that feels confident and capable in abrupt maneuvers, while the powertrain provides enjoyable acceleration out of the gate.
Under the hood, the MAZDA3 sedan is available with two engine options, a 148-horsepower 2.0-liter four cylinder in 'i'? trim or a 156-horsepower 2.3-liter four cylinder in 's'? trim, while the 5-door only offers the latter. Although a five-speed manual transmission is standard, our test car came equipped with a five-speed automatic transmission, which delivered EPA fuel economy rated at 22 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. This powertrain combination provides ample acceleration (0-60 mph in the 8-second range) without being too noisy or lethargic.
For those looking for a little better performance and handling, the MAZDASPEED3 is a factory-tuned hatch that comes with a turbocharged, 263-horsepower version of the 2.3-liter engine and a bargain sticker price of just $23,090.
Entry price for the base MAZDA3 sedan is $14,645, while the 5-door starts at $18,675. The car we tested had a base price of $19,375 but added Sirius satellite radio ($430), moonroof/in-dash six-disc CD changer package ($890) and destination charge ($635) for an as-tested price of $21,330. For first time car buyers or those just looking to get into a more fuel-efficient (but still fun to drive) car, the 2008 MAZDA3 is a definite must see.