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by Tony Whitney

2006 Mazda 3 Sport GT

The huge success of the Mazda3 has surprised even its manufacturer. At times, the car has run the top-selling Honda Civic close and there certainly seems to be no end to the model’s strong sales.           

On the accolades front, the car won two Automobile Journalists Association of Canada awards in 2004 - Best New Economy Car and Best Sport Coupe under $35,000.

The basic reason for this success is easy to see for anyone why tries a Mazda3 in either sedan or hatchback form. It’s beautifully built inside and out; it boasts performance and refinement well beyond its class and it’s reasonably priced.

The Mazda 3 replaced the popular Protegé models for the 2004 model year. The Protegé only came as a sedan initially and was not an especially “interesting” product. It could be summed up as stolid and reliable, but lacked any real flair.

That range got a boost when the Protegé 5 hatchback appeared and perhaps that model was really an interim product to fill a gap until the Mazda3 hatch reached the dealerships.

For this road test, I’ll look at the hatchback Mazda3 Sport GT, since the vehicle is a good indication of the way this body configuration has bounced back over the past couple of years. Hatchbacks are tremendously capable vehicles and with the rear seats folded down, surprisingly big loads can be shoehorned in. For family and business users, these designs are far more practical than sedans, which often have narrow trunk lids that limit load size.

Mazda3 hatchback styling is very attractive indeed and owes something to the bigger Mazda6 models that were introduced a while back. The front of the car is especially "Mazda6-like" and the treatment heralds a corporate look that we’re seeing on other Mazda products. An available Sport Appearance Package will make the car look even more like a touring car racer and this should appeal to younger owners.

Power for the Sport GT comes from a twin cam, 16-valve 4-cylinder, 2.3-litre engine which drives the front wheels. It develops a respectable 160-horsepower and 150 lb ft of torque. The powerplant is very lively and provides lots of driving fun and commendable overtaking/hill climbing capability. Although this is a sporty amd mechanically sophisticated little 4-cylinder, it runs happily on regular gas. The hatchback comes only with the 2.3-litre engine. To get the smaller 2.0-litre motor, you have to stick with the base Mazda3 sedan - at least, in North America. In Europe, a diesel version is available, but there’s no indication that we’ll ever get one here. The available 5-speed manual transmission shifts beautifully, but buyers who don’t like to change gears themselves can opt for a 4-speed automatic.

The basic platform of this car, by the way, is similar to that of the Volvo S40/ V40 series and is used in other vehicles around the Ford empire. Ford owns about a third of Mazda, but the Hiroshima company is fiercely independent and has recently appointed a Japanese chief executive after several years of North American and British leadership.

The interior of the Mazda3 should please people looking for the kind of quality and ambience usually found only on upscale European products. The instrument panel, console and dash are almost Audi-like in their quality and fit and finish. I liked the driving position as soon as I got into the car and the seats are very supportive too.

Best of all, this is a real "driver’s car" like the bigger Mazda6. It’s fast and agile and certainly as good as anything we’ve yet seen in this class. The car compares to some of the sportier VW Golfs I’ve driven and people moving on from products like the Miata will not feel they’ve given much up much by way of handling and response. Fuel economy is rated at 9.3-litres/100 km city/6.8-litres/100 km hwy.

The Mazda3 is a surprisingly competent car with excellent levels of performance, quality and practicality. It’s not that expensive either, at around $21,500.

Although the product has many fine rivals around the industry, it’s becoming increasingly common on our roads and has clearly been a hit with both family and business users. It’s part of a major revival at Mazda and we can only look forward enthusiastically to other new products from the Hiroshima automaker as the model years roll by.