Ja­pan’s Euro fighter

Aus­tralia, the new ver­sion of your favourite car is al­most ready

Herald Sun - Motoring - - First Drive - JOSHUA DOWLING NATIONAL MO­TOR­ING EDI­TOR joshua.dowling@news.com.au

JA­PANESE cars have a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing bor­ing. Euro­pean cars typ­i­cally take the ku­dos for styling flair.

That means small-car buy­ers are usu­ally faced with a choice be­tween a dull and depend­able car – or a four-wheeled fash­ion state­ment that might conk out in the mid­dle of an in­ter­sec­tion.

Mazda, made and de­signed in the land of the Ris­ing Sun, has been try­ing to bridge that gap with the past two gen­er­a­tions of its Mazda3 small car. With the new, third gen­er­a­tion model, it may have ce­mented over the great di­vide. The new Mazda3 looks like an Alfa Romeo from the out­side, a BMW from the in­side and has Audi-like in­stru­ments.

It is pos­si­bly the most Eurasian car to date— not just in the way it looks but the way it feels and drives.

That’s be­cause it is new from the ground up. Rarely is a car de­serv­ing of the de­scrip­tion ‘‘ all-new’’. Cus­tom­ar­ily at least some of the parts or en­gines and trans­mis­sions are car­ried over, some­times for decades.

But ev­ery ma­jor com­po­nent in the new Mazda3 is new. It means engi­neers got a rare chance to start with a clean sheet of pa­per.

It’s the main rea­son the new ver­sion of the Mazda3 fi­nally has the tech­nol­ogy and fuel econ­omy it has sorely lacked (which, in­ci­den­tally, hasn’t af­fected its ap­peal among buy­ers who voted it Aus­tralia’s top-sell­ing car for the past two years in a row).

Nev­er­the­less, the new model can’t ar­rive soon enough. The Mazda3 has been over­taken in the new-car sales race by the Toy­ota Corolla in the past two months. The new model has the mak­ings of an­other top-seller but will it have the price?

VALUE

‘‘ This car needs to be a win­ner for us and we be­lieve it will be,’’ says Mazda Aus­tralia boss Martin Ben­ders. ‘‘ We are yet to con­firm pric­ing. We are still on our hands and knees ne­go­ti­at­ing with Ja­pan.’’

Mazda has fore­shad­owed a pos­si­ble price rise from the cur­rent RRP of $20,500 plus on-road costs (a runout model to­day is $19,990 drive-away).

‘‘ Price is not a key is­sue for this (new) car,’’ says Ben­ders. ‘‘ Plenty of peo­ple want it. You won’t see a $19,990 price on the new model. It is a step up and it will get the price it deserves. We think this car is go­ing to re­set the bench­mark in the small car seg­ment.’’

Mazda will an­nounce price and equip­ment de­tails closer the car’s on-sale date in late Jan­uary. Our guess? Ex­pect touch­screen nav­i­ga­tion, rearview cam­era and so­cial me­dia con­nec­tiv­ity to ap­pear on all but the most af­ford­able mod­els.

TECH­NOL­OGY

The new ver­sion of Aus­tralia’s favourite car will be able to read out email mes­sages, Face­book and Twit­ter up­dates and tune in to 40,000 in­ter­net ra­dio sta­tions via a new smart­phone called Aha.

To com­bat the po­ten­tial for driver dis­trac­tion, the new Mazda3 will also be avail­able with a radar sys­tem that au­to­mat­i­cally slams on the brakes in slow-mov­ing traf­fic if the driver does not brake in time. Such tech­nol­ogy has typ­i­cally been ex­clu­sive to lux­ury cars but its avail­abil­ity on a mass-mar­ket ve­hi­cle will likely reignite de­bate over driver dis­trac­tion tech­nol­ogy.

How­ever Mazda’s chief prod­uct plan­ner says the new lev­els of con­nec­tiv­ity will not dis­tract driv­ers. ‘‘ More and more peo­ple would like to en­joy (so­cial me­dia) while driv­ing but in the worse case they are look­ing at their smart­phone,’’ says Ryuichi Umeshita. ‘‘ In or­der to min­imise that dis­trac­tion we are show­ing that in­for­ma­tion in the car.’’

Email and so­cial me­dia are dis­played on a screen in the cen­tre of the dash­board. Mazda opted not to dis­play ‘‘ non­driv­ing’’ in­for­ma­tion in the head-up dis­play that is re­flected in the driver’s line of sight. ‘‘ We be­lieve it would be more danger­ous to show that in­for­ma­tion all the time,’’ says Umeshita.

Among other safety mea­sures, most of the so­cial me­dia func­tions can only be con­trolled by voice when the car is on the move or via a touch screen on the dash when the car is stopped.

The new su­per-ef­fi­cient 2.0 and 2.5-litre en­gines slash fuel con­sump­tion by up to 30 per cent (from 8.2L/100km to 5.7L for the 2.0-litre). As we dis­cover, the 2.0 is the more im­pres­sive and perkier engine.

The head-up dis­play is rather rudi­men­tary. Lux­ury cars re­flect the speed into the wind­screen but the Mazda3 re­flects the im­age into a small plas­tic panel, sim­i­lar to that used by Peu­geot. It’s still ef­fec­tive and a wel­come fea­ture on Aus­tralia’s strictly en­forced roads.

Other gad­gets such as radar cruise con­trol, blind-spot warn­ing, cross traf­fic alert and head­lights that il­lu­mi­nate cor­ners bring the Mazda3 up to par with some Euro­pean ri­vals.

DE­SIGN

The new Mazda3 might have a Euro­pean flavour but it was de­signed in Ja­pan and then show­cased to the world for ap­proval. In non-tech­ni­cal terms, it got two thumbs up.

The sleek shape is slightly lower and shorter than be­fore — and boot space in the sedan and hatch is slightly smaller— but the in­te­rior roomi­ness is un­changed. The aero­dy­namic lines help it slip through the air (for the tech­ni­cally minded, 0.255cD for the sedan, 0.275cD for the hatch) at free­way speeds.

The in­te­rior is par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive, with good qual­ity ma­te­ri­als and a pre­cise feel to the Audi-like di­als.

But it’s not per­fect. The cen­tre screen on the base model looks like a cheap re­mote con­trol from the 1980s (ac­cord­ing to the pic­tures, none were present at the me­dia preview). Door pock­ets can take only one bot­tle of wa­ter each.

SAFETY

Six airbags, sta­bil­ity con­trol and a fore­shad­owed five-star safety rat­ing. Mazda will build dif­fer­ent strength bod­ies for dif­fer­ent mar­kets but the

com­pany says Aus­tralia will get Grade-A ver­sions. (The fact that there are vari­a­tions high­lights the po­ten­tial for anom­alies when view­ing over­seas re­sults for ANCAP rat­ings.)

DRIV­ING

The new Mazda3 is pre­dictably a big im­prove­ment on the cur­rent model, par­tic­u­larly in terms of re­fine­ment and pre­sen­ta­tion. But on first im­pres­sions it doesn’t chal­lenge a Volk­swa­gen Golf for over­all feel, com­fort, quiet­ness and driv­ing dy­nam­ics.

The Mazda’s petrol 2.0 is sur­pris­ingly more im­pres­sive than the os­ten­si­bly sportier 2.5 in dearer mod­els. The smaller engine feels perkier from low revs. On first im­pres­sions I wouldn’t stump up the ex­tra cash for the 2.5.

Un­usu­ally, the 16-inch Yoko­hama tyre pack­age on the base model was more fid­gety at low speeds on what ap­peared to be smooth roads. Mazda says Aus­tralian ex­am­ples will get dif­fer­ent tyres.

The sporty 18-inch Dun­lops on the 2.5 felt more cush­ioned and com­pli­ant (typ­i­cally, low­pro­file tyres are too firm). But we may not get th­ese tyres ei­ther— best that we wait un­til we drive it lo­cally for a firm opin­ion on that.

VER­DICT

The en­gines might be un­der­done to achieve su­per­low fuel econ­omy num­bers but the new Mazda3 will be a sure­fire sales hit re­gard­less. It has the style, qual­ity, tech­nol­ogy and driv­ing flair to dis­tance it­self from other Ja­panese and Korean cars. Just not quite enough to top­ple Europe’s best.

Sure-fire sales hit: The next Mazda3 adds

hints of Europe to its sta­ple style and qual­ity

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