Text and photos by Ulysses Ang
THERE ARE two kinds of car enthusiasts in the world. The first is content to sit behind his desk (or phone), happy to debate about numbers — curb weight, power, acceleration; the other simply says, “forget about the numbers,” gets in, buckles up, and drives off with a huge smile on his face. The 2020 Mazda3 is all about the second: it transcends what’s written in black and white; it’s simply made to be driven.
In creating the Mazda3’s new platform, engineers didn’t seek out the competition. Instead, they sought the help of psychologists and ergonomists to find out how the human body behaves, and how things like color, material, sound, and movement elicits feelings of joy and happiness. It’s come to a point that Mazda’s gotten it down to a mathematical formula; a formula so accurate that when they did decide to drive the competition, they managed to come out on top.
Now, admittedly, the first few kilometers behind the wheel didn’t feel spectacular. As a matter of fact, the ride can come across as firm, especially when going through the various cracks and potholes that dot EDSA after weeks of rain. It’s only when you drive (or ride) it some more when you realize what’s going on.
Traditionally, engineers reduce the suspension rebound to improve the ride; in the Mazda3, it’s all about controlling it. By unifying the development of the body, suspension, tires, and even seats, it reduces secondary shake and vibration to near zero. Anyone would be skeptical at first, but try this simple exercise: read the contents of the heads-up display, or as a passenger, your text message or Facebook status update — you’ll find that you actually can without getting dizzy. Why? Because the head is kept steady. It’s similar to walking — you never get dizzy when walking to the nearest third-wave coffee shop, simply because your body balances itself. It’s this sense of innate balance that the Mazda3 taps into.
This same sense of balance happens when you drive it spiritedly. Again, it’s not about power or even overcoming a power deficit against its competition; rather, it’s about predictability. In a straight line, a handful of compact cars will smoke it; heck they might even be faster around a racetrack. That said, you’ll be fighting tooth and nail for every advantage, sawing the steering wheel, or issuing an unplanned mid-corner correction. Not so with the Mazda3.
It’s all about natural progression. For one, the steering is precise and linear. Then, the chassis is also willing to rotate, with no traces of float and no excess lateral motions from the rear. It even has torque vectoring control, but unlike in other applications, it’s not here to maximize traction; rather, it’s there to smooth out cornering, specifically the transitions between roll and pitch. As a result, it’s easy to know when you’re at the Mazda3’s limit, and even when you go beyond it, it’s always easy to catch. A caveat is that the chassis engineers have done it so well that they’ve eliminated the forward pitching during heavy braking resulting in a rather wooden brake feel.
Keyboard pundits will surely zone in on the Mazda3’s power, or rather lack of it. On paper, the Skyactiv-G engine doesn’t pull off mega numbers: 154 horsepower for the 2.0-liter. In reality though, it’s pleasant and refined — perfect for the impressive NVH even at speeds in excess of 100 km/h. Dig deeper through and it’ll be more than happy to sing at wide-open throttle its entire life. The 6-speed automatic is a willing accomplice, happily revving the snot out of the engine, while staying smooth and intuitive. It always seems to know that you’re about to behave badly, and will downshift through multiple gears to keep the pace up. Paddle shifters and a Sport mode are standard, but they’re almost always unused. Interestingly, when it comes to fuel economy, the Mazda3 achieves 11.90 km/L in city traffic, and 18.5 km/L on the highway — impressive stuff.
Mechanically impressive as it is, the level of craftsmanship in the Mazda3 is simply unmatched. Everything is padded and premium-feeling — down to the consistent tactility of the switchgear, and how the perforations in the leather seats are sized and spaced to absorb NVH. Heck, engineers even considered how the human eye perceives the color white, and they took it upon themselves to torture their suppliers to make it consistent throughout the entire cabin — down to its illuminance.
Open the door, set yourself down, and the interior surrounds and cradles you, a reminder that you’re driving something unique. The seating position is low, with the cabin designed to cocoon around you. Despite the high dash and thick C-pillar, visibility is never an issue and even through tight confines, front and rear sensors and high-res 360-degree camera help. The steering wheel is squarely in front, your back supported by the seats, your hips low, and your legs slightly bent (but not bunched up). It’s posture-perfect, resulting in fatigue-free driving even after long stints behind the wheel. Even more surprising, the same supportive seat design is present for all passengers, even the rear ones. That said, those seated in the back will have to be content being squished by the lack of knee- and headroom; and that’s after getting their heads banged up upon entry.
Interior space may be tighter this time around, but on the flipside, the Mazda3 does up the premium features. Aside from the 360-degree camera, the 2.0 Premium model comes with adaptive LED headlights, rain-sensing wipers, leather seats, a sunroof, dual zone climate control, 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat with memory, 12-speaker Bose sound system, and Mazda i-Activsense which bundles radar-based Active Cruise Control, Blind Spot Monitoring, front and reverse smart brake support, and front Cross Traffic Alert — all for P1.495 million to P1.590 million.
The Internet debate will surely continue as to why Mazda opted to go with a “puny” naturally-aspirated engine or a torsion beam rear suspension, but the truth of the matter is, you shouldn’t care. Any true enthusiast will see that the 2020 Mazda3 is the result of engineers focusing on the important things, or even the smallest if you consider the cabin lighting or positioning of the speakers. In the end, it’s all about coming up with a masterpiece, regardless of the ingredients found underneath. It’s like a piece of music — anyone can assemble an orchestra, but only Mozart can create Mozart.