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Driving Dynamics
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May 09, 2019
Driving Dynamics
Great economy car. Really great on gas, tight on turns- turns on a dime, dependable car
October 11, 2018
Driving Dynamics
Best and most dependable/reliable car I''ve ever owned. I love this car!
2006 Mazda 1203 Mazda3 15891 279968
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Expert Reviews

Sam Moses
powered by New Car Test Drive
The Mazda 3 is a roomy, affordable compact with spirit. It has a sporty demeanor and is fun to drive. The Mazda 3, or Mazda3 as company renders it, is available as a neatly styled four-door sedan or as a more adventurous five-door hatchback.

The sedan has a sweet, rounded shape and smooth, cohesive design. The five-door looks more aggressive, and provides a lot of utility with its hatchback design and folding rear seats.

Quick, nimble handling makes these cars fun to drive on twisty country roads. The Mazda 3s features a free-revving 2.3-liter engine that delivers spirited performance. The 2006 Mazda 3i benefits from increased power this year from its 2.0-liter engine. The five-speed manual transmission shifts beautifully and there's an automatic available with a manual-shift feature.

These are comfortable, friendly cars with terrific seats, big electroluminescent gauges (on 3s), a huge glove box and excellent attention to detail. Premium sound systems and luxury options, such as a sunroof and leather interior, are reasonably priced. A Mazda 3i Touring with leather, sunroof, and a CD changer stickers below $20,000.

Side-curtain airbags and anti-lock brakes are standard on some models and available on all, enhancing safety.

Model Lineup
Two engines are available, both four-cylinders. Mazda 3s models come with the larger, more powerful 2.3-liter engine, and are available as a four-door sedan or five-door hatchback. The Mazda 3i available only as a four-door sedan comes with the smaller, 2.0-liter engine.

The Mazda 3i 4-Door sedan ($13,710) comes with wind-up windows and manual door locks, four-speaker AM/FM/CD audio, tilt and telescope steering wheel with audio controls, 15-inch steel wheels with 195/65HR15 tires, side repeater lights, and a stainless steel exhaust system. A five-speed manual gearbox is standard, a four-speed automatic transmission ($900) is optional. Air conditioning is optional ($880) and comes with a pollen filter.

The 3i Touring sedan ($15,990) comes standard with air conditioning with the pollen filter, plus power windows, locks and mirrors; remote keyless entry; cruise control; a height-adjustable driver's seat; and six-speaker audio; and 16-inch cast aluminum wheels with more aggressive 205/55HR16 tires.

The Mazda 3s sedan ($16,880) and 5-Door hatchback ($17,370) come with the more powerful engine; all of the i-Touring equipment, plus anti-lock brakes (ABS) with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD); variable-intermittent windshield wipers; leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob; brighter interior upholstery and trim; electroluminescent gauges that adjust for intensity; and delayed courtesy lights. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, and a five-speed automatic is optional ($950).

The 3s Touring sedan and hatchback list the same manufacturer's suggested retail price ($17,615). They start with all 3s equipment and add side-impact and side-curtain airbags; side-sill extensions; and 205/50VR17 tires on 17-inch alloy wheels.

The 3s Grand Touring sedan and hatchback ($19,165) add heated leather seats, automatic climate control, trip computer, xenon headlamps with automatic on/off, rain-sensing front windshield wipers, a tire-pressure monitor, and a more sophisticated security system.

An option package ($890) combining a power glass sunroof with a six-CD changer is available for 3i Touring, 3s, and 3s Touring. For the 3s Grand Touring only, Mazda packages the sunroof and six-CD changer with a 222-watt Bose premium sound system ($1335). DVD-based satellite navigation ($1750) is also available on 3s Grand Touring only. Leather seating is available ($590) on 3s Touring. Spoilers, cargo mats, fog lights, stereo upgrades, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror with Homelink are available as dealer-installed accessories.

Safety features include dual front airbags that sense the driver's position and the weight of the front passenger. Side-impact and side-curtain airbags are standard on 3s Touring and 3s Grand Touring. Optional safety packages add the additional airbags to the 3s ($245) and full airbag protection and ABS to the 3i ($395). ABS with EBD is standard on all 3s models.

Both the 3i and 3s are available as Partial Zero Emissions Vehicles (PZEV) in California, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont and New York. The no-cost option trades 5-7 horsepower for significant reductions in emissions. All Mazda 3 models meet Tier II Bin 5 Federal standards for near-zero evaporative emissions.

Whether four-door sedan or five-door hatchback, the Mazda 3 is a wonderful car to walk around. The four-door and the five-door share no body panels. This represents what Mazda is known for: innovation and the risk that comes with it. When you look at the two cars, you can see that the styling of each nose would only work with its own tail. Grafting a hatchback onto the nubile nose of the four-door would never do. The five-door needed an edgy proboscis, which it got. It's uncommon for a manufacturer to go to the extra expense of tooling more panels than absolutely necessary for a second body style, but Mazda set a high styling standard for this car.

The four-door sedan has a sweet rounded shape forward of the A-pillar. Mazda's trademark wedge grille has body-color horizontal bars on the 3s, plain black mesh on the 3i. The standard headlamps on the sedan have a smooth and sexy shape, swept back like cat's eyes and sparkling with three beams inside. The whole front bumper, including the air dam at the bottom with foglights in the corners, is impressively integrated. There's a small seam on each fender between the headlights and the wheel opening, and between the headlights themselves there's only the hood opening. Everything south of that is one smooth and effective piece.

The rear of the sedan is another smooth, cohesive design with an integrated bumper, and again only small seams at the edges. The deck is short and high and nicely softened at the top. Taillights have red lenses on 3i, clear on 3s. At all four corners, the wheelwells fit tightly around the tires; there used to be a rule at Mazda that there had to be enough of a wheelwell gap to install tire chains without removing the tire, which the stylists hated and finally defeated for the Mazda 3.

The five-door hatchback is no wider, but it appears wide-shouldered because of its aggressive nose. The fenders are dropped and sculpted to rise to the hood and flow into the front doors. The boxy top half makes the whole car look wide. There's less rake from the tops of the doors to the roof (affording more shoulder room), but the rear of the roof is gently rounded to the liftgate window, to soften the profile. There's a tidy spoiler above the rear window.

The rear fenders of the hatchback are aggressively defined over the wheels. There's a big notch in the rear bumper, under the liftgate, to clear the back of your hand when you grab the latch. We thought the design was a bit exaggerated until we used it the first time and appreciated its excellent function.

It's especially nice that there's no chrome trim. Black around the windows, body colored everywhere else.

Mazda 3 is a global car, sharing technology and components with the Volvo S40 and the European-market Ford Focus that isn't sold in the U.S. It's like a talent co-op. People say component sharing makes cars all the same but it's not so. Mazda developed the engines and transmissions, Volvo did the chassis and safety, and Ford of Europe did the basic suspension design. The fine-tuning of the suspension was in Mazda's hands, worked out at its Hiroshima test track. Each manufacturer did what it does best, and the result is the best of three worlds.

A lot of work went into the rigid unit-body chassis. In a head-on collision the front of the chassis is designed to redirect energy to the outside rails, and not down the center toward the front seats. The steering column is crushable and the pedals are designed to retract away from the driver's feet.

The standard interior in 3i is black or beige cloth. In 3s, black-bolstered seats offer a choice of blue or red-check cloth inserts. The optional leather seating surfaces are smooth and black and priced well compared to other cars.

The seats are great, with adequate bolstering. The 3s has adjustable lumbar support, and the hip position is elevated, reducing front legroom a touch, but providing excellent forward visibility as well as a tidy relationship with the pedals and especially the short shift lever. There's no dead pedal. The outside of the driver's right shin rests comfortably on the edge of the center stack.

The three-spoke steering wheel, leather-wrapped in the 3s, feels great in the hands, and the control buttons for the cruise control and sound system have a positive feel The dashboard shelf is golf-ball grainy, not unlike the new Cadillacs, although Mazda says it was the Porsche Boxster that inspired them. Instrument panel trim is Piano Black on 3i and Silver on 3s.

Three big gauges are dead ahead for the driver, but they're down in tunnels where they effectively hide from the glare of the sun. They are electroluminescent on 3s, which means day or night the numbers are lit in reddish-orange with blue highlights. Even without the color, the 140-mph speedometer would be awfully busy, with hash marks for miles and a smaller kilometer measure with more hash marks inside the mph numbers. The dash panel looks better at night than during the day, with the reddish-orange lighting having its chance to be seen. There are glowing rings around most of the dials including the cigarette lighter, in kind of a dull maroon.

The glovebox is huge (9 quarts), the door is dampened and the compartment has its own light. There's a deep but not long console under the driver's right elbow, and between the seats are two built-in cupholders with a neatly hinged cover in black plastic. The cupholders have a canal between them so other things such as a cellphone can be stored and easily reached there. The window switch for the driver is illuminated at night, a very useful feature.

The back seats in the five-door hatchback are surprisingly roomy and supportive, even when relatively tall people are sitting in front. There are acres of rear headroom and decent legroom with room for big feet to slide under the front seats. The rear door opening is a bit narrow, though.

Cargo space in the five-door with the seats folded flat in is 31.2 cubic feet. We came out of an Ikea store with an unassembled table in a flat box measuring 48 inches long and 30 inches wide, and it slid neatly into the back. Flipping the seats down is easy. We reached in from behind, pressed down on one small square button on each side, and an easy shove forward dropped each seat flat. A separate compartment is hidden under the floor. Fold the seats back up into their passenger-friendly position, and there's still 17.1 cubic feet of cargo room, a fair amount for a compact car. The rear floor section can be raised to create a partition, dividing the space into separate upper and lower compartments. The Mazda 3 can't carry as much cargo as a Toyota Matrix, but it's a lot more fun to drive.

Visibility is limited in the rearview mirror of the five-door by the two rear headrests and the center brake light, which intrude a little into window space.

The sedan has an average-size 11.4 cubic-foot trunk, but its rear seats still fold 60/40 for carrying long objects.

Driving Impressions
The larger, more powerful 2.3-liter engine that comes with the Mazda 3s has plenty of spirit, but you need to work the manual shifter to get the full benefit of it. It makes 160 horsepower, but it is, after all, a normally aspirated (not turbocharged) four-cylinder, so there's not a ton of torque at low rpm. At 1000 rpm it generates only 120 pound-feet, which climbs to 140 at 3000 and peaks at 150 at a relatively high 4500 rpm. Be prepared to downshift to accelerate suddenly, either with the manual five-speed gearbox or the five-speed automatic.

Redline is 6500 rpm, but the engine is happy zooming to 7000. The 16-valve head is quite sophisticated, with variable valve timing and a variable induction system that optimizes intake efficiency and torque. The block is aluminum, there's a cam chain rather than a belt, and the exhaust manifold is stainless steel. The engine is very smooth and quiet at consistent freeway speeds, and has a nice sporty sound when it's revving under acceleration. The 2.3-liter Mazda 3 with the manual transmission rates an EPA-estimated 26/32 miles per gallon City/Highway.

For 2006, Mazda has adapted variable valve timing and variable-length intake runners to the smaller, 2.0-liter engine as well. The spec sheet shows a why-bother gain of only 2 horsepower (from 148 to 150, both at 6500 rpm), and no change in rated torque (still 135 pound-feet at 4500 rpm), but those are only the peak number. The biggest benefit of both variable valve timing and a variable intake is usually a flatter torque curve while maintaining good peak horsepower. So while we haven't driven a 2006 Mazda 3i (or even seen a torque curve for one on paper), we suspect that that's the case here. And if so, it could mean a palpable gain in performance, across a broad rpm range, that is much larger than those 2 horsepower would suggest. EPA estimates for the smaller engine are 28/35 city/highway mpg with manual transmission, 26/34 with the automatic.

The standard five-speed manual transmission shifts beautifully, especially the upshifts, which were almost as smooth as an automatic, with no real driver effort. Mazda worked hard on designing the synchronizers and cable linkage for reduced friction.

Mazda now calls the optional automatic transmissions Sport A/T. (Last year it was Activematic.) Either way, it's a fancy name, but these are fancy transmissions. You can just put the lever in Drive and go, but they also feature a manual mode programmed for quick shifting. Left to shift on their own, they're smart, maintaining a gear going downhill for engine braking or uphill to reduce hunting. Sport A/T has four gear ratios when ordered on 3i, and five ratios with 3s.

Handling is quick and nimble, making the Mazda 3 fun to drive. It's a blast on winding country roads. It's also sharp, true and steady in emergency lane-change maneuvers. Mazda's Electro-Hydraulic Power-Assisted Steering (EHAPS) minimizes drag on the engine compared to a conventional belt-driven hydraulic system. Mazda claims it also reduces noise, vibration, and harshness. The Ford group in England designed the Mazda 3 suspension, but the final tuning was done by Mazda at its long, rolling test track in Hiroshima.

Mazda 3s models with the 2.3-liter engine come with slighter larger brakes than those on the 2.0-liter 3i. We found the brakes on the 3s to be quite effective and sensitive; a mere light touch on the brake pedal around town works nicely.

The Mazda 3 is sporty, practical and affordable. It's fun to drive and fun to look at. It's solidly executed, with no flaws, a strong engine, transmission, handling, brakes, comfort, packaging and looks. We like the versatile five-door. More than a great compact, it is truly a car for our times. correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from the Columbia River Gorge; Mitch McCullough contributed from Los Angeles.

Model as tested
Mazda 3s Touring 5-Door ($17,615)
Basic Warranty
3 years/50,000 miles
Assembled in
Hiroshima, Japan
Destination charge
Gas guzzler tax
Base Price
Price as tested
Options as tested
leather seats ($590); power moonroof and in-dash 6-CD changer ($890)
Model Line Overview
Model lineup
Mazda 3i sedan ($13,710); 3i Touring sedan ($15,990); 3s sedan ($16,880); 3s hatchback ($17,370); 3s Touring sedan or hatchback ($17,615); 3s Grand Touring sedan or hatchback ($19,165)
Safety equipment (standard)
two-stage front airbags with passenger weight sensor; collapsible steering column and breakaway pedals; front and rear side impact beams; LATCH anchors and tethers for child safety seats in the rear
Safety equipment (optional)
2.3-liter DOHC 16-valve inline-4
5-speed manual
Specifications as Tested
ABS; EBD; side-impact airbags and side-curtain airbags; air conditioning; cruise control; six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo; power windows, door locks and mirrors; remote keyless entry; electroluminescent gauges; driver's seat with height and lumbar adjustments; cargo cover and cargo management system; 17-inch alloy wheels; halogen headlights and foglights
Engine & Transmission
2.3-liter DOHC 16-valve inline-4
Drivetrain type
front-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
160 @ 6500
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
Brakes, front/rear
disc/disc with ABS and EBD
Suspension, front
independent, MacPherson struts, lower control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Suspension, rear
independent, multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Seating capacity
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear
Fuel capacity
Trunk volume
Turning circle
Towing capacity
Track, front/rear
Ground clearance
Curb weight
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2006 Mazda Mazda3
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