Full Disclosure: Mazda flew me out to a ritzy Laguna Beach resort, fed me mountains of delicious food and allowed for carte blanche access to the minibar. It was a tiny bottle pogrom, more or less.
For those not in the know, the Bedazzler, a kitschy rhinestone-applying device that your mom probably used as an unpopularization tool, to great effect, by fastening sparkling kitty cats and ladybugs to all of your favorite tees and then sending your sparkling ass to school.
The new Mazda3 has no rhinestones or sparklecats, but the top-of-the line S Grand Touring comes loaded with automatic headlights, rain sensing wipers, bi-xenon headlamps, Adaptive Front Lighting (AFS), Dual zone climate control, heated seats, heated mirrors with integrated turn signals, Bluetooth everything, Ford-like interior lighting, leather, full-color navigation, Sirius satellite radio, 8-way power drivers seat and a blasting Bose Centerpoint sound system. These are typically features reserved for high-end Cadillacs and Lexi, right? Never on a sub-compact and surely not on a Mazda. These are the folks that have brought us the near-naked MX-5 through all these years — and it has stayed simple and beautiful. Has Mazda gone soft?
The scene is southern California. We're zooming past fields of grapes, acres upon acres of obsessively arranged rows. We're neatly packed into a Mazda3s Grand Touring GT with every widget in the book. After descending from the steep curves of the Ortega Highway, we glide to a stop at a four-way intersection and get a lay of the land. After a brief moment of stillness, our wake catches up to us and washes our noses with the scent of hot, steaming brake linings. This is to be expected as we've just hot lapped just about every cliffside curve the area of Temecula has to offer.
I'm piloting this bright red 5-door packed with auto journos. Ease into the gas, release the easy clutch and we're gone. The standard 6-speed manual clicks into each gear with just a breeze of effort, but the action is intentional and predictable. Our 167 HP 2.5 L four-pot is a rev-happy, strong mill with proper gearing, all while returning 21 MPG in the city and 29 MPG on the highway; it'll hit 60 in 7.9 seconds and continue on to a 117 MPH top speed. The other option is an anemic 148 HP 2.0 L bringing in a frugal 25 MPG in the city and 33 on the highway. Before long, we're ascending another rocky hill only to slide down the other side into another sharply graded turn. The all-season Yokohama Avis tires are squawking in displeasure as they're twisted and torqued to meet the demands of the 3,005-pound hatch. With a slight mid-turn lift throttle, the rear end comes around and tries the limits of the center dividing line, briefly chattering on the rumble strips. For a front-wheel drive car, this little hatch has plenty of rear-ended aggression. Even on some of the most treacherous mountain passes, the 3 totally resists understeer. Usually reserved for the most perfectly balanced rear-drive sports cars, the fresh 3 has excellent front bite and lightning fast turn-in. You'll actually oversteer before it'll let the front tires go. All this isn't down to any fancy new technology, just perfectly specced suspension. The single downside of the driving experience was solely attributed to the pedestrian tires. The properly calibrated suspension simply overloaded the budget-conscious Yokos to a large effect. We're hoping this malady is corrected in spades once the Mazdaspeed3 hits the scene. With this new car as a starting point, the next Speed should be an absolute terror.
As we leave the rocky driving paradise and re-enter the boring city, we get a chance to poke around the interior. Gentle curves play intricate games on the dashboard while ultimately tying everything together for the driver. Special attention was paid towards the driver's natural cone of sight as everything vital is situated within range while looking at the road. Our only major qualm with the control interface is the extremely difficult to navigate navigation and radio controls. The navigation, while a good intention, is total crap. It feels like an ancient, digitized version of Honda's "scrolling map" system of the ‘80s. The screen, even in high-contrast black and white in the lower models, offers very little information and is solely controlled by a dumpy joystick on the steering wheel. Whereas the BMW iDrive of old was overly complicated, the Mazda3's navigation is over simplified to the point of unusability. A good standard of quality would be the $100 TomTom One LE. I can safely assert that a person would be better off skipping the Nav option and sticking Tom on their dashboard. The controls for the satellite radio aren't intrinsically bad, but the one-line display is trash. You'll find yourself stumbling between stations for long minutes before eventually memorizing the 100+ station line-up for quick selection.
The Mazda3, after all the sliding around the mountains and poking the interior, leaves us feeling a bit Bedazzled. Imagine your favorite tee, maybe some vintage shirt in perfect condition. A Boz Scaggs screen print. The shirt fits perfectly, great fabric and impresses the ladies in the way only Scaggs could. Overnight, your mom snags your Scaggs out of the closet and molests it with one of her many Bedazzlers she's collected over the years. You end up wearing the tee to school without noticing her sparkly edits. Your friends quickly catch on, and shockingly, they applaud your fresh taste and daring fashion. You feel slightly cheap and ultimately sullied. Boz was so fresh before the Great Sequinning. Now, people only pay attention to the flashing adornments stuck to his once naturally beautiful eyes.
The new Mazda3 is a bit like that tee. In its previous iteration, it was a superb driver's car with very little in the way of excessive creature comforts. The weight and price was kept very low for the offering and enthusiasts quickly picked up on its winning formula en masse. What was once a stellar econobox still is, but now it doesn't hide its substance beneath a bland exterior. While that incredibly fun, economical chassis is still there and responsive as ever, the superfluous accessories tacked onto it are achieving greater fanfare than the car itself. As stated previously, we're staring towards the future for the return of the Speed3, which should herald the same car - plus power, minus fluff. The Great Undazzling, if you will.