The All-New Mazda3 Showcases Sexiness and Speed in Sepang
It was a sunny day when we touched down in Kuala Lumpur for the first event on the docket of a four-day, three-night trip to Malaysia organized by Mazda.
We headed straight to Berman Glenmarie, a Mazda dealership and also the headquarters of Bermaz Auto Berhad, the official distributor of Mazda vehicles in Southeast Asia, where hosts laid out the red carpet.
It wasn’t just for us, but also for the 45-strong Miata Club Philippines, who traveled with us to be part of Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of the world’s most popular roadster.
Lined up at the showroom were examples of the highly anticipated Mazda3 in glorious hatchback trim with shiny gun metal alloy wheels that looked so impressively close to the Kai concept that inspired this fourth-generation model. The Kai concept (a Mazda hatchback) is a more "mature" expression of the automaker's Kodo design philosophy and was revealed during the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show.
More exciting than seeing it was knowing that I would be putting it through its paces, on no less than the F1 track at Sepang International Circuit (SIP).
But for the first day, our party would be taking in the sights and the gastronomic delights of Malaysia.
Checking out the sights of KL
Our home away from home was the Melia Kuala Lumpur located at the Bukit Bintang commercial district and right across the huge Berjaya Times Square Mall, the tenth largest building in the world (by floor area). Its owner is Berjaya Corporation Berhad, the same company behind Bermaz Auto Berhad.
Malaysia’s 7 p.m. is like 5 p.m. our time, bright and sunshiny, but based on our body clocks, it was time for dinner. So off we went with our host Mazda Philippines president Steven Tan to a posh section of the city (think Dasmariñas Village level, as per Steven) called Jalan Setiakasih 5.
A Google search lists down several popular places to eat in the area, one of them being Decanter Restaurant, which serves awesome local fare with a few items getting a Western twist.
After a few bottles of wine, great food and good conversation, we had to call it a night if we wanted to make it to the trip’s highlight, which kicked off “dark” and early the next day.
True enough, 6:30 a.m. looked like early dawn when we left for SIC, which was located some 55 kilometers from KL, about an hour’s drive away.
For the Philippine media, the main agenda was to drive the all-new Mazda3. For members of Miata Club Philippines, it was to visit SIC and hang (and ride shotgun on the track) with Miata Club members from Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia who drove their roadsters all the way to the event.
Shiny Mazda3s, in sedan and hatchback form, were already lined up along the pit exit and ready for the track when we got there. Several units were also in the huge parking lot littered with orange cones for the slalom and lane change courses.
Miatas were zooming along already as they had first dibs of the track, which had members of the club scampering towards the pit.
Mazda3 specs and inspecting it up close
We were a tad early, which gave us time to ogle the all-new ‘Soul Red’ Mazda3 in the conference room of the Paddock Club. It sports the sixth iteration of the same Kodo design concept, but it is different on so many levels as Mazda takes the “less is more” philosophy to a whole new level.
Compared to the previous generation, the hatchback is shorter by 11 millimeters but the sedan is longer by 82 mm. Wheelbase for both grew at an even 25 mm. That spells increased cabin space for the hatchback and an extra-large trunk space for the sedan.
Both have been stripped of character line (well, most of it) and what’s left is a stunning visual that’s both a design and engineering accomplishment for a mass market unit.
Focus your eyes on the curvature of the sheet metal right below the base of the windows all the way down to the center of the two door panels. The play of light and shade, reflection and angles changes the hue and texture of the surface all the time. Like a desert mirage, but so much better that even photos do it justice.
Wheels are now positioned flush along the sides. It looks better and is more aerodynamic. That’s possible because the sheet metal on the wells have been shaved thin. Skirts at the bottom feature an appendage that Mazda says will reduce “chipping” noise from the road as you travel and also levels of NVH.
While there will still be two trims—hatchback and sedan—both vehicles are setup differently.
The sedan will sport a longer character line in front and, since it has a tail, the rear will also get one, but both terminate before the B-pillar to mimic the same illusion as the hatch. Hatch fans, meanwhile, are already loving the thicker C-pillar. They say it makes the profile more attractive, but Mazda says it’s to create a fastback look.
Aerodynamic features differ as well. The sedan has an air curtain (through the fog lamps and wheel well) and the hatch uses channels along the bumper.
Redesigned from scratch
The program kicked off with a brief overview by Mazda3 Project Manager Ken Tashima. He mentioned that as identical as this unit may seem to the previous generation Mazda3, it was “redesigned from scratch."
SkyActiv engines made available during the test drive at Sepang International Circuit were the 2.0 and 1.5L petrol, which most likely are the ones the Philippines will get as well. Both come with G-Vectoring Control Plus (GVC Plus) and the tests at the slalom and lane change courses gave us a feel of how the new GVC algorithm. Whether braking hard to taking off hard, engine output is controlled so that the wheels, especially the front, don’t lose traction. The car’s reaction to steering input did feel more direct, intuitive even. That’s what Mazda calls jinba ittai.
That’s the car-part of the concept. The other half is SkyActiv Architecture, which takes into account the driver’s body, primarily the neck, spine, pelvis, buttocks. The key in stabilizing the head, according to Mazda, is to exert dynamic balance ability, or more technically, keep the pelvis stable and the S-curve along the spine.
To achieve this, new seats on the Mazda3 has an adjustment range greater than five-percent and the new lifter adjusts heel-to-hip distance. That also puts the center of gravity right on the rib cage for optimum balance.
The track drive utilized half of SIC’s layout—a long straight where we hit about 180 kph, a couple of hairpin turns for hard braking, and a few lengthy bends to test how the chassis handles G forces and rollover resistance.
The 2.0L engine (162 HP / 153 Nm) is the obvious winner over the 1.5L (118 HP / 213 Nm) on the same track—snappier acceleration, more power at higher speeds with lower RPM by comparison. Because of the extra 44 HP and 60 Nm of torque, the former feels lighter and more responsive but that’ll only really matter if you’re on a real track. Both will do well on the highway and you’ll require very little of its output in the city.
On Sport mode, both units auto-blip during hard braking into corners. It isn’t F1-driver quick but having that in your backpocket is an ace for Mazda.
Three percent may not sound like a lot, but that much extra ultra-high-strength steel did wonders to the chassis and body’s reaction to the stress of the high-speed long apexes and rapid deceleration. Hot rear tires made the tail feel a tad wobbly coming down from 170 kph to 60 kph in four seconds but the body was firm and stable.
I loved how this new “two-wall” structure (creating space between body and floor carpeting) reduced NVH to almost zero even with the cars sitting on 18s (2.0L) and 16s (1.5L) and hitting runoffs on the track.
Doors latch on like a luxury unit and the cabin is now more streamlined than ever. The dashboard has a lot of open padded surfaces (especially in front of the passenger. Layout is highly minimalistic and driver-centric with the 8.8-inch non-touchscreen (which some will balk at) angled facing the driver. It can only be manipulated using voice or the rotary Command Control along the center console. The theme is a cool black save for the slim brushed aluminum trim along the door panels, spokes of the steering wheel and on the dashboard.
There’s actually more to the all-new Mazda3 that can actually fit into this 1500-worder and most of it can’t be expressed with words. This is one of those “see-to-appreciate” moments. Plus, the amount of R&D in and on this vehicle is really next level and we all saw it at Sepang.
For you, the wait isn’t that much longer. Feel the speed and see the sexy Mazda3 when it hits dealerships in the Philippines this August.