Putting the MMM Back into Mazda The formerly ho-hum automaker is rolling out winner after winner after winner
By Lawrence Ulrich

(MONEY Magazine) – Mazda's recent story sounds something like that of an indie filmmaker or underground rock band: critical acclaim and growing grass-roots buzz, but so far no huge spike in overall sales.

That could change. Heck, it should change. Here's why: In just over a year, Mazda has rolled three winning numbers--the 6, the RX-8 and the new 3--and there's not a snake eyes in the bunch. All three models can make persuasive arguments as the best cars in extremely competitive classes.

For drivers seeking fun, multitalented machines, it's not even an argument: The Mazda6 is a cool wave of looks and performance in a calm sea of mid-size family sedans. The rotary-engine RX-8 has no performance equal among $30,000 sports cars, with a backseat bonus of real room for adults or child seats. Both models have been stacking awards like so much cordwood.

The latest, the Mazda3, is an emissary of power and pizazz to the land of economy cars, a segment that's often as exciting as rainy-day Yahtzee. Sharing its sophisticated underpinnings with the new Volvo S40 (the Swedish automaker and Mazda are both under Ford's corporate wing), the 3 is a sterling execution of the 21st-century small car.

Like fellow underdog Nissan, Mazda has recognized that trying to beat Honda and Toyota at their own game is like trying to outslug the Williams sisters from the baseline. So Mazda has returned to its roots: offering spirited performance that you associate with European cars, but at a Japanese price.

"The target is the practical enthusiast," says Robert Davis, Mazda's vice president for North American product development, who's also a formidable Miata racer in his spare time.


The new 3 is the latest handsome standout. Available as a sedan or a five-door hatchback, its starting price ranges from $14,200 to $17,415. From styling to performance, there's more than a hint of Renault, Alfa Romeo and other Euro small cars that play in a tougher league than the typical stateside compact.

The theme carries into the cabin, where the 3 is roomier and quieter than the smaller Protege it replaces. As with all recent Mazdas, the interior is notably sporty and well finished for the price. With Euro brands as the benchmark, the 3 gets the details right: Rich graining on the instrument panel, for example, is patterned after the Porsche Boxster's.

There's more generosity under the skin. Even the sedan's base 2.0-liter engine delivers 148 horsepower, significantly more than most econocars. The optional 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine, borrowed from the Mazda6, doles out a silky 160 horsepower; mated to a precise five-speed manual gearbox, it hustles the 3 from zero to 60 mph in a brisk 7.3 seconds. Huge, standard four-wheel disk brakes deliver shortest-in-class stops. Starting at $17,415, the versatile hatchback comes standard with the bigger engine, 17-inch wheels and fiery-red electroluminescent displays.

States with stricter emissions controls--California, Massachusetts, Maine, New York and Vermont--will see a PZEV (partial zero-emissions vehicle) model whose 144-hp, 2.0-liter gasoline engine emits about 90% fewer pollutants than the average new car.


The outgoing Protege was already among the most smile-inducing sprites around. So it's no surprise that this all-new, muscular and refined package should move to the top of its category for driving fun, even as it betters the Protege's somewhat choppy ride. Ford's corporate plan for global efficiencies wisely divvied up design responsibilities for the 3: Volvo took on chassis and safety duties; Ford, some steering and suspension work; Mazda, the engines, bodies and interiors. And the 3 is expected to achieve top scores in government crash-test ratings. Seats are designed to reduce whiplash injuries; anti-lock brakes, side air bags and side-curtain air bags are available on 2.3-liter models.

If there's a downside, it's the price, which can soar beyond $20,000, especially with luxury options like Xenon headlamps and a navigation system. In its defense, a high-end Mazda3 goes toe to toe with Volkswagen's Jetta and other upscale compacts.

As for the rest of Mazda's trio, the RX-8 is flying out of dealerships. And after a tentative start, the 6 sedan is gathering sales steam that should continue when zesty hatchback and wagon versions arrive in March. They'll give family-car fans a choice of three body styles, something most rivals don't offer.

After delightful days and weeks spent with these cars, what I come away with is a sense of fluid motion. These Mazdas have an almost feminine quality, and by that I don't mean that they're "chick cars." Rather, it's a feeling of subtle strength and balletic grace. In racetrack parlance, these babies are dialed in. It's what made the original RX-7 and Miata so compelling. And it's fast becoming the defining personality of Mazda.

Only an auto critic a quart low on brain fluid would try to talk anyone out of most any Honda or Toyota. But even if you've owned 10 cars in a row from the Japanese juggernauts, I strongly recommend you test drive the 3, 6 or RX-8. Judge for yourself how well they stack up. One zoom-zoom around the block, and you may find yourself rolling home in one of Mazda's lucky numbers.