San Diego Business Journal

As the automotive industry continues its quest to fill every need and market niche, compact wagons again seem to be moving into view. These wagons offer seating for a small family and with the rear seat folded down offer a reasonable cargo capacity. In urban settings, the small footprint can be a huge asset, offering the ability to easily negotiate congested roadways and parking facilities.

I've become a strong advocate of the compact wagon. The Volvo V50 originally spiked some interest, but it was the very impressive Audi A3 that turned my head around. The Mazda3 5-Door wagon is another alternative that comes in at a lower price and offers many of the same virtues as the luxury models. The slick wagon version of the Mazda3 offers great utility at a very attractive price.

The compact Mazda3 has become the best seller for the Japanese subsidiary of the Ford Motor Co. While Mazda's overall sales for 2005 through October are running about even with 2004, Mazda3 sales are up by 26 percent and is the company's best selling line.

While the Mazda3 may not be the vehicle the chief executive officer would make his or her primary vehicle, most business and professional families have two, three or more vehicles; a compact wagon may be a good addition to the stable of vehicles.

Here's a typical scenario: On a Sunday morning, armed with the Mazda3 5-Door, my wife and I went on a typical weekend shopping expedition. We purchased a new microwave oven, a bookshelf, three bags of groceries and assorted other nonessentials that make up the fabric of the middle-class life. With the rear seats folded, the Mazda3 5-Door offers 31 cubic feet of cargo space and easily swallowed up all of our stuff. There wasn't much room left over, but it did the job.

With class-leading distance between the rear wheel wells, the Mazda3 boasts a useful luggage compartment. The cargo can be organized to separate the cargo space into upper and lower sections and the rear floor section can be raised to create a partition.

A subsurface trunk area allows valuables to be hidden away. According to Mazda, the interior is longer, wider and taller than any other in its class, offering the most front and rear shoulder room among compact sedans and one of the best in its class for knee room.

Mazda has been hyping the performance potential of its various models.

Despite the application of variable valve timing to maximize horsepower at high rpm and torque at low rpm, the zoom-zoom part of the Mazda3 was disappointing. Acceleration was adequate at best. The test car had special equipment to achieve California's Partial Zero Emission Vehicle standard. So equipped, the Mazda3's four-cylinder engine puts out a pretty meager 153 horsepower.

The engine also incorporates a low-friction finish on the camshafts and lifters to minimize valve train noise and resistance. Nevertheless, the engine was fairly loud and buzzy during acceleration.

The Mazda3's ride and handling, however, were quite acceptable. In the development of the body architecture, Mazda engineers built in high levels of rigidity. This enabled the deployment of softer springs and dampers to provide a comfortable ride, yet maintain road-holding capability. Handling is also enhanced on the Touring model with standard 17-inch wheels and tires.

Despite its modest price, the Mazda3 had a stellar array of safety components, including front- and side-impact air bags, side-curtain air bags and anti-whiplash front-seat technology. The braking system is equipped with electronic, brake-force distribution and brake assist. EFD proportions braking power depending on dynamic vehicle load. This technology can prevent a vehicle from applying too much brake force to one side or the other, pulling the vehicle out of line.

Brake assist is able to detect an emergency scenario and help the driver put maximum braking force into play. I would like to see a vehicle stability control system on the Mazda3, but this technology, which can control vehicle yaw to reduce the possibility of a spin or traction loss under severe conditions, seems to be reserved for vehicles in the luxury market.

The interior and dashboard look attractive and in some ways belie the vehicle's modest price. The main gauge cluster, however, presents a problem.

The electroluminescent gauges are almost impossible to read while driving in the daytime with the headlights turned on, something I insist on doing during a rainstorm.

Cordell Koland is an automotive journalist based in California's central coast. He can be reached at cordellkoland@mac.com.

Mazda3's 5-Door Touring

Price as tested: $19,065.

Engine:
Type: 2.3-liter inline four.
Horsepower: 153 @ 6,500 rpm.
Torque: 149 foot-pounds @ 4,500 rpm.

Fuel economy, manual transmission:
City: 26 mpg.
Highway: 32 mpg.

Curb weight: 2,808 pounds.