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Mazda 3 2.0 Sedan review: Mazda's impressive sedan could even make Lexus worry

In trying to build an above-average car, Mazda kept the average human in mind with its Mazda 3.

The new seventh-generation Mazda 3 is designed to be an extension of the human body.

The new seventh-generation Mazda 3 is designed to be an extension of the human body.

Mine, Yamaguchi, Japan

TO REDESIGN the Mazda 3, engineers started by examining something unusual: people.

A small Japanese sedan that's been the Hiroshima-based carmaker's mainstay for decades, the Mazda 3 is a perennially strong seller. In Singapore it fends off such cars as the Toyota Corolla Altis, Kia Cerato and Hyundai Avante, and countless rivals besides.

So when Mazda proudly proclaimed it designed the new, seventh-generation Mazda 3 with humans foremost in mind and aimed for it to have universal appeal, we thought it was off its rocker.

"We want to enhance the ability of a human, rather than the machine-oriented performance, and to design a car that feels like an extension of your body," Susumu Ninai, general manager, Asean Business Office, Mazda Motor Corporation, told The Business Times.

Trying to please everyone runs the risk of pleasing no one, but with its renewed focus on homo sapiens, Mazda has somehow created a seriously impressive product that raises the bar for mainstream sedans.

It's obvious at a glance. Ask two people about a car's looks and you'll get three opinions, but even a committed Cubist would have to agree that the new Mazda 3 has curves that wouldn't look out of place on something three times the price and 100 per cent Italian.

Mazda's unique trick here is that it uses expert sculptors to find great shapes, not just traditional car designers who typically design on paper. And as good as it looks in pictures, especially with a strong chiaroscuro, the new 3 looks even better in real life or in motion.

The other trick the design team was to focus on was Japanese minimalism and "reducing visual noise", as Mazda describes it, which is why you don't see prominent creases on its body that are so popular in European cars.

That paring down extends to the interior as well. Many of the usual joints and obvious plastic gaps one finds in mainstream East Asian cars have been eliminated. Instead a graceful swoop of large, unbroken surfaces greet the driver.

In fact, the first impression is that the cabin belongs to something far more expensive and luxurious, which makes sense given the steps Mazda has taken towards upping the ante (See related story) in both obvious and subtle ways.

It certainly has plenty of human appeal. As far as human-machine interfaces go, the Mazda 3 has obvious thoughtfulness and logic built in, surpassing some luxury brands in ease of use and presentation.

The switch away from distracting touchscreens is very welcome, in the form of a much-enlarged (8.8-inch from 7.0-inch previously) infotainment screen that is controlled solely by a rotary dial.

It's mounted higher than before, in line with the digital speedometer the 7.0-inch TFT virtual instrument panel, while the armrest and gearshifter area are more spacious, requiring no wrist-distorting acrobatics. It's been some time since we've experienced in-car ergonomics this natural and fuss-free.

The only gripe we can muster here is that despite a small increase in wheelbase, interior room feels largely the same as before, and doesn't feel as large as the space leader in this segment, the Honda Civic. The Mazda 3 is still fully capable of seating five adults though, and boot space has been increased from 419-litres to 450-litres.

Our on-road test drive of the Mazda 3 2.0 is less conclusive, since we weren't able to drive the car on normal roads, and all our time behind the wheel at Mazda's Mine Proving Grounds was rain-sodden.

The 2.0-litre driven here is a conventional gasoline-powered version, with almost identical horsepower to the old model. We were unable to test the sole model confirmed for launch in Singapore thus far, the 1.5-litre engine with a mild hybrid system, nor the more exciting 2.0-litre Skyactiv X model, which combines the best characteristics of diesel and petrol engines using Mazda's novel compression ignition technology.

But driving the old and new 2.0-litre sedans back-to-back provided a useful basis for comparison. The new car is far more refined, with road and tyre noise reduced significantly, as is the loud roaring from driving over puddles at speed.

The undulations and corners of the handling track we drove on had the potential to be intimidating in a less capable vehicle. Yet, the 155 horsepower of the 2.0-litre engine is all smoothness, and the defining characteristic of the Mazda 3 is that it makes driving a cinch, even on a cold, slippery strip of tarmac that used to be a racing circuit.

To get back to the idea of making a car just for humans, the snarky riposte would be that cars can also be built with significant non-human input, such as committees, lawyers, accountants, crazed driving enthusiasts, and professional cost-cutters.

Within that context, Mazda's earnestness becomes a little clearer, and it's also clear it has made an impressive car, too. We can't say everyone will be enamoured of it, but if Mazda gets the price right, it seems safe to bet that any normal human will.

Mazda 3 Sedan 2.0

Engine 1,997cc, inline 4
Power 155hp at 6000rpm
Torque 203Nm at 4000rpm
Gearbox 6-speed automatic
0-100km/h TBC
Top Speed TBC
Fuel Efficiency TBC
Agent Eurokars Mazda
Price TBC
Available 2nd half of 2019