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SINGAPORE MOTORSHOW 2019

The new Mazda 3 is in Singapore - but you have to catch it quick

A preview in Singapore after its November 2018 debut at the Los Angeles Motor Show gives a glimpse into Mazda's plans to transform its cars

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While economically significant, this latest version is something more: It's a test of whether the relatively small Japanese brand (ranked the world's 16th carmaker by production size) can further its edge over larger competitors that include Mitsubishi and Subaru, but also titans such as Toyota and Honda.

Singapore

PREVIEWS are usually reserved for cars that are fast, expensive, too advanced for the local market - or even all three.

But the car Mazda previewed at its Singapore Motorshow 2019 display, the Mazda 3, is very much a bread-and-butter model that has helped it challenge at the top of sales charts here.

In 2017, Mazda recorded its best year in Singapore ever with 8,509 cars registered. That made Mazda the number three brand here, behind Honda in second place and Toyota in first, and was a far cry from its 2011 low of just 265 units.

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Last year's deliveries will see a dip to roughly 5,000 units, said Michael Wee, managing director of Trans Eurokars Pte Ltd, partly due to production shortages caused by flooding in Mazda's production centre in Hiroshima.

But the new Mazda 3 could help Mazda, well, get back to number three.

"This is the start of a new era," said Susumu Ninaii, general manager, Asean Business Office, Mazda Motor Corporation."We wanted our customers in Singapore to be the first in Asean to witness (the new car)."

Singapore is only the second place in the world to see the Mazda 3 in the flesh, after its November 2018 debut at the Los Angeles Motor Show. So it's not surprising to understand why the excitement surrounding the car is quite tangible, with eager fans literally brushing this reporter aside to get a better look at the stand.

Historically, the Mazda 3 has been the brand's bestselling model, with six million units sold since 2003. In Singapore, the car consistently makes up more than half of Mazda's total sales.

While economically significant, this latest version is something more: It's a test of whether the relatively small Japanese brand (ranked the world's 16th carmaker by production size) can further its edge over larger competitors that include Mitsubishi and Subaru, but also titans such as Toyota and Honda.

Run largely by engineers, Mazda is something of a maverick as it's not owned by or in a major alliance with a larger automotive group. When Ford relinquished its majority share in the company in 2008, its chances of survival as an independent were seen as slim.

Yet, Mazda has managed to not just survive but thrive, thanks to its own blend of automotive technology and unique design aesthetic, what it terms "Skyactiv Technology" and "Kodo design" respectively.

Nine models featuring this two-pronged approach have appeared since 2012, beginning with the first-generation CX-5 sport utility vehicle (SUV), and including the current Mazda 3.

So far, it's worked well, supercharging Mazda's global sales by adding an average of 50,000 units annually, with its 2018 fiscal year's sales results of 1,631,000 units representing its third straight record year, and fifth consecutive year of growth. Mazda aims to reach two million car sales by 2025, and the new Mazda 3 is a big step on that road as it's underpinned by the next iteration of Skyactiv technology and Kodo design.

The latter's new phase is easy to see on the Mazda 3. Design cues such as its curved bonnet and grille-headlight section are lifted straight from the brand's award-winning concept cars: the RX-Vision and Vision Coupe.

The Mazda 3 also ushers in Skyactiv-Vehicle Architecture, a new modular platform. It's a crucial element in Mazda's fortunes, because engineers are using it to build the brand's next generation of cars.

It should make for cars that are stronger and lighter, both of which would help to deliver better handling with less weight.

Unusually, Mazda says the platform is tuned to exploit a person's natural balance to make cars more comfortable on the move.

For all that, the Mazda 3 on display at the motorshow is just here for fans and gawkers to see but not buy - its steering wheel is on the left.

Mazda is remaining tight-lipped on when exactly the car will actually go on sale in Singapore, or what versions will be available.

Equally unknown is whether Singapore will get Mazda's new Skyactiv-X engine, a powerplant that combines a diesel's torque and efficiency with a petrol engine's cleanliness.

But judging from the crowd reaction at the motorshow, it seems safe to say that the Mazda 3 should perform strongly when it finally does go on sale here. The question is not whether it can lift Mazda's sales figures in Singapore, but whether it does so sooner or later.

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