2008 Mazda MAZDA3 Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
July 24, 2008

The 2008 Mazda 3 is easily one of the best compact cars for sale in the United States.

TheCarConnection.com's team of car experts pored over road tests from respected Web sources to bring you this conclusive review of the 2008 Mazda 3. Experts from TheCarConnection.com also have driven the Mazda 3 sedan, wagon, and high-performance Mazdaspeed3, and can offer you a definitive opinion on this economical yet sporty line of compact cars. This review also looks at competitors to the 2008 Mazda 3 line so that you can be fully informed if you're considering a new vehicle.

Ask any editor at TheCarConnection.com, and they'll tell you that the 2008 Mazda 3 is one of their favorite compact cars. The reasons are pretty simple: The 2008 Mazda 3 is practical, affordable, and well built, and it has a sporty, fun-to-drive character.

The 2008 Mazda 3 is offered as a front-wheel-drive sedan and a five-door hatchback (some would call it a station wagon). Both wear a cleanly styled nose that has a contemporary look. The high-performance Mazdaspeed3 only comes in the wagon body style, and this special model includes many unique features, including wider front fenders, different front and rear fascias, and a spoiler attached to the hatch. Unlike some other factory hot rods, the Mazdaspeed3 doesn't scream "I'm fast, give me a ticket." The look is conservatively aggressive.

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For the least expensive 2008 Mazda 3 sedan, a 148-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is standard. Uplevel "s" four-doors and the five-door wagon get the 2.3-liter four-cylinder that generates 156 horsepower. The five-door also gets sporty body add-ons, 17-inch wheels, and fog lamps. Five-speed manual transmissions are standard on these models, and optional gearboxes include a four-speed automatic on the base sedan and a five-speed automatic on the uplevel Mazda 3.

On the road, the 2008 Mazda 3 is a fine-driving small car with agile moves. It's entertaining to drive. However, its ride is a bit on the stiff side for some drivers. Road noise is also present and gets tiring after a few hours on the road.

If you step up to the superquick 2008 Mazdaspeed3, the engine is a turbocharged 2.3-liter that uses a sophisticated fuel delivery system called direct injection. This technology improves both power and fuel economy. A six-speed manual is the only transmission available to handle this engine's 263 horsepower. Hang on, because the Mazdaspeed3 will take you for a great ride. Quarter-mile performance is musclecar strong, and its top speed is more than 150 mph.

Both body styles of the 2008 Mazda 3 are rated as five-passenger cars, but the truth is that fitting three in the backseat is tight. With only four aboard, the interior is roomy enough, but because this is a compact car, don't expect the space of a full-size SUV--or rear cup holders either. However, you can expect easy-to-use controls and a high level of fit and finish. The Mazda 3 is a quality piece. Seating and visibility for the driver are both good.

The Mazdaspeed3 edition is leather trimmed, has front seats that are more heavily bolstered, and sports bits of aluminum trim throughout to complement the car's impressive performance.

As you'd expect, the wagon carries more than the sedan, offering 43.4 cubic feet with the rear seats folded, 16.5 with the seats up. The sedan's trunk holds 14.6 cubic feet, but this increases when the rear seats are folded.

For Mazda, 2008 is the year the company significantly improved this car's safety by making side and curtain airbags standard. Government and IIHS crash tests show that this is a good move for consumers. The Mazdaspeed3 also offers electronic stability control as standard equipment, and the feature is optional on other models. Anti-lock brakes are standard on all but the least expensive "s" trim levels.

Available features span a comprehensive range, and they include a Bose audio system, heated leather seats, a navigation system, Sirius Satellite Radio, and high-intensity xenon headlamps. The top-of-the-line Grand Touring model features a leather interior, a premium sound system, high-gloss-finish 17-inch alloy wheels, rain-sensing front windshield wipers, and automatic on/off headlights.

The new-for-2008 Ford Focus is a competent competitor, a likable mainstream product aimed at mainstream customers. Neither its styling nor its handling is as sporty as the Mazda 3, but the Focus does offer a two-door coupe body style and the Ford/Microsoft SYNC entertainment system.

The Honda Civic may be the Mazda 3's closest competitor in terms of quality and sporty character. You may or may not like the Civic's two-tier instrument panel, so try it first.

The Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass are both mini-wagons that offer the flexibility of slightly taller body designs and plenty of interior room. The Dodge Caliber SRT4 is a serious competitor to the Mazdaspeed3, and the Jeep Compass has the ability to do light off-road driving when equipped with all-wheel drive.

The Hyundai Elantra is another good value in the compact range of cars, and while you might be attracted to its price and warranty, the Elantra is not as refined or as quiet as the Mazda 3.

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2008 Mazda MAZDA3

Styling

Buyers seeking a sporty, economical car that has the looks to compete with more expensive sport sedans would do well to check out the 2008 Mazda 3.

The 2008 Mazda 3 is aging gracefully; its sharp, sporty looks are still popular among buyers, and the hatchback is especially utilitarian.

If you're interested in the Mazda 3, 2008 versions are available in two body styles: a four-door sedan and a five-door hatchback that looks more like a wagon. Introduced in 2004 by Mazda, 2008 Mazda 3s are "distinguished by taut, chiseled styling that hint at the car's athletic personality," writes Edmunds. They add, "A sign of a great design is typically one that doesn't require a sizable midlife refresh...only miniscule changes have been made to the 3 over the years." Various reviews read by TheCarConnection.com heap praise on the styling of the Mazda 3; 2008 models "have enough style to sit beside an Audi A3 and look right at home," says Kelley Blue Book. They note, "A new front end features a revised grille and headlamp treatment with a large rectangular air intake." Depending on the trim offered by Mazda, 2008 3s are equipped with either 16- or 17-inch alloy wheels.

The praise for the exterior design carries over to the interior's styling, too. Edmunds says the 2008 Mazda 3 has "a handsome interior that hints at the car's athletic personality," while Touring and Grand Touring trims "feature a distinctive and upscale interior design that looks far richer than its price would suggest." Kelley Blue Book has similar feelings: "You can shop this segment until the cows come home and not find as handsome an interior is in the 2008 Mazda [3]...A racy three-pod instrument cluster [and] red dash lighting...make the MAZDA 3 feel like a high-priced sports sedan." ConsumerGuide isn't as lavish with the praise and writes of Mazda 2008 3, "The cabin décor tries to go for a sporty, upscale look, but it falls short...The plastic-looking woven inserts on the door panels and seats are unimpressive."

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2008 Mazda MAZDA3

Performance

The 2008 Mazda 3 rewards drivers looking for sport on a small budget.

The 2008 Mazda 3, depending on trim, is equipped with a four-cylinder engine, manual or automatic transmission, a firm, sport-oriented suspension, and good brakes.

All Mazda 2008 3 i sedans use a "2-liter, four-cylinder engine rated at 148 hp and 135 [pound-feet] of torque, while s models use a 2.3-liter four-cylinder rated at 156 hp and 150 [pound-feet] of torque," reports Edmunds. The MazdaSpeed-edition 3 comes with a 2.3-liter turbocharged four with 263 hp and 280 pound-feet of torque, and it sprints to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds, according to J.D. Power. It comes only with a six-speed manual transmission. ConsumerGuide notes the "Mazdaspeed is very quick, though acceleration is blunted a bit by turbo lag." In their test of a 2008 Mazda 3 Grand Touring sedan with the 2.3 and automatic, Edmunds reports "the Mazda did the 0-60-mph sprint in 8.6 seconds."

For the Mazda 3, 2008 models' availability with either a manual or automatic transmission is a feather in their cap. "Both engines come standard with a five-speed manual...A four-speed automatic with [manual mode] is optional on i models," writes Edmunds, "while s models upgrade to a five-speed automatic with [manual mode]." ConsumerGuide thinks the automatic transmissions are "smooth and responsive" and feels the manuals have "precise shift and clutch action." But Motor Trend, after their test of a Mazda 2008 3, cautions, "the [auto] tranny did occasionally suffer from 'erratic gear tenacity,' in which it refused to engage a higher or lower cog upon input."

Fuel economy is average for an economy car. Fueleconomy.gov lists the ratings for the 2008 Mazda 3 as follows: 2-liter with the five-speed rates 24 mpg city/32 mpg highway; 2-liter, four-speed auto rates 23/31 mpg; 2.3-liter, five-speed manual rates 22/29 mpg; and the 2.3-liter, five-speed automatic rates 22/29 mpg. The government site calls the turbocharged 2008 Mazda 3 "Speed3" and lists its rating as 18/26 mpg. ConsumerGuide tests a few models of the Mazda 3 and finds that 2008 manual s sedans "averaged 27.1 mpg in mainly highway driving." An s hatchback "averaged 20.8 mpg in mostly city driving, including gas-easting performance runs." A Mazdaspeed "averaged 20.6 mpg." The turbocharged engine requires premium-grade gas, and the others use regular.

Mazda 2008 3s are tuned more for sport handling, and that influences its ride. Edmunds says, "the Mazda 3 tends to drive like a much more expensive sport sedan...thanks to its performance-oriented chassis tuning." ConsumerGuide writes, "All 3s have firm suspensions that show good composure except over large high-speed dips and swells...and is among the best handling compacts." The Mazdaspeed, they note, is "nimble and balanced, helped by precise, linear steering with good road feel." They relate, "Braking on all is stable, but be sure to get ABS." Motor Trend, too, is taken by the 2008 Mazda 3's handling. "Around the skidpad," they contend, "the 3 s Grand Touring runs circles around its competitors...[and] perhaps most impressive is the Mazda's 60-to-0 mph, which at 112 feet, matches that of the all-new Pontiac G8 GT." Motor Trend sums it up: "Nothing else in this field feels so lively and well-planted -- you can feel the racing DNA in the 3's bones."

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2008 Mazda MAZDA3

Comfort & Quality

Front-row riders get the most room in the 2008 Mazda 3, while the rear row suffers somewhat.

Reviewers mostly like the interior packaging of the Mazda 3; 2008 models have good room for a compact car and the hatchbacks are especially versatile.

For front seat occupants of the Mazda, 2008 3s have "good legroom [and] headroom, even below the sunroof housing," commends ConsumerGuide, which adds, "MazdaSpeed has particularly well-bolstered sport buckets." 2008 Mazda 3s have standard tilt and telescoping steering wheels, a rare feature at this price point. Edmunds notes, "Even taller drivers will find plenty of room in this compact car's front seat."

It's a different story in the 2008 Mazda 3's rear. Edmunds says, "The rear seat is a little snug for larger adults, but those of average height will find a decent amount of space." All Mazda 3s have a 60/40-split rear seat with center armrest. ConsumerGuide reveals, "Legroom is especially tight with the front seats far back. Headroom [is] ample in hatchbacks, only OK for taller folk in sedans."

There is some confusion among reviews read by TheCarConnection.com regarding cargo space in the Mazda. 2008 3 sedans "offer 11.4 cu ft of trunk space, while the hatchback boasts 31 when [the seats] are folded," claims Edmunds. On the other hand, J.D. Power states "Mazda 3 sedans have 11.5 cu ft, while hatchbacks offer 43.8 cu ft with their rear seats folded down." A visit to a dealer to see the cargo space in person will give you a better impression of the available room. Nevertheless, the 2008 Mazda 3 hatchbacks are "more versatile [and] include a handy cargo organizer. The hatchbacks' liftgate rises high enough to clear the heads of taller [people]," writes ConsumerGuide. They do caution, however, "Its handle is in an awkward position that makes it difficult to open without hands scraping the top of the rear bumper." Finally, they add, "Interior storage is good, highlighted by an extra-large glovebox."

2008 Mazda 3s have "solid build quality" (ConsumerGuide) and "an upscale interior [that] looks far richer than its price would suggest" (Edmunds). Motor Trend feels the interior detailing is "posh and stylish" and "all the controls have seemingly graduated from ergonomics school with honors," but ConsumerGuide thinks the Mazda 3 2008 "falls short in several areas." One is "the plastic-looking woven inserts on the door panels and seats." Another shortcoming is that there's "very few soft-touch surfaces."

"Road noise is noticed more in hatchbacks than sedans, but isn't intrusive for the class," attests ConsumerGuide. They add of the Mazda 2008 3, "Engines get loud at full throttle and aren't that quiet in gentle cruising...MazdaSpeed's low-profile tires and sporty exhaust note generate more ruckus."

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2008 Mazda MAZDA3

Safety

With most manufacturers including side airbags as standard, one has to wonder why some 2008 Mazda 3s are offered without them.

2008 Mazda 3s without side airbags fare poorly in side impacts. Standard safety features vary among the Mazda 2008 trim levels, and many popular ones that are not standard are available as extra-cost options.

Edmunds notes that standard on all 2008 Mazda 3s are "four-wheel disc brakes," and "ABS, front side and curtain side airbags are optional on the i trims and standard for everything else." They add that on the Mazda 3 2008, only Sport models have "available stability control." "Only Sport models" receive standard front side airbags, curtain side airbags, and ABS with brake assist, according to J.D. Power. They list standard features on all Mazda 2008 3s as dual front airbags and a tire pressure monitor, and claim that the s Touring and Grand Touring models have traction control and electronic stability control.

In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) frontal-impact crash tests, the 2008 Mazda 3 scored four (out of five) stars; in side-impact tests, it received three stars; and in rollover resistance tests, it received four stars.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) tested a 2008 Mazda 3 without side airbags, and the results of the test were striking. While it received a "good" rating for the front offset impact test, it received only "poor"--the lowest rating--for the side impact test. Also tested was the Mazda 3 2008's rear crash protection, where it earned a "marginal" rating.

Visibility is good in the Mazda 2008 3. With its short hood and ample glass, drivers can see well. Only in the hatchback will the C-pillars "cause some blind spots," notes Motor Trend.

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2008 Mazda MAZDA3

Features

Have some aspirin handy when deciding which 2008 Mazda 3 you want because computing the choices will give you a headache.

Mazda 2008 3s offer a wide range of body styles, trims, and features to fit most any budget.

According to Edmunds, "There are five trim levels available for the [2008 Mazda 3] sedan: i Sport, i Touring, s Sport, s Touring and s Grand Touring." Confused yet? "The hatchback/wagon comes only in the s trims," they add.

According to J.D. Power, the Mazda 3 2008 i Sport comes standard with "a tilt/telescoping steering wheel with audio controls; cloth upholstery; split folding rear seat; AM/FM/CD stereo; auxiliary input jack; outside-temperature indicator; theft-deterrent system; and P195/65R15 tires on steel wheels." The Touring trim of the Mazda 2008 3 i "adds air conditioning; cruise control; interior air filter; driver's seat height and lumbar adjustment; power windows, mirrors and door locks; remote keyless entry; and P205/55R16 tires on aluminum wheels."

Moving up to the s models, says Kelley Blue Book, brings "a 2.3-liter engine, air conditioning, illuminated remote keyless entry, fog lights, dual power mirrors, power locks, power windows, cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel and 17-inch alloy wheels." J.D. Power also notes fog lights on the Mazda 2008 3 s Sport and says the "s Sport hatchback also has a rear cargo cover, rear spoiler and P205/50R17 tires."

Kelley Blue Book reports that all 2.3-liter 2008 Mazda 3s have "Dynamic Stability Control with Traction Control as standard equipment." Of the Touring versions of the Mazda 3 2008, the s Touring "gets the P205/50R17 tires as well as traction control and anti-skid control, while the top-line s Grand Touring provides leather upholstery, heated front seats, automatic climate control, trip computer, rain-sensing wipers and Xenon automatic headlights," according to J.D. Power.

Finally, "MazdaSpeed3 Sport has s Touring equipment, plus a limited-slip front differential, upgraded brakes, sport suspension and P215/45R18 tires. To this the MazdaSpeed3 Grand Touring adds automatic climate control; leather upholstery; Bose AM/FM radio with 6-disc CD changer; trip computer; rain sensing wipers; and Xenon automatic headlights," says J.D. Power.

"Available options include a sunroof, DVD-based navigation system, auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass, and remote engine starting," says Edmunds, and Kelley Blue Book points out the "navigation unit is an unheard-of feature in a car in this price range."

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