First drive: We try out the all-new Mazda 3 at Sepang International Circuit

Mazda’s compact contender looks and drives as sharp as ever
by Drei Laurel | Jul 31, 2019

‘Adjustments feel precise, and the 3 handles like a smaller car’

A couple of years ago, this look would be something outside the realm of production lines—a vision confined to a designer’s drawing board or an idea stuck on a rotating platform at an international car show.

A couple of years ago this was exactly that, and Mazda called it the Kai concept.

I was there when the company unveiled said concept at the 2017 Tokyo International Motor Show. No lines, no jaw-dropping aero bits or oversized and overaggressive components, no distractions—the Kai, visually, was simply something else, even for a concept car.

PHOTO: Mazda

“It works in concept, but will it work in actual application?” I’m here at the Sepang International Circuit in Malaysia standing in front of the answer, and I have to say it’s a resounding yes. The all-new Mazda 3 isn’t exactly a spitting image of the Kai, but its aesthetic is similar enough to warrant being impressed over how much of the concept’s design has made it to production.

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I move closer for a better look. Just like the concept, lines are kept to a bare minimum, and what few there are keep their presence relatively subtle. From afar, you can barely tell where one part of sheet metal ends and another begins, giving off the impression the car is born of a single mold—there’s a flow to this vehicle’s look you won’t see in anything else in this segment. You’ll find it even more apparent in the hatch, owing to its rounded roofline and thicker c-pillars.

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The intricate mesh grille is a nice premium touch, and it’s flanked by attractive swept-back headlights with ring-shaped DRLs that look as though the 3 has put some eyeliner on. And while all the chrome bits are nice, we’re crossing our fingers our market gets the option for a fully blacked-out exterior trim.

Also, not that we expected them to make it into the production version, but the fancy pop-out door handles and the digital side cameras have been ditched in favor of traditional components. Maybe someday.

PHOTO: Drei Laurel

Like the exterior, the cabin gets simplified as well. The layout is a lot plainer—in a good way—than before, and passenger side A/C vents are neatly concealed below the top part of the dashboard. And as with most Mazdas we’re familiar with, occupants are treated to a smorgasbord of nice leather upholstery, high-quality plastic surfaces, and soft-touch materials.

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The driver’s side continues to be the focal point of the interior, with all controls, buttons, and dials easily within reach, and a new 8.8-inch infotainment display tilted ever so slighty toward the cockpit. The steering wheel still feels great to hold, the vehicle still comes with a heads-up display, and the speakers can even be adjusted to course sound only to the driver’s area. Neat.

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Speaking of displays, the main one isn’t a touchscreen unit. Any fiddling or adjustments you want to make to the car’s settings will have to be done via the dial—which is smaller now and even easier to operate—located on the center console, or through the steering wheel. The central tachometer has also been moved to the side, and there’s a new seven-inch TFT LCD in place of a traditional instrument cluster.

After a couple more minutes for photos and milling about, we head to the first part of today’s test drive—not to the track, but to the Sepang parking lot. Here, Mazda has prepared several cars for us: the all-new 3 hatch, the previous-generation 3, and a two of the vehicle’s competitors, the BMW 3-Series and the Mercedes-Benz A-Class (though we won’t go into either too much, as both are older and previous-gen vehicles). The short course consists of a slalom, followed by a quick turn, a short straight, and a sudden lane change. All this is meant to highlight the car’s stability and handling prowess.

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PHOTO: Mazda

I hop inside the car and am enveloped in its quietness and impressive build. Only the older Mazda and the Bimmer come close in terms of both qualities, and I have to say I much prefer the all-new 3’s simplicity over its German counterpart’s setup.

The flag waves, and I’m off. The 3’s acceleration is smooth as I head toward the first set of cones, which it makes quick work of with pinpoint steering accuracy. Every adjustment feels precise, and the vehicle handles in a way that makes it feel smaller than it looks. I make a quick turnaround after passing the last pair of cones and head off toward the lane change at 50kph. Again, the Mazda impresses. It isn’t just because of how accurate the 3 is as it slides in between the cones, either—it’s also because of how refined the ride stays as it does so.

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We’re done with the appetizer, and now it’s time to move on to the main course: dessert and fancy after-dinner mint. We’re taking to the track twice, in a separate vehicle each time. The first run will be to try out the 3’s new 1.5-liter Skyactiv-G engine with its 118hp at 6,000rpm and 153Nm of torque at 4,000rpm. The second outing will be with the 2.0-liter units capable of 162hp at 6,000rpm and 213Nm at 4,000rpm.

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PHOTO: Mazda

“Wait a second, hold up. No Skyactiv-X?”

Sadly, no. We do not get to try out Mazda’s revolutionary new engine—the one that supposedly combines diesel efficiency with gas-powered oomph and refinement. It isn’t available here in Malaysia, which doesn’t bode well for any of you who are hoping it makes its way to the Philippine market. But hey, we’ll be crossing our fingers until the all-new 3’s local launch, anyway.

PHOTO: Mazda

Back on topic. I hop into the vehicle, adjust the seat and steering wheel to my suiting, and wait for the go signal. We’re off, and the first couple of turns are spent soaking in the fact I’m actually driving on the Sepang track and getting a better feel for the 3’s handling.

I’m still impressed over how composed the car feels taking on wider turns at speed—part of this is probably down to G-Vectoring Control Plus, an updated version of Mazda’s GVC technology that improves stability and handling with light applications of the vehicle’s brakes and by helping return the tiller to center after corners. Mazda has also reinforced the chassis with high-strength steel, too.

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PHOTO: Mazda

Eventually, we make our way to the track’s longer straights. It’s here where the 2.0-liter really gets to strut its stuff—something that can’t be said to the same extent of its 1.5-liter counterpart. It’s not that the latter is a slouch by any means—it’s just that an extra 44hp and 60Nm of torque make a world of difference in this setting. The higher-displacement unit simply feels quicker. I peak at a little over 160kph without getting the sense that the mill has nothing more to offer. The 3’s brakes deserve mention, too, as they feel firm and maintain consistent strength and smoothness through deceleration.

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We pull off the track after two runs, and just like that my time at Sepang comes to an end. We must’ve been behind the wheel for just a little over half an hour, but it’s more than enough to give us an idea of what the all-new 3 has to offer: one of the best designs and cabins in the segment, and fun-to-drive, confident driving dynamics.

No official word yet on what will make it to the Philippines, but it shouldn’t be too far off from what we’ve experienced at Sepang today. Let’s sit tight and see, though if these images are any indication, we might not have to wait much longer.

2019 Mazda 3

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PHOTO: Mazda
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