By now, you would’ve known that the all-new Mazda 3 will be launched in Malaysia very soon. It will be imported from Japan so prices will definitely go up (estimated to reach up to RM150,000) but even if you were to discount the difference in taxes, the all-new 3 is a substantially more premium car and prices have gone up across all markets.
Although Mazda isn’t saying it in public, we know that the folks at Hiroshima did not even bother looking at the Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic – Mazda doesn’t consider any of them its competitors. Instead, every surface of the car carried a “Beat Audi/Mercedes-Benz” vibe.
The much talked about SkyActiv-X engine won’t be offered in Malaysia. The ultra-low emissions, 24V mild hybrid, supercharged lean burning, spark controlled compression ignition (SPCCI) engine is very costly and is currently only available in Japan. Deliveries in the European Union will begin later this year, only because the engine is needed to clear the EU’s upcoming 2021 CO2 emission regulations.
Instead, we will get a choice of 1.5-litre and 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol. The former makes 114 hp/150 Nm while the latter makes 162 hp/210 Nm. That's not enough to trouble a 1.5-litre turbocharged Civic's 170 hp/220 Nm. But that's nothing unusual. Apart from the last Mazda 3 MPS, was there ever a recent Mazda model that made impressive topline numbers? Remember also that the 1.3-litre turbocharged Mercedes-Benz A200 makes just 163 hp/250 Nm.
For many, RM150,000 is way too much for a Mazda but the company doesn’t seem to care. Its engineers are convinced that they have outdone the Germans and are confident that drivers who love cars will say that the money is well spent – torsion beam included, more on that later.
In developing a car, a manufacturer typically starts by looking at two things – market data and benchmarking against their competitors. Not Mazda. Before even designing a single mechanical part, Mazda studied biomechanics and human anatomy, because cars exist to serve humans.
Where Volvo had enlisted the services of orthopedic surgeons in designing car seats, Mazda studied not just our spine but also how our eyes, ears, and skin respond to stimuli.
Its chassis engineers studied the minute details of how we walk before developing the chassis. Why walking? Because driving fatigue and motion sickness is directly related to our body’s ability to maintain balance while in motion – the most basic of human motion is walking.
If you don’t know how our pelvis works with which vertebrae and which strand of muscle to keep our head balanced, you can’t build a good car. You might be able to make a fast, lap record breaking car, but it won’t be a user-friendly, comfortable car that feels natural to drive.
The new Mazda seats are designed to help keep your spine in an S-shape, the natural shape an astronaut’s back takes when in zero gravity. To be honest the new TNGA platform Toyota models also do the same but to prove a point, Mazda offered to take us on a ride in a development car that has no front passenger seats.
Instead, it had a custom-made ultra-low stool, with a cushion fixed over a rotating ball so you had to force yourself to sit upright to maintain balance. Compared to the previous 3, it was significantly easier to maintain our balance in the all-new 3. The difference can be felt even when turning at 5 km/h.
Over a long distance, this helps reduce driving fatigue as our body works less hard to maintain balance.
Building a premium car also means building a refined car, and cabin refinement is directly related to how our eyes and skin perceive a material’s surface, colour, and cleanliness – which Mazda calls visual noise.
Your eyes noticed the leopard right? Human eyes are very good at picking up variations, but we are more sensitive to some colours than others
How well can our eyes pick up inconsistencies in colour quality? How must a material feel when touched? How long does a driver’s eyes take to refocus when he/she takes the eyes off the road to look at the instrument cluster or infotainment, and back again? Which muscle and how much force is used when a driver reaches to open the centre console cover lid?
Not even Rolls-Royce goes to this extent in building a car. Of course, a Mazda is not as luxurious but Mazda has a better understanding in how our bodies respond to cars.
For example, everyone knows that white text on black background is the easiest on the eyes. Rolls-Royce will use white lights to replicate stars on a Phantom’s headliner.
Mazda however, also knows that our eyes are also most sensitive to variations of chromaticity – colour quality – of white. Variations in chromaticity, especially white is inevitable as different light sources are used for ambient lighting, instrument panel, infotainment, buttons and switches. No supplier makes white colour LEDs of such tight tolerances.
So what did Mazda do? Yes, you’ve guessed it. They learned how to make LEDs. Of course Mazda didn’t setup a LED manufacturing factory, but it worked closely with their suppliers to improve the component.
Every white light source used in the Mazda 3’s cabin, instrument panel and map lights included, has an extremely tight tolerance in chromaticity – just 1/3 of the usual, so it's the same white presented throughout the cabin. And you thought Rolls-Royce was fussy about aligning the wood veneers and leather?
The reason? Chromaticity affects how our eyes perceive beauty. Mazda engineers are extremely particular about maintaining a pretty looking interior in both day and night.
Outside, the fine details of the headlamp when lit up is worthy of an installation inside an art gallery.
The car’s body is also crafted to manipulate sunlight reflection as it moves – no other car company does that, not even Rolls-Royce or Porsche. This is a car that looks best when it’s moving. This ‘Utsuroi’ changing of reflection effect cannot be appreciated on a static car. Mazda says they are confident than no other car company can do it because such designs cannot be achieved using computers. The precise curvature needs to be perfected by Mazda's expert 'Takumi' clay modellers, before digitizing the surface for production.
The sedan and hatchback might look similar but the Utsuroi effect is different – the hatchback has the most dynamic light play. The body panels bend the reflection along the rear half before bringing the light back to the front (watch video below), while the sedan strives for a matured elegance light play.
I asked Noboyuki Fukui, from the Craftmanship Development Division, why Mazda doesn’t think this is going overboard. One wonders if Mazda is even making any money on the car. He answered proudly, “Because craftsmanship,” before adding “This is what we do.”
Next, they studied how our ears (and brain) perceive sound. Along the way Mazda has learned how to make an audio system that’s even better than their partner Bose’s. A 12-speaker Bose audio system is still available as an option (specifics for Malaysia unconfirmed) but we’ve tried the standard car’s 8-speaker audio system - it rivals a Volvo S90’s Bowers & Wilkins setup!
It’s so shockingly good that that it’s almost like listening to live performance in front of you. The secret? Mazda had relocated the speakers from the door pocket - which Mazda says is the worst place to install speakers (but it’s also the easiest) – to the door's upper section and added a woofer behind the dashboard, as well as manipulating the timing of the sounds arriving from each speaker.
Removing the speakers from the door pocket also reduced the number of holes on the door, thus contributing to a quieter car.
If it’s so simple, why aren't other companies doing it? There are a lot of components and parts squeezed between the dashboard and bulkhead. The latter forms a critical part of a car’s structure. Making one more hole and squeezing a big speaker behind is an engineering nightmare. The next closest car to attempt a similar relocation is the Volvo XC40.
The relocation presented such a massive engineering challenge that Koji Wakamatsu, the engineer responsible for the all-new 3’s audio system, joked that he was extremely unpopular among his colleagues in Production Engineering.
Wakamatsu told us that a good car audio system has less to do with the speaker performance, but more with speaker location. Ideal locations are around the edges of the cabin (blue sections).
The infotainment now supports Android Auto/Apple CarPlay and the navigation system is designed to work better than your smartphone, which loses GPS signal when underground.
The navigation system boots up instantaneously and is able to track the car’s location even after it’s parked underground, allowing the navigation to show the correct street immediately upon exiting.
The secret is a dual-processor system that once underground, updates the car’s last known GPS coordinate with the car’s driving direction, and storing it for the next engine start.
Lastly, we had to ask the most pressing question on every enthusiast driver’s mind – why drop the previous 3’s multi-link rear suspension for a torsion beam?
Program Manager Kota Beppu conceded that torsion beams typically cause the rear axle to toe-in in hard corners, resulting in more understeer. However he countered that multi-link suspensions have too many variables and while that’s good for racing cars, it’s less so for daily use road cars.
By adopting torsion beam, Beppu explained that the team was able to reduce the number of moving parts, which together with other improvements, contributed to a quieter ride. Beppu was quick to add that the torsion beam used in the 3 is unlike any other, with varying diameter – becoming progressively thicker as it extend outwards.
The varying diameter and a thinner middle section helps contain movement from one side of the car that would influence the other, and allows for better flex control, thus neutralizing some of the negatives of a conventional torsion beam.
In any case, our short test drive of the all-new 3 at Mazda’s Mine Proving Ground confirmed Mazda’s claims that it drives better than any of its peers. Turn-ins are shaper and there’s just far more driver-centric ‘Jinba Ittai’ character that you just don’t get elsewhere, German brands included. How it drives on uneven surfaces is still left to be seen.
Our driving experience was very short, following behind a pace car at speeds too low (mainly due to heavy rain) to form useful conclusions but first impressions are positive.
Our suggestion is to try the car with an open mind. Remember that the Renault Megane RS also uses a torsion beam and nobody questions its dynamic abilities.
The rear seats are still too tight even by C-segment cars standards so if you are looking for a family sedan, a Honda Civic is still a far better choice. Mazda cars are all about the driver. In fact, in areas like HMI (human-machine interface), the Mazda 3 does better than the supposedly more driver-centric G20 BMW 3 Series - whose Live Cockpit Pro instrument cluster is just a cluster of information overload while the relocated iDrive dial is now further to reach.
And here’s another curveball thrown at your conventional understanding of cars. In some sections of the all-new Mazda 3, spot weld counts have been reduced. Conventional understanding says this is bad.
However a rigid body also transfers more vibration from uneven road surfaces to occupants, and contributes to a noisier cabin. Of course, Mazda didn’t make the body softer.
When it comes to making a quiet cabin, the easy way is to add noise insulation material, but insulation materials add weight. Instead, Mazda learned that contrary to popular opinion, perceived cabin noise has less to do with sound energy (decibels), but direction and rate of change. For example, we are more tolerant of noise when flying than when driving, simply because noise levels in an aeroplane cabin is constant.
When driving over rough surfaces for example, the front wheels and rear wheels hit a bump at different times, To delay the transfer of vibration from the front wheels so it syncs better with the rear wheels, Mazda had placed ‘damping nodes’ thoughout the car’s body.
A normal node structure has 4 spot welds joining two different metal structure. Mazda’s new damping node uses only 3, with the fourth spot replaced by an epoxy seal to allow for rubber to be wedged between connecting joints.
Without much understanding of how a car is built, paying RM150,000 for a Mazda might seem ridiculous. Premium German brands offer better badge appeal and more powerful engines.
A Mercedes-Benz A200 or even a pre-owned C200 is a good buy by any measure. The person paying RM150,000 for a small Mazda however, needs to explain his/her decision, so a Mazda 3 can’t be a car for those looking to impress others.
However we are also very certain that none of the German premium car makers are doing what Mazda is. It’s either you choose to pay for the badge or for the engineering. For the latter, RM150,000 is a steal. Put it this way: is there any RM300,000 or even RM500,000 car that is built with the same attention to detail as the Mazda? To each its own.