COAL: 2006 Mazda 3 – It’s Complicated

It’s amazing how promises we make to ourselves in our youth can be broken as we get older. In this particular COAL, I will break a huge one.

I learned to drive on a stick shift (a 1981 Plymouth Reliant, with four on the floor). For more than two decades, manual transmissions were pretty much all I knew. The clutch pedal was so wired into my muscle memory that on the few occasions I drove an automatic car, I would sometimes jam the brake pedal coming to a stop trying to engage a non-existent clutch pedal.

I love driving stick shifts. It is like a dancing with your car. You are literally in touch with your vehicle in a way that is impossible in an automatic. Plus in college I seldom had to lend my car out, as few people could drive a stick. I was a lifer, or so I thought. I swore to myself that I would never own a car with an automatic transmission for as long as I lived.

Then the bloom started coming off the shifter in the early 2000s, so to speak. Most of the problems I ran into I’ve already documented my 2002 VW Jetta COAL: longer commute, extra rowing required by 6-speed vs. 5-speed, and a spouse that doesn’t drive a stick shift.

So when it came time to turn in the Jetta, I thought long and hard about my automotive needs. Do the occasional moments of joy outweigh the hours of drudgery I have to endure with a stick shift? Earlier in my life, the answer was an enthusiastic yes, but now the answer was decidedly no, as evidenced by the use of words like “drudgery.” I had decided to get an automatic.

As usual, I was looking for maximum content for minimum cash outlay. I looked at various options for compact cars, and I quickly zeroed in on the Mazda 3. The Grand Sport trim, in particular, seemed to have a lot of stuff. Leather, Bose, automatic climate control, Xenon headlights, heated seats—pretty much all the goodies I had in my A4 a decade earlier. Heady stuff for a compact car at the time (and today, for that matter).

I’d always heard good things about Mazdas, but my experience with them was limited to an MX-3 that my brother owned back in the ’90s. Stylistically, the Mazda 3 was very attractive (especially in profile), and the automotive press simply adored it.

Despite having 17″ wheels and tires, it always looked under-tired to me.

If I had to pick a car to ween myself off of manual transmissions, the Mazda 3 was a good choice. For starters, it had a 5-speed automatic at a time when many compacts still had only four. It had a manual gate, which I used frequently during my detox period. And it had an LCD indicator on the dash that always showed what gear it was (both and automatic and manual mode), unlike most other cars that only show the gear number in manual mode. This allowed me to supervise the automatic transmission and make sure that it was doing its job correctly. Transparency is an important part of building trust.

After experiencing the HID headlights of my A4, the halogen bulbs of the Jetta seemed like two flashlights in comparison. By virtue of working for Stylin Concepts, an online auto parts seller, I had access to a large amount of aftermarket headlight bulbs (at cost, no less). I tried them all – blue bulbs, gold bulbs, silver bulbs. None were close to actual HIDs in brightness, and most in fact weren’t any brighter than the stock bulbs (just colored differently). Many were cheaply made Chinese junk that burned out after a month or two. I was glad to get back into genuine HID lights with the Mazda.

Note the engaged handbrake, an old manual transmission habit that took a long time to die.

The interior of the 3 could best be described as austere, especially after coming from a Jetta, which is pretty much at the opposite end of the spectrum of interior design. It was somber inside, with only a strip of obviously fake gray carbon fiber to break up the gloom. The rotary automatic climate controls were odd: obviously they needed to share the same bezel as the manual climate control system. Hard plastics were everywhere, and even though the seats, steering wheel, and shifter knob were all supposedly leather-covered, they all could have passed for vinyl. However, the orange instrument panel illumination was a welcome relief, after coming from the garish blue illumination of the Jetta.

Mazda 3, and youngest son Ryan. Chrysler Pacifica in background.

The 2.3L four-banger wasn’t a rocket, but it got great gas mileage (helpful at a time gas was over $3.00 per gallon). In any case, my stoplight drag strip days were way behind me, so the performance was more than adequate for me. During its time with me I averaged 28 miles per gallon, making it the most fuel-efficient vehicle I’ve ever owned.

On the negative side of the ledger, the 3 felt about as solid as a beer can. The door sounded tinny when I shut it (and yes, I know, this is a terrible way to judge the quality of a car).  Otherwise, the panel fit was tight, and no major squeaks or rattles developed that I can recall. The rear spoiler interacted oddly with the auto-dimming rearview mirror. It seemed to be perfectly positioned to cast a shadow over the light sensor, causing it to un-dim just when some idiot pulls up behind me with their high beams on.

Lacking traction control and a clutch to feather, winter driving presented a challenge, so much so that this was the first car since my 94 Integra that I had to buy snow tires for.

Looking back, the Mazda 3 was a good car. Heck, it was a great car. It may have been the car that I needed, but it wasn’t really the car I wanted. In the pantheon of cars I’ve owned, it would be mid-pack at best, and definitely in the bottom half.

Luckily, interesting things were afoot at work, and I was about to undergo a dramatic change at work, and one that would greatly increase the quality (and eventually the quantity) of my motor pool. Stop back soon to find out what that shocking change is!