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Review – 2009 Mazda3 s Grand Touring

The Good: Playful handling, you’ll never have trouble finding it in the parking lot.

The Bad: Hefty price for a compact car – a really compact car.

The Verdict: A good little car trying to be more than it is.

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In the economy car market, buyers tend to consider one factor above all others – price. Admittedly, cost plays a role in most vehicular transactions (unless you’re lucky enough to be cross-shopping Ferraris and Lamborghinis, in which case, screw you), but especially so in the cheaper segments of the market, where buyers tend to be…well, let’s just say it: poorer. If they had more money, logic goes, they’d buy a larger car.

So the $24,445 sticker price of my Mazda3 came as quite a shock. “Who in their right mind would spend 25 grand on this tiny car?” I asked myself.  Yet while passersby on the sidewalk clearly heard me, their responses involved veering away from the man talking to himself instead of answering my question.

If you need a sedan for that kind of money, a Honda Accord EX automatic runs only $670 more, with great handling and interior room that seems limo-like in comparison. Even within Mazda’s own ranks, the larger Mazda6i Touring automatic can be had for $23,600.

In general, added performance tends to be the main reason compact buyers tolerate higher price tags – but the 3s only offers 167 horsepower from its 2.5 liter four-cylinder. A Honda Civic Si sedan can be yours for $22,815 and offers thirty more horsepower and a racier suspension – and hell, Mazda’s own MazdaSpeed 3 goes for $23,945, and offers 263 horsepower and a lot more driving fun.

So how does Mazda justify this price? In a word repeated three times: features, features, features. The 3s is loaded with enough gear to make a Mercedes blush: xenon headlights that turn with the steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth (which refused to work on my tester), and heated leather seats with power controls for the driver. An optional 10-speaker Bose stereo and moonroof also came on my tester; however, it lacked a few other options, such as a navigation system. Check off every option possible, and you’ll be confronted with a $26,285 tab.

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To be sure, they’re nice features to have – some more so than others. Heated seats, for example, are awfully handy come the colder months, as they usually take less time to warm up than the entire interior of the car, and the high-powered swiveling headlights could save your life if they light up a Sasquatch in the road that much earlier. But for the most part, they’re like whipped cream on top of your Ben & Jerry’s – nice to have, but hardly necessary.

Luckily, the basics of this particular sundae are quite tasty even without all the toppings. The cheapest of the range can be had for a mere $15,795 – but at that price, you’d better know how to use a clutch, because you can’t get an automatic on the bargain-basement i SV model. Nor can you have air conditioning or power locks, so it’s perfect for anyone who feels nostalgic for driving back in 1979. (Sadly, a CD player is standard, but you could always cover it up with electrical tape.)

The best bet of the range is the i Touring model, which offers a Goldilocks-like mixture of features (16” wheels, Bluetooth, power locks with keyless entry, traction control and cruise control) and price ($18,250 – a little more if you want the automatic). However, that model – like all Mazda3s with an “i” suffix – comes with a 148-horsepower 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine. If you want the bigger 2.5 liter, you’ve gotta step up to the s Sport; it’ll cost $1,240 more than the i Touring, but at least they’re kind enough to throw in electroluminescent gauges and a “welcome lighting system.”

Luckily, both i and s models come with the same suspension setup – meaning even stripper models should be plenty of fun when the road turns twisty. Mazda has done a good job in the last decade making sure “zoom-zoom” isn’t just a slogan whispered by one of those creepy kids from The Bloodening.

On the highways and byways of Westchester County, the Mazda3 proved a willing playmate (does that sound dirty to you, too?), bobbing and weaving through tight turns and long sweepers quite happily. For its part, the engine provides adequate power; while it’s not likely to be confused with the Batmobile anytime soon, the 3s accelerates with enough verve to keep from feeling underpowered. (However, spirited drivers will definitely want to become accustomed to the manual shift gate of the 5-speed automatic…if they haven’t decided to buy the MazdaSpeed3.)

Still, one might expect a little more performance – or at least craziness – out of a car with the sort of styling the 3 exhibits. No dowdy Corolla looks here – this Mazda isn’t afraid to let its freak flag fly. Mazda describes the car’s styling as “Nagare inspired,” after a recent concept car, but given its Japanese heritage, angular headlights and utterly enormous maw, “anime inspired” would probably be a better way of describing it. (Though “whale inspired” might work too, given that it looks like it could suck in its body weight in krill every day.)

Birds, however, did not seem fond of the styling. And they voted with their poop.

Birds, however, did not seem fond of the styling. And they voted with their poop.

Inside, the sporty design theme continues onto the dashboard, where a high-mounted display makes glancing over to check the radio frequency quick and easy. The large central-mounted audio controls are pleasantly easy to use –more so than many of the complex computer systems in far more expensive cars, even.

Still, the interior has a ways to go before it could be considered perfect; the interior plastics seem awfully hard; it would be excusable in a $15,000 car, but when you add on ten grand of options to that same car, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask for a classier feel to the interior. And what’s with the retro pixilated display for the radio? Yeah, red is better for night vision, but is there any reason it has to look like it’s from the Reagan administration? Maybe Mazda and Mitsubishi share a supplier.

Interior room is tight at best, cramped at worst. Even the front seats are a little tight for people of Conan O’Brien-like proportions (such as myself), while the back seat is just about useless with someone my size up front. It’s small enough to be a potential deal breaker for potential buyers – though if they’re considering the Grand Touring model, they might just sacrifice the leather seats and buy a much more accommodating Mazda6 instead.

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The Bottom Line:

The Mazda3 is a fun-to-drive little car ideal for those who want to stand out. Lanky people might want to look elsewhere, but if you fit inside, you’ll probably be quite happy.

The Grand Touring model isn’t the best deal in the lineup – at this price point, buyers are more likely to cross-shop with larger sedans better able to fit their lives. Most people will probably consider cheaper trim levels that offer most of the important features for a much more reasonable monthly payment.

But whether you spend 15 or 25 grand, you’re still getting the same car beneath the surface – a playful compact that’ll make you smile along with it.

Base Price/Price As Tested: $23,050/$24,445

0-60: 7.7 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver; manual transmission model)

Fuel Economy: 22 city/29 highway (EPA estimates)

Competitors: Honda Civic, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus

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Spy Shots and Curiosities

It’s been a while since we featured any spy shots here on CCO, so we thought we’d take the opportunity to throw a couple interesting ones your way.

First up, the 2010 Honda Accord Crosstour. Now, that name is still just a rumor at this point, but that will probably be what it’s called when it rolls into showrooms this fall. (At least it’s better than BMW’s name for their similar 5-series-based car, the Gran Turismo. Sorry, BMW – we love ya, but calling a wagon a gran turismo doesn’t make it a gran turismo. I can call myself Tom Brady all I want, but that won’t get me Gisele Bundchen.)

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Between this car, BMW’s Gran Turismo, and a few other examples, it seems as though the Next Big Thing in car design is to blend the hatchback/wagon bodystyles – much in the way the blending of coupe and sedan has proven popular since the Mercedes-Benz CLS appeared a few years ago.

Rumors have bounced around regarding the…miniwagon‘s platform and powertrain, but figure it’ll be pretty much based on the Accord beneath the skin – after all, the Accord’s platform serves as the basis for the Pilot SUV, so it’s proven quite flexible. As on the Pilot, all-wheel-drive will probably be an option. In terms of engines, we’d expect Honda’s corporate 3.5-liter V6, making somewhere around 275 horsepower; there have been rumors of a 200-hp turbo four as well, but seeing as how Honda already makes a 201-hp naturally aspirated I4 for the TSX, it seems more likely they’ll throw that under the hood.

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Next up, we have the BMW X1, part of the German automaker’s plan to craft a vehicle for every single niche, no matter how razor-thin. The aforementioned 5-series GT is another example of this phenomenon; when it is released next year, the 5-series line will include a sedan, a wagon, a miniwagon/hatchback, a coupe, a convertible, a sport-utility vehicle, and a sport utility coupe. Overkill: not just for nuclear weapons anymore!

Anyway, the X1 will be BMW’s smallest SUV, slotting alongside the 1-series coupes and convertibles at the cheap end of the lineup. Frankly, we’re not sure what the X1 is supposed to compete against, given the X3 already competes against the smallest SUVs offered by other luxury manufacturers; perhaps BMW is hoping they can steal away Subaru Forester owners. And given that Mini will soon be introducing their own tiny SUV, it’s hard to see how the X1 is worth the trouble.

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Still, it should be a hoot to drive, especially since it’ll be coming Stateside with a 272-hp 3.0L inline-six. (BMW offers a 204-hp diesel model in Europe that supposedly gets around 37 mpg; however, as usual, it hasn’t been confirmed for the States yet.) Expect to see it in BMW showrooms next year; a correspondingly larger X3 will probably be along less than a year later.

(By the way, those psychedelic swirls you see on these spy shots are all the rage in the car disguising business these days. They’re supposed to make it harder for the human eye to pick out distinguishing characteristics – though it seems just as likely to cause acid flashbacks in passing drivers.)P90047890

Our third and final spy shot of the day is of the long-rumored BMW M7. Now, for nearly the last decade or so, Mercedes-Benz has cornered the market on souped-up full-size luxury sedans with the AMG versions of the S-class. (They currently offer two – the V8-powered, 518-hp S63 and the turbocharged V12-powered, 604-hp S65.) Surprisingly, BMW hasn’t seen fit to challenge these cars directly through their M performance division as they do in the compact and mid-size luxury markets; rather, they’ve let their semi-affiliated tuner Alpina fight back with their B7 sedan.

However, with the M division (and BMW in general) moving towards turbocharged engines, it appears they’ve decided to pull up their lederhosen and man up by sticking the twin-turbo 4.4-liter V8 from the X5 M and X6 M into a 7-series. Expect 550 horsepower, a 0-60 time of under 4.5 seconds and some heated competition between it and the Porsche Panamera Turbo around the Nurburgring.

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Finally, we want to wrap things up with a couple of unusual vehicles. Galpin Auto Sports, or GAS (a.k.a the guys from Pimp My Ride) have just unveiled a pair of cars the Air Force commissioned them to make (for recruitment purposes, not warfare), and…holy shit. These things may be the coolest cars we’ve ever seen…and we’ve seen pretty much everything.

First up is the GAS X-1. As is pretty obvious, it’s based on a Ford Mustang – but it has about as much in common with those cars in the Hertz Fun Collection as Pierce Brosnan’s Vanquish in Die Another Day had with a stock Aston Martin. How badass is this car? Well, let me put it this way: in place of the twin buckets in most Mustangs, this one has a single ejection seat.

Yes. That’s right. An ejection seat.

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There’s also a GPS transponder, night and thermal vision cameras with in-cockpit touch-screen displays, and an actual flight stick in place of the steering wheel. Oh, yeah, and the 4.6-liter V8’s been played with to make 500 horsepower, but that’s a footnote at this point. Nobody’s gonna listen past “ejection seat.”

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The second car, based on the Doge Challenger, is called the Vapor – apparently because the Air Force wanted everyone to think they were building a lame, unsubstantial vehicle when they were actually putting together a car that could kick Optimus Prime’s ass.

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Take the matte-black paint job. Looks like the same stuff on every “murdered out” car on the road, right? Well, it’s too bad you can’t see radio waves – because then you’d realize this sucker’s paint job absorbs radar. It also packs a roof-mounted 360-degree-rotating camera with night and thermal visions, which can be displayed on the twin instrument panel screens.

Of course, there’s also the full-windshield head-up display, the proximity sensors, the dual yoke controls (yes, the passenger can steer the car too), a stealth exhaust that allows the car to drive around in complete silence, and an advanced computer system that allows the car to be driven remotely from anywhere on Earth using the Internet.

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We don’t know about the rest of you, but to us at CCO, this black bastard screams one thing: Batmobile. All it needs is some bulletproofing and a Hennessey HPE800 engine upgrade (800 horsepower should offset that added weight nicely), and you’re ready to clean the scum off the streets of Gotham City. \

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But what do you think? Let us know below!

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