SPECIAL REPORTCOLLEGE CARS
Scion: Third Time's the Charm
Chevy's Campus Cruiser
A Mazda for Youths (and You)
Jetta: All the Betta for the Young
Ford's Econobox Bargain
Impreza: Zip on the Cheap
Honda's New Civics Lap Detroit
Slide Show: Smart Cars for School
The other evening, I was on the highway, heading east out of Scranton, Pa., and all the following things happened at once. John Coltrane came on the seven-speaker, six-CD Bose sound system with such clarity I felt like was stage center at Birdland; a little summer shower started, and the rain-sensitive windshield wipers came on automatically; and a French woman started cooing sweet-nothings in my ear.
O.K., so I exaggerated about the French woman. I had set my car's navigation system to give instructions in French, and a disembodied woman's voice was repeating "virage a gauche" (curve to the left) over and over.
But otherwise, it all happened. And what's remarkable about it is that I was driving an economy car -- the tight little 2005 Mazda 3 sedan. At the wheel of this vehicle, you're just amazed at what you can get these days in a small model in the $20,000 price range.
BEYOND THE BASE. If you're shopping for a college kid and are willing to spend a little more for a really nice set of wheels, the Mazda 3 should definitely be on your list. It's a compact, front-wheel-drive car that's sporty enough to keep a student driver happy, yet practical enough to please the parents, who are probably helping foot the bill.
A stripped-down base model '05 Mazda 3, with a 148-horsepower, 2-liter engine and not much else other than air conditioning, starts at about $15,000. (The '05s also have a $500 rebate; prices of the '06 models, which will be similar to this year's, haven't been announced yet.)
Few buyers are likely to be satisfied with the base model, however. With the bigger 2.3-liter, 160-horsepower engine, which is what I would want, the car starts at $17,175. Add in a few options, such as an automatic transmission ($900), a safety package that includes antilock brakes and side-curtain airbags (another $800, but highly recommended to make any new small car safe in side-impact accidents), alloy wheels ($400), and the six-CD Bose sound system/moonroof package ($890), and you'll quickly hit $20,000.
BUFFED-UP LOOK. My test model, the SP23 version of the car that comes in an attractive slate gray with black-leather interior, listed at just over $24 grand, including the $1,750 navigation system. (A hatchback version is available at comparable price levels, and a station wagon starts at $17,650).
Still, it's sweet car for the money. A compact 179-inches long, the Mazda 3 has a muscular, buffed-up appearance. The four-door sedan version I drove has a high hunched rear deck typical of small sedans (it allows for more trunk space), sculpted sides and hood, and a front end that comes to the hint of a point. The distinctive head- and taillight assemblies are shaped like pairs of dash-marks in a stylized typeface, mirroring Mazda's distinctive "winged M" logo.
Of course, if you want to save money, you can always opt for a used late-model Mazda Protégé, the car the Mazda 3 replaced in 2004. A low-mileage, dealer-certified 2003 Protégé with a 48-month/50,000-mile warranty and a one-year roadside-assistance plan goes for about $12,000.
EUROPEAN FEEL.Clean '01s and '02s typically cost $8,000 to $10,000 in the used market. Protégés from all three model years are on Consumer Reports' list of reliable used cars, but they don't come with side-curtain airbags, a key safety innovation in small cars, and aren't as much fun to drive as the Mazda 3.
To me, the Mazda 3 looks and feels like a European driver's car -- a sporty, compact machine that handles well and also gets good mileage. Steering is tight and responsive and, with the larger engine, the car is quite peppy. It's rated at 26 miles per gallon in the city and 34 on the highway with the 2 liter engine and an automatic transmission, and at 24 and 29 mpg with the larger engine.
The car comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission, which is what I would prefer. But the four-speed automatic transmission I tested is more refined than the ones on most small cars I've driven. On hilly roads, there isn't much of the awkward and noisy gear searching you often get in small cars as the transmission hunts for the appropriate gear.
GOOD FOR HAULING. You can change gears manually if you prefer with a clutchless, quasi-manual shifter that really works well in the Mazda. On a two-lane highway one morning, I dropped the Mazda 3 into second to pass a pokey GMC van. The tachometer didn't approach the red zone until I was well over 60 mph (and the van as well back in the rearview mirror).
The interior is clean and tasteful. My test model had stylish upholstery in a mixture of black leather and vinyl. The door and glovebox handles and the plate around the gearbox were in brushed aluminum and provided a nice contrast to the black dash and upholstery. Everything in the car has a solid feel.
I opened and closed the glove compartment a few times as a test, and in the Mazda 3 it's solidly built and shuts with a reassuring click. The rear seats fold down, creating a fairly spacious hauling space that students will find handy. Leg, head, and shoulder space is adequate in both the front and rear seats.
VW BEATER. My gripes about the car are mainly nitpicks. For instance, the remote-entry clicker lacks a button to open the trunk. You have to use the key or pull the lever inside the car. The most significant negative is that the Mazda 3 seems a bit pricey with the options I would want.
Then again, you'll pay as much or more for other entry-level driver's cars, such as the Volkswagen Jetta. So, if you've got the cash, go for it -- or, as Mazda's slogan puts it, zoom zoom.