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Review: Mazda has missed an opportunity to dazzle

ON THE ROAD

Erotic burgundy seats, a cream-white paint job, biting black wheels. It’s not often you’ll step into a vehicle that has both that description and a Mazda badge on it. A Mazda hatchback, no less.

It’s not that Mazdas can’t be sexy; they certainly can be. The MX-5 notably, through its various iterations, has stood out as one of society’s strongest aphrodisiacs at various stages of its existence. But usually, despite all its deliberate curves, the sturdy Japanese car maker rarely offers reasons to look twice. 

They’re not ugly, just nothing special. Kind of bland, although not entirely agricultural.

And yet here we are, stepping into a Mazda 3 that is genuinely attractive. A car that demands its name be put into the “hot hatch” sweepstakes. 

The reason for this strange happening is embossed on the headrest and carpet: “100 years / 1920 to 2020.” 

This is a special edition Mazda 3 produced to celebrate the company’s centenary and show off its design potential. 

To say this version is exclusive would be a massive understatement. In fact, you can’t even buy one in this country. 

Mazda brought down only three of these late last year, all of which were thrust into media rotation. 

While the marketing pitch is understandable, it’s a bit odd that the South African press release would describe the car as “a token of Mazda’s appreciation for those who have supported Mazda this far” when those loyal patrons can only ogle from a distance. 

(While we’re splitting hairs about this it’s also worth noting that Mazda didn’t actually manufacture a passenger vehicle until 1960. In the 40 years prior it made everything from corks to weapons for the Japanese military in World War II.) 

Nonetheless, the scene has been set and we are now cruising in one of a trio of cars that are resident here. 

The good looks we immediately noticed are representative of an overall quality that flows through the car. The cockpit especially, thanks largely to those burgundy leather seats, has a premium feel to it. The controls are laid out intelligently and the hatchback curse of cheap plastics is (mostly) kept at bay. Gauge clusters that integrate both digital and analogue often look tawdry but one pops up here in good taste. The infotainment centre, meanwhile, is what you might expect: decent — functional and easy-to-use but lacking the crispness of a German rival.

While idiosyncrasy is the word here, the special edition is built on the base of a 2.0 Astina — the top of the Mazda 3 range. This means we get a swift 121kW/213Nm engine that is most comfortable at mid-range speeds, steadily climbing instead of briskly whooshing up. The handling and feel of the normal Astina carry though too, resulting in an unwavering, uneventful drive. This reliability is reflected in the solid advertised consumption rate of 6.3 litre/100km. 

That’s all great … but also mind-boggling. You’ve decided to produce a car that a handful of people around the globe are going to get to drive, and yet you give it a heart identical to any other of your mass-produced clones? 

No one needs this to be a reliable vessel that will go to and from the shops — you can forgo the usual comforts.

Make it crazy. Give the journos and the few others who are going to drive this thing a reason to talk, a reason to brag; make their experience a terrifying one. 

Tighten the suspension, tweak the engine — there are no limits. Collectors’ items like this should show off the technology that the manufacturer is capable of in their most intoxicating daydreams, not just repeat what they’re already using.

As it stands it’s just a Mazda that looks damn good.

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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