By: Jeffrey Zygmont
My only gripe against the Mazda3 is that its six-speed manual transmission can’t be paired with all-wheel drive. But that’s a personal complaint, not a professional one. As an impartial and experienced auto writer, I can’t quibble about Mazda’s decision to offer a six-speed manual transmission only in a front-drive version of the 3 – the all-wheel-drive option appears only with a six-speed automatic, at a price boost of $1,400 in the mid to upper trim levels where it’s available.
A car company must spend a lot to engineer an alternate transmission type. It would have to spend a lot more to then engineer the additional apparati to attach to that tranny and shunt some power to rear wheels, turning an ordinarily front-drive scooter into an all-wheel-drive scrambler. On top of that, mixing up a lot of different equipment combinations makes the factory assembly line more difficult to manage, adding extra manufacturing expense on top of the extra engineering expense. And since such a small number of nuts like me actually buy autos with manual transmissions, Mazda would never earn enough on a manual/AWD combination to get back its extra investment.
So I congratulate Mazda just for offering a manual gearbox in the Mazda3, even if it can’t be had with the four-corner traction that can make a car a tad safer during our New England winters (or at least make drivers feel safer).
And while I’m passing out praise, I’ll add that Mazda’s use of a geared automatic warrants more back pats. Some other auto companies, Nissan and Subaru primary among them, have all but abandoned geared automatics for slipping and sloppy, belt-driven continuously variable automatic transmissions.
There’s a lot more to recommend about the sporty and spiffy Mazda3, in its hatchback manifestation in particular. Since the compact sedan has the same fundamentals as the hatch, I presume that both the sedan and hatchback are nicely powered, with nimble reflexes and adroit road manners, and with class-above, premium occupant comforts – the qualities I’m enjoying in the hatch. But the hatchback also has a sensually kinetic body shape that’s incomparable.
It’s a car I’d be pleased to own. But I’d pass up the top-level evaluation model in my driveway, with its turbocharged four cylinder and all-wheel drive. Instead I’d step down a level to get the manual transmission behind a naturally aspirated engine. Even with front-wheel drive, rowing through gears with a manual tranny is engaging and enjoyable in winter too.