Mazda3 vs Dodge Dart: Miss that Neon feel?

by David Zatz

The Mazda3 is roughly the same size as the Dart, gets far better mileage, goes faster, and carries much of the better parts of the Neon’s feel, for those who miss the fun little car that said “Hi.”

car review

Known in most of the world as the Mazda Axela, the compact Mazda has that sense of being in touch with the road, without being punished by it; the easily controllable engine that combines speed with mileage; and the light feel that makes it a joy to drive.

The weight-loss diet for the Mazda3 meant that acoustic glass and lots of sound insulation were not on the menu, so, while much quieter than the old Neon, the Japanese sedan is far noisier than the Dart when on the highway, despite superior aerodynamics. Our Blizzak-equipped car had lots of road noise, with concrete highways drowning out the stereo and navigation system.

The tire choice also brought controllable, mild skids in some fast turns, which we believe would not happen (at least, not as often) with the stock tires. That’s not to say you should expect to be sliding all over the road; the handling is quite good. The ride is also comfortable, with broken roads well filtered and fewer shocks than the Beetle we test drove last week.

Performance

The Mazda3 has been rightly praised for its fun factor, and it’s easy to drive, from the easy clutch to the flawless stick and fuss-free steering. Push down for Reverse, which is on the left of First. There’s even an indicator to tell you what gear you’re in, and what gear it wants you in (up or down).

The Mazda3 has a less powerful engine than the Dart or the Beetle, but its light weight brings 0-60 times that easily whup the Dart SXT and edge out the Beetle (around 7.6 seconds). The 2.5 liter “s” series pushes out 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque, narrowly beating the Dodge’s current best if not Volkswagen’s; the lighter weight helps to make it even faster.

SkyActiv engine with cover

The engine was ready to rev from a start, making those 0-60 sprints quite easy; it was also easy to drive gently. If you can read the tiny dashboard, it not only tells you want gear you’re in, but what gear it wants you to shift to. The engine noise is nothing like the gruff Dodge 2.4; it’s light and somewhat whiney. It’s objectively not unpleasant but if you love V8 rumbles, this isn’t it.

On the highway, you don’t get sudden power boosts, but if you drop two gears, you get a smooth, even acceleration (two seems to be the magic number between three, which mostly adds noise, and one, which doesn’t do much at all). At 65 mph, you won’t need to downshift much; the engine is already at 2,000 rpm or so. The Beetle made peak torque from just off idle to over 4,000 rpm, and the Dart is torque-oriented in its big 2.4, but the Mazda3 needs the revs.

engine

The Mazda was fine in normal highway cruising, taking hills without slowing down, partly because of the gearing; you get into sixth gear at around 40 mph, and just stay there unless you want to pass (or you’re going up hill at 40). The gearing makes for a bit more engine noise on the highway (that you won’t hear a lot of, due to the wind and road noise) and busy shifting around town. Cruising in top gear at 2,000 rpm (65 mph) doesn’t prevent EPA estimates of 41 highway, but the faster you go over 55, the less you should expect (e.g. at 75, you’re at around 2,800 rpm). You’re still likely to beat the Dart (33 mph) or the Beetle (34 mpg), and city trips return amazing gas mileage; our 30 minute combined city/highway trip, mostly highway but with five minutes of pure stop and go, returned 38 mpg.

The Mazda3 is faster than the Dart, and keeps up with the 180-hp Beetle we just tested, while being the absolute economy champ by a large margin. The automatic Mazda3 doesn’t feel quite as fast, but it’s theoretically just 0.1 seconds slower than the manual. And, just as the Dart has the GT (same engine, different gearing) and VW has the R, Mazda has a 2.5 liter variant.

economy monitor

Like the Beetle, the Mazda3 feels much lighter than the Dart; its grip is amazing for an economy car, while the ride is generally smooth, despite that underlying vibration coming from the road, which signals the surface to the driver and helps alertness. This is the “good” kind of vibration that most automakers filter out — and that was a hallmark of Chrysler in the 1990s, from the Neon up to the Grand Cherokee and even the LHS. The Mazda3 is smoother than the old Mopars, but still enjoyable in that connected way.

What is Skyactiv? This is a trade name for a combination of direct injection and clever engineering that prevents knock at high (13:1) compression ratios.

All three of the cars we tested can be driven gently without much strain or effort, though the Beetle is a trifle oversensitive on the highway. Where they differ is mainly in the feel, as well as the limits. The Mazda3 rewards hard driving the most, despite having the least torquey-feeling engine; the Dart feels heaviest. The Beetle may have the best cornering in absolute terms, keeping in mind, again, that our test car [sigh] had snow tires.

If you ask which I found most enjoyable to drive, slow or hard, it was the Mazda3; the Dart trailed this trio — though, by far, it had the best instrumentation and controls, with the fewest apparent bugs.

Oops: the controls

The tiny LED-bar tachometer is all the way off on the left, sometimes drowned out by ambient light and too small in any case (in the illsutration, it’s showing around 900 rpm). The entire gauge cluster is fairly small, though the oversized speedometer is easy to read, and can’t be brightened enough during the day.

gauges

Mazda seems to have made design choices with the goal of being different, such as having the trip computer on the right and odometer on the left. Do most navigation systems have the controls on the dash? Mazda puts them on the center console. How about radios? Yes, check the center console...not the dash.

big knobThe knob setup included a button in the middle of the knob itself, used as “enter;” a return/up button on the left, favorites on the right (if you press it while outside music or navigation, it takes you to a favorites folder); and home, music, and navigation buttons. It’s not exactly at-a-glance but if you own the car, you’ll get used to it quickly. The radio on/off and volume are right next to it, a much smaller knob. The tactile feel of the big knob was quite nice; of the radio knob, not so much.

HD radio traffic (not satellite traffic, apparently) is a separate map with no zooming at all and an almost useless scale — nice if you wonder if there’s traffic for your next two hours in Nebraska, overly cluttered if you want to know if you should avoid Newark for your 30-to-90 minute commute. The good side is that presumably there’s no annual fee; the bad side is it’s not very useful. The knob will take you up and down but not left and right, and, again, there’s no zooming, and it’s not integrated, as far as we could tell, with the navigation system.

map

The navigation system, while very fast, was deviated from custom without gaining much advantage. Changing the scale with the knob was nice.

The voice system worked well as did entering addresses with the knob and button (it also works by touch, but you never have to actually touch the screen, so it can stay clean). One big advantage over the Dodge and Volkswagen systems was oversized street names, easy to spot at a glance.

navigation menu

The stereo had fine sound with the digital signal processor (optional on lower models), edged out somewhat by the Beetle’s optional Fender setup; inputs included two different USB ports, making it easier to share a car (or use smaller drives). Using a USB thumb drive worked very well, but every couple of trips it reset either to the first song on the drive or the first song on the album, for no discernible reason. The Volkswagen had the same flaw; Dodge does not.

The stereo also goes off when you turn off the car, though there is power memory for the center screen; and when you go to the accessory mode, it takes a while for the stereo to find its USB drive place. Once, the system locked up and wouldn’t accept input until the car was restarted (rebooted?).

The Dart is the preference-setting king among the trio we’ve tested so far; the Mazda3 had few settings that could be changed by the driver, but it did have most of the majors, e.g. light delays, power lock actions, and such. Three features the Dart does not have are the locations of speed cameras, setting a speed alert, and the nifty gas mileage display.

climate controls

The best word for the climate control is “Argh.” See if you can make sense of this. The whole thing is quite small and far from the driver. Mode is set by buttons — you cycle through vent positions (defrost does have its own button). Automatic goes on with a knob pushbutton, off with a small button in the “fake circle.” Temperature is set with knobs, good; fan speed is not. There are so many superior solutions out there to copy; the only thing this has going for it is having front and rear defroster next to each other.

steering wheel buttons

The steering wheel buttons match that confusion. The “forward/backward” on the stereo sometimes didn’t work (perhaps it’s because sometimes the system went into repeat mode without any coaching). The cruise was more of an issue; having Cancel and Resume on the same button is a recipe for problems, and so is having Cancel on the far side of Resume so you have to reach over one oh-so-easy-to-press button to reach the other. It ended up being busy and crowded.

backup camera

The backup camera is good during the day, combining a wide-range view on the sides with a sensible view of the area directly behind the car, unlike VW’s almost useless, dark screen. At night, it was nowhere near as sensitive to light as Chrysler’s cameras.

Space and such

The Mazda3 is comparable in space to the Dart: the trunks seem to be about the same size in real terms, with the Dart larger in cubic feet. (We photographed it with a box of tissues for scale; someday we'll buy a big ruler.) The seats on both cars fold down; on the Mazda, the release buttons are in the trunk and use easily caught cables which were loose in our test car (you can see one flopping around before I re-attached it).

trunk

The Mazda has more legroom and less interior width, which seems to come out of the center console rather than the seats. The result is that the center console is smaller, so you can’t put a full size box of tissues in it; and needless to say, you won’t shove an iPad into the glove compartment as you can in the Dart.

seats

The accent stitching thing is present on both cars, along with the “driver oriented” panel. You can see there’s plenty of room in both front and rear; and, like the Dart, the Mazda has those “shove the head forward” headrests.

rear seats

The rear seats are comfortable and both cars have a cupholder/armrest that folds down from the middle. If you don’t like black or gray interiors, incidentally, the Mazda seems to have a beige option all through the line.

dashboard

Those buttons on the left are shutoffs for safety systems and, below that, the trunk release button; below that the hood and gas-cap releases, in different sizes so you don't pop the hood when trying to open the gas cap. The controls are not necessarily placed for actual use; it seems that the designers put some things wherever it would fit and others where they’d look best, not work best.

The center display/touch-screen looks like an add-on in the Mazda, but it works well, generally. The Dart has a larger optional touch screen / nav system, going to 8.4 inches, and it’s well integrated. If you forgot what it looks like, there it is.

dart

Pricing it out

Our test car was a Grand Touring i (i is the normal line, s is sport). It listed at $22,545, with the manual transmission. The Mazda line doesn’t have many options and packages; you get the level you want, and if you add to it, it usually comes out costing more than just getting the next model up. HID headlights are on the top model; they’re downright cheap on the Dart, in comparison.

profile

The test car was second from top of the line, and had just a single option, a $70 cargo mat, topping out at $23,495 including destination; pay $2,000 more for the top of the line and you get HID lights and some other features. Standard items were rain-sensing wipers, heated mirrors with turn signals, fog lights, four-wheel disks, sunroof, heated “leatherette” seats (with power for the driver), dual-zone auto climate control, pushbutton start, seven-inch center touch-screen display, rear camera, navigation, Bose eight-speaker audio with signal processor, various audio software (Pandora, etc), two USB inputs, text message delivery and reply, cruise and trip computer, and audio controls on the wheel.

car

For safety, the car includes blind spot monitoring, rear cross path alert, hill launch assistance, roadside assistance, front side-impact airbags, and front and rear curtain airbags. The car is rated at five stars from the government for everything but front-crash on the passenger side (four stars) and rollover (four stars). The IIHS gave the Mazda3 top marks in every single category (Dart is only missing in small-overlap front, where it gets the second best mark). It might be light, but it’s strong.

The Mazda3 is made in Japan of 95% Japanese materials, so it’s not going to fill any “buy American/Canadian” goals.

zoom-zoom

To wrap it up: the Mazda3 feels lighter than the Dart, with better acceleration and fuel economy, and nearly as much interior space. The car is eminently practical, as well, and the available “feature set” is similar. The Dart has major advantages in noise control, interior trim, controls, stereo, nav, and gauges. Move the two together, and replace the optional Mazda3 engine with the upcoming Hurricane, and you have a real winner.

Specifications Dart SXT Mazda3 i
Grand Touring
Beetle Dune
Price, model shown$19,395 $22,545 $23,995
Price, base$16,995 $17,845$19,795
Weight3,173 2,869 3,093
Horsepower*184 155 170
Torque*171 150 184
Cabin volume97.2 93.3 85.1
Trunk**13.1 12.4 15.4**
Total legroom77.5 78.0 72.7
Shoulder room58.2 / 56.1 57.2 / 54.4 55.3 / 49.0
MPG (stick)23/33 29/41 n/a
MPG (auto)21/30 30/41 25/34
0-60 (auto)8.3 7.7 7.8
Drag0.285 0.26 0.39

* 2.4 Dart vs 1.8 Beetle vs 2.0 Mazda3. VW goes up to 210 hp; Mazda, to 184 (185 lb-ft).
** I suspect this is if you measure all the way up to the window.

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