Why is the Mazda 3 so much more expensive than a Honda Civic/Toyota Corolla Altis?

Hans · May 03, 2020 03:15 PM

Let’s face it, the Mazda 3 is not for everybody. If you are going to compare it against its segment rivals like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla Altis, then it means that you can’t afford it, because the Mazda 3 will never make sense if one is to compare it that way.

The Mazda 3 is at least RM 20,000 more expensive than an equivalent Honda Civic or a Toyota Corolla Altis. In what universe will this constitute as a recommended buy? 

There’s no logic to purchasing a Mazda 3. Actually, apart from the CX-5, there’s no logic to purchasing any Mazda. In fact, logic don’t always work the same way in Mazda’s universe.

Winner of 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours, first Asian team to win Le Mans. The French would later ban rotary engines from competing.

How else can you describe a company that ignored the advice of the Germans who invented the original rotary (Wankel) engine to give up on fixing it, and not only that, Mazda decided to race it in the world’s toughest 24 hours race and promptly won it.

So back to the question, why is the Mazda 3 so expensive?

1. It is imported from Japan

The most obvious answer is because the Mazda 3 is now imported CBU from Mazda’s Hofu plant in Japan. The previous CKD model was locally assembled at Mazda Malaysia’s plant in Kulim.

Thus explains the big jump from the previous generation Mazda 3’s price of RM 108,994 – RM 126,468, to the current price of RM 139,620 – RM 160,059.

Being an imported model, it has to pay the maximum excise duty (locally-assembled cars get excise tax rebates based on total value of locally sourced content used).

2. Craftmanship

Nobody makes cars like Mazda. Not Audi. Not Mercedes-Benz, and definitely not BMW.

Remind us what’s the Bavarian brand’s design direction is again? Is it called a play of grille sizes and a mashup of Hyundai/Kia rear-ends?

The reason nobody can build cars like Mazda is because most manufacturers have become overly reliant on digital design tools, and along the way have lost the fine art of crafting complex shapes with their hands, and a computer can only be as good as the artisan's skills allow it to be.

To Mazda, a car is a sculpture and you can't make good sculptures if you rely on computers but dont have the basic skills of hand sculpting complex shapes.

The problem with digital tools is that you can never fully replicate how a car’s body will reflect natural light – the ideal way to view a car. Yes, all manufacturers will still produce a full-scale mock-up model – which is very expensive and time consuming to build - to fine-tune the design, but the difference is they are doing it only at the tail-end of the process, while Mazda does it at every step of the way.

Market pressure and intense competition also mean that few car manufacturers have the patience to wait for human clay modelers to perfect a curve, and for the production engineers to figure out how to mass produce such complex panels.

Nevermind the equally complex signature Soul Red paint. Pay close attention to the reflection on the car in the video below:

All these mean that the Mazda 3 looks better in motion than when parked. The next time a Mazda 3 drives by, take a look at the reflection off its body panels. You can never find another car that uses metal panels to curve and move light and shadow the way a Mazda 3 does.

3. Designed around your body, really.

‘Designed Around You’ might be tagline for Volvo Cars, but actually it’s Mazda’s philosophy, albeit with a slightly different, driver-centric twist.

Left is a common seating position in many cars but because we are so used to it, we don't really notice it.

In the Mazda 3, you sit with almost zero offset between the steering wheel and pedals. Your legs are stretched out evenly. This is not always possible as a lot of mechanical components are placed behind the dashboard and engine’s bulkhead.

Also, platform sharing means that it's very expensive and very difficult to settle on a perfect seating position when the platform is shared between an SUV and a sedan.

The most important priority for a driver's car is not power, but sitting position.

Having to sit in a slightly angled position is an unavoidable compromise that is found on even the most expensive premium German model. In fact, this offset seating position is more obvious in some German models because these cars were optimized for left-hand drive configuration.

Before designing the seats and GVC Plus chassis control, Mazda engineers studied the basics of medical science and bio-kinematics, to understand how the human body maintains its balance.

The reason why Mazda cars feel so good to drive - chassis is designed to concentrate movement around your pelvis, similar to how we walk.

Walking is the most basic of human motion. We don’t think about it because it’s a subconscious effort but your brain/body is doing a lot in keeping your body upright when you walk.

Mazda engineers learned the relation between our pelvis’ movement and our upper body, and our body’s natural posture in zero gravity condition, and applied all these knowledge in designing the car.

All these culminated in the SkyActiv chassis and GVC Plus feature. Explaining how it works will require another post and a high level of understanding in medical science so we will skip it, but the TLDR version is that the feature works very much like how our body maintains balance when we walk.

You don’t think about it, you can’t see how it works, but you can definitely feel the difference when driven back to back with another car.

4. Designed around your eyes

At a glance, Mazda’s analogue looking instrument panel (the centre dial is actually digital, a hyper realistic digital screen that replicates an analogue dial) and lack of fancy controls appear one step down from other more luxurious German models, but there’s a reason to it.

Centre dial is actually digital, but it's so well done that your eyes think it's analogue.

It is Mazda’s opinion that most manufacturers have gotten it all wrong, and becoming too caught up with the trend to make everything digital and touch screen.

Mazda’s own study into cognitive science has shown that many of today’s car controls are too distracting and the Mazda 3’s interior is intentionally made the way it is, simply because such a layout is best for our hand-eye coordination and minimizes fatigue, because it’s in harmony with the way our brain processes visual information.

Even the cabin’s white LEDs are developed to Mazda’s requirements. Nobody else makes LEDs with chromaticity that meets Mazda’s requirements, which is 70 percent more rigid than other manufacturers.

Mazda doesn’t make the LEDs but the supplier that produces it makes it exclusively for Mazda, because it’s just too expensive for other manufacturers to stomach.

Why go through all the trouble? Because while white colour is best for instrumentation (our eyes pick white-black contrast best), our eyes are also most sensitive to variations in chromaticity of white colour.

Mazda designers say “We didn’t go through all the trouble of making the best design only for it to be spoiled by inconsistent white lighting, which affects the way the user perceives the colour and materials in the cabin.” OK Mazda, you win.

5. Designed around your ears

Mazda also studied the human ear and how our brain processes auditory stimulus. The human ear is more sensitive to certain frequency range and we don’t perceive all types of noise the same way.

Did you know that the human is less annoyed by noise in an airplane’s cabin than a car’s, even though the dB level is actually higher in an airplane? This is why dB level doesn’t tell everything. Humans are sensitive not just to noise intensity, but also changes to its intensity, which is why we are less annoyed by a plane’s constant noise than a car's.

Noise and vibration are inevitable in any car. Make it too quiet, and the car loses its appeal as a driver’s car because a good driver needs to be aware of the car’s condition in relation to the road. It’s also why a BMW is always a bit noisier than an Audi or a Mercedes-Benz. Insulation materials also add weight, which means poorer performance and fuel efficiency.

However, a noisy cabin tires out the car’s occupants and balancing this is tricky. Mazda side-stepped the problem not by adding more insulation materials, but by manipulating how noise permeates into the cabin, reducing changes in noise intensity. So a quiet cabin can be achieved without adding too much weight.

The exact science behind it is quite complex and is beyond the scope of this topic, but you can be certain that it’s a very expensive solution.

Fun fact: Even the Mazda 3’s floor mats have been designed to work as a sound absorbing material. No detail is too small for Mazda, so don’t change the floor mats.

Most cars install speakers at the lower-side section of the door - the cheapest but worst possible location for audio quality

A lot of work have gone into redesigning the door frame and power windows just so Mazda can place the front speakers behind the dashboard and on the upper door panels instead of the usual lower door panel.

Repositioned speakers allow Mazda to better manipulate the arrival of different sound frequencies.

According to Mazda – placing speakers at the lower side of the door is the most cost effective way, but it’s the worst place for audio quality. 

6. Handling

No, the Mazda 3 doesn’t use torsion beam rear suspension, despite what you may have read elsewhere. OK fine, yes the specs sheet says torsion beam, we get that, but bear with us.

One of the biggest mistakes that Mazda made in marketing the 3 was to call the rear suspension a torsion beam, which is a step down from the previous car’s multi-link setup, when in truth, it’s not even a torsion beam.

It looks like one but it isn’t one and it doesn’t work like one. 

See, the Mazda 3’s so-called torsion beam is one of a kind. Even the outer edges resemble a multi-link type design. Mazda owns a patent on it and no other manufacturer is allowed to use the design. So how can it be called a regular torsion beam if it’s a unique patented design?

The patented design features a variable diameter beam that allows Mazda to replicate pretty much what a multi-link suspension does, but with less moving parts (therefore less maintenance cost) and taking up less space.

By varying its diameter and keeping it thin in the middle, the beam is able to control flex and side-to-side movement in pretty much the same way as a multi-link system.

With less moving parts, it’s quieter and easier to tune.

Mazda is a very engineer-driven company and they don’t communicate as well as their American/German counterparts, who would’ve given the new patented design a fancy marketing name, anything but a torsion beam.

In the real world, the ‘torsion beam’ Mazda 3 outhandles any of its rivals with more complex rear suspensions. It’s pliant and when you are in the mood to play, its movement is remarkably intuitive.

Mazda 3, buy or bye?

So, is the Mazda 3 overpriced? Yes it is, but it’s also an absolute bargain. They are two sides of the same coin, depending on how you value things. Therein lies the problem for the Mazda 3 – it’s too unique, too nice of a product, too good for the regular car buyer.

The Mazda 3 is an expensive car with a cheap car badge. The thought and attention to detail that went into it surpasses the Mercedes-Benz C-Class or BMW 3-Series. Of course, most consumers are superficial people. A car’s badge trumps everything else, and that is ultimately why the Mazda 3 is selling poorly, even in big markets like USA.

The Mazda 3 is a bit like Ukiyo art. The regular person might recognize a Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, not because they are learned in art but only because pop culture tells them it’s great.

Present them with something less mainstream, like Hokusai’s Great Wave of Kanawaga and they wouldn’t know how to appreciate it. The Mazda is today’s Hokusai. For the discerning few, it’s an absolute bargain, for other mainstream users influenced by peers who don’t know any better, it’s just an overpriced lump of metal.

So if you understand art and craftsmanship, and is in an income group where value for money includes things that are beyond the tangible, buy the Mazda 3. For everyone else, buy the Honda Civic/Toyota Corolla Altis. Here's a guide to help you decide between the two.