Recently, my brother moved from the Big Apple back to Pittsburgh for a new job. Since he would walk, take the subway, or catch a cab if he needed to go anywhere, he never needed a vehicle in Manhattan. However, the sprawling suburbs of the Steel City have not been blessed with an adequate public transportation system. So he is in the market for a new car.
The ideal car for him would be something small, four-door, and frugal on gas, but at the same time, fun to drive. There are plenty of vehicles that fit this niche, but after some initial searching and brand preferences, he narrowed it down to three choices: the 2008 Mazda3s Touring, 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer GTS, and the 2009 Toyota Corolla XRS. Each car was similarly equipped, with power everything, manual transmission, sunroof, upgraded stereo, sport-appearance packages, etc.
As my family’s resident car guru, I was invited along as a second opinion and to make sure he knew what to look for and how to feel each vehicle. So, I thought I would do a little comparison of each vehicle for you all to enjoy.
As I stated earlier, each version of the vehicles test-driven were constructed with the sporty trim, with bigger wheels and racier bodywork. The Lancer GTS came with an aggressive-looking front bumper, a stylish wing, and larger 18-inch 10-spoke aluminum wheels riding on Dunlop tires.
Toyota’s entry featured a similar front bumper to the Lancer, with lower chinspoilers wrapping around the front bumper, a small wing and 17-inch wheel and tire combo. Compared to the other two, the Mazda was not quite in-your-face as the others, with its more tailored bodywork and 17-inch “snowflake” wheels.
In addition to the bodywork, each vehicle had the more powerful engine that was offered. Both the Toyota and Mitsubishi had 2.4 liter four-cylinder engines, while the Mazda came with a slightly smaller 2.3 liter. All came with their manufacturers’ version of variable valve timing in addition to dual overhead camshafts. Bolted to each engine was a five-speed manual gearbox.
While each car was gussied up (or not in the 3?s case), each had a much different feeling when out on the road.
The Mitsubishi, having been redone a few years ago and receiving a new 168 horsepower, 2.4 liter engine this year, is vastly improved over the previous generation. No longer will you strain to get the car into a higher gear, and there’s no need to downshift to a lower gear to accelerate. Plus, it is much smoother in its operation as well as been much less obtrusive.
The Toyota’s 2.4 puts out a slightly smaller power output of 158 horses, but it feels the most robust of the group. Full throttle acceleration was surprising and the only indication of acceleration was a muted exhaust and the swing of the tachometer.
Mazda’s smaller engine also had the smallest engine output, at 156 horsepower. But while down on the power, it was still able to accelerate with good authority from any speed and in any gear. At a drag strip, it would keep itself right next to the other cars.
What the Mazda lacked in power numbers, however, it made up for in pretty much ever other aspect of what a sporty car should be. The steering was the sharpest, with quick turn-in, good weight and feedback through the steering wheel, and little body roll. Clutch uptake was somewhat more weighted than the others, but it was the easiest to make quick, clean shifts. The shifter was also the better choice, with a short pattern and just-right weighted mechanism.
That doesn’t mean that the other two were hopeless. The Mitsubishi was easy to drive, with a balanced chassis and well-engineered steering that was sharper and more communicative than before. However, the shifter movement was far too light and vague to really row it when having fun. The clutch was short and effortless and is best suited for stop and go traffic, but not for smooth driving when pushed. Plus, it was impossible to heel-toe, as the pedals were spread too far apart.
The Corolla was the least fun to drive. The transmission has a nice short pattern as well, but it felt far too notchy to be quick or smooth. Clutch effort was similar to the Mitsubishi. But the worst part was the steering. It was incredibly over-boosted and lacked zero communication between the driver and the front wheels.
An Insider’s View
Each company created a different atmosphere in these cars. The best one is, of course, the Toyota. Every piece inside this Corolla felt and looked rich. The buttons were clearly labeled and uncluttered, the HVAC controls were large and the gauges were simple to use. Everything was in easy reach. Plus the Corolla had the most storage compartments of the other two, with its two glove boxes being the main attraction.
The Mitsubishi and the Mazda were close behind the Toyota’s, but were not nearly as screwed together as the Toyota. The Lancer has a similar easy-to-use layout, but was rather bland and had that economy-look and feel throughout. I thought I was going to break the seat height lever. The twin hoods surrounding the tachometer and speedometer made reading the cool and informative information screen stuck in the middle difficult to read.
In the Mazda, the interior was more of a conversation piece, with more style and pizazz than the others, but needed a few seconds to learn where all the buttons were located. Plus, the triple-humped gauge cluster made looking at the gauges difficult, although looked cool in red and blue when the headlights were turned on.
The roomiest car was the Mitsubishi, followed by the Toyota and the Mazda. The GTS had plenty of rear leg and headroom for the taller statue. The XRS was nipping at the Lancer’s heels with a similar amount of room, but felt narrower and would be a tight squeeze with three across.
The Mazda was down on room, with tall passengers having to ask front seat passengers to scoot up a few inches for more room. However, headroom is much more prevalent here.
The driving position, though, goes to the Mazda. Behind the wheel of this car, everything was placed perfectly. The seat could be adjusted every way possible, and with the only telescoping wheel in the group, it offered tall people like me more flexibility. Pedal position was perfect in this car, with enough space where you won’t bump the gas when pressing the brakes, but can be heel-toed perfectly. The shifter falls right into place, as does reaching for the HVAC controls.
The Toyota was almost as good, but you sat too high, the wheel sits too low, and the pedals are too close together. It just felt overly snug for a car that shouldn’t have been. However, reaching all controls on the center stack was easy as was rowing the transmission.
Again, the Lancer falls to the back of the pack. While huge on the inside, you still sit too high like the Toyota, but the stretch to reach the radio controls was too much as was the need to reach far to the right to reach fifth gear.
How Much Is This Going to Cost?
These three cars driven were all similarly equipped and priced. The Mazda was the cheapest, at $20,325, and had the six-disk CD changer, sunroof and a spoiler. Just a few dollars away was the Lancer GTS at $20,540. This GTS came with the “Sun & Sound” package, which includes a sunroof and a fantastic Rockford Fosgate stereo. The pricier Toyota came in at $21,457 and came with a sunroof, six-disk changer, and a few other touches not worth mentioning.
Although down on overall power and interior room, the Mazda3 overcomes those deficits by giving the driver the better looking interior, the more comfortable driving position and the superior driving experience, it’s hard to pass up on this car.
Yes, the Toyota is better screwed together and the Mitsubishi has the more aggressive looks and huge interior, but when you feel that connection between driver and vehicle like you do in the Mazda, it’s hard to not want that every day of ownership.