Long Term Test: Mazda3 Fastback 2.2d Sport Nav – The View from the Back Seat

In this third instalment, I thought I’d provide my views on some of the more practical aspects of the Mazda3.

View from the rear-seat of the Mazda3 - dark and de-contented.
View from the rear-seat of the Mazda3 – dark and de-contented.

I’ve previously alluded to the fact that the 3 is not as popular with my family members as it is with me.  In fact, the mood during the test drive we all went on together chilled the atmosphere in the car more than the air-con will ever manage. This resulted in pressure to consider various larger (new Mondeo), more expensive (A3 Saloon) and mainstream (Passat) alternatives from those in the rear in particular. My 15 year old son was particularly vociferous, although I suspected that the fact that he really wanted me to buy an S3 Saloon was a fair proportion of the motivation behind his whinge.

More convincing were the complaints of our 12 year old daughter, who quite evidently had trouble seeing out of the rear side windows. I resisted, ultimately, by reminding everyone of the purpose of the purchase (i.e. reliable, economical, comfortable and enjoyable transport for my daily 130 mile round-trip commute) and that the car would rarely be taken into service for all-family trips. In a weird reversal of what one might have expected in response, I had the added bonus of being ‘allowed’ to go ahead with the purchase only on the basis that I also kept the C6! Nevertheless, I admit that, even today, their views espoused on that trip put a dampener on my enthusiasm for the car overall.

So, what are the causes of such dissatisfaction?  In short, the experience on the rear bench seat is pretty gloomy. I include some smart-phone-camera sourced photos to attempt to illustrate the point, but I’ll commentate appropriately.

As fellow DTW contributors have very diplomatically suggested in the past, the rising side window line does become too shallow for comfort at its rear-most edge.  Couple this with a fairly low-set rear bench, and it’s no surprise that my 5ft 4in daughter doesn’t get much of a view to the side. For someone my size (6ft 1in), it’s not a problem, albeit the effect is still somewhat snug. Both factors are, to different degrees, sacrifices to the styling and design language, and, much as I enjoy the way the car looks, the downsides are too great and avoidable without upsetting the looks of the car.

Shallow rear-widow and sloping rear-roofline.
Shallow rear-widow and sloping rear-roofline.

The Mazda6 suffers several degrees less in this way and manages a more successful variation of the same styling theme, some of which is due to the assistance of that car’s greater length. The lack of glass area is not helped by the dreaded ‘privacy glass’ which I don’t like on any car, but is very hard to avoid these days on anything other than bottom-of-the-range models, and never seems to be available as a delete option.

Nice leg-room, shame about the lack of rear vents!
Nice leg-room, shame about the lack of rear vents!

Sat in the rear, the space on offer is actually pretty good in most directions. Leg and knee room is fine for me with the driver’s seat set in the sat-behind-myself position, helped by adequate room under the front seat. My head nearly brushes the roof-lining if I sit bolt upright, so it’s OK, but going over larger bumps in the road results in a bit of a knock on my pate. The seat itself is comfortable, unusually high backed (feels like my Dad’s old Cortina did when I was little) with a well-shaped base that provides good thigh support. There is a broad, fold-out central arm rest with in-built cup-holders which is nice. In summary, actual space and physical comfort is acceptable, it’s the psychological and sensual aspect that is found wanting.

5 Shades of Grey? Anyone?? Please yourselves!
5 Shades of Grey? Anyone?? Please yourselves!

Materials (textures, colours and surface tones) and features also contribute to the dour environment in the back. The seat material is dark and light grey, striped (slightly shiny) centre panels flanked by charcoal, tight-weave, grey cloth bolsters and surrounds. The latter cover the door cards, which are at least fairly broad. This cut of cloth is the same standard covering on the whole range (from the lowliest SE to my range-topping SportNav), which I applaud in terms of democracy – or would do if it actually meant that it meant the pervasion of quality throughout the range – if nothing else.

The door tops are plain, grainy, reasonable-quality plastic of a similar colour, the same as that which is to be found lower down on the dashboard – interestingly, the door tops in the front are covered with the soft-feel plastic found on the dash-top. Under the door card is more of the same, also moulded to include a door pocket/bottle holder (reminds me of my old AX which was the first to have such a feature, if I recall correctly).  Rear windows are electric (throughout the range), but the switches are of a rather cheap plastic set in poor, plastic imitation carbon-fibre effect surrounds. The only dash of relief to be found on the door panels in the rear is the faux matt-metal finish door handle – even this lacks the piano-black plastic mounting which provides a bit of gloss for the front doors.

Note how front door-tops get piano-black fillet (and soft-feel plastic)
Note how front door-tops get piano-black fillet (and soft-feel plastic)

Facing the rear passengers are plain, charcoal grey, cloth seat backs – the most interesting point of amusement for me is the fact that Mazda chose to put a pocket only on the back of the front passenger seat (but then, I’ve always liked a bit of asymmetry); I am sure others will conclude (rightly) that it’s a cheap-skate measure. Finally, even the SportNav version has no rear vents to provide a visual break up if the swathes of hard black plastic, let alone puff much needed fresh or refrigerated air to refresh the rear occupants. This may be more important than you may think, as the poor visibility of the outside world can provoke motion sickness, even if the suspension does its bit to prevent float, heave and out-of-sync yaw movements. At least the roof-lining is light, even if it’s rather low-rent.

As a counterpoint, the purchaser of a new car (mine was pre-registered, if you can recall) can mitigate some of the above factors by opting for the pricey (£1,000, I think, but it does bring with it electric adjustment of the driver’s seat) “Stone Leather” option.  This introduces rather modern and attractively attired and patterned light grey perforated leather centre panels to the seats and door-cards, surrounded by charcoal grey leather bolsters. This gives the interior a massive lift and I would strongly recommend a prospective customer finding the extra cash and ticking that option box.

High-backed rear seat is comfy and gets broad arm-rest
High-backed rear seat is comfy and gets broad arm-rest

The boot is large (440 litres – the same as the C6!), well-shaped, and blessed with a large opening.  The seat backs fold down, split 60/40, actuated via a couple of conveniently located pull-out knobs; they don’t automatically drop down so there is a degree of gymnastics involved as you reach through the aperture and push the backs down into place. The lid is light, and supported by hilariously crude, exposed (painted) metal box section supports, complete with unused rivet holes.

I love the inherent thought for function over form, and Mazda will claim that it’s all part of the SkyActiv philosophy of reducing weight, but most prospective or confirmed clients will be put-off. I have read Mazda UK PR suggesting that it perceives at least some of its new products (the CX-3, as an example) as being positioned in the premium part of the competitive landscape, but, if it is serious about this, it has to up its game with stuff like this. Audi would probably have cancelled the launch if it realised that the production engineering guys had put something so crude in place.

Big boot - supported by hilariously crude struts!
Big boot – supported by hilariously crude struts! Audi would never allow such a crime.

Overall, as presciently proffered by Sean when commenting on my initial report, Mazda has created a ‘second-class’ environment for rear passengers of the 3. My kids felt it instantly, even if they did not articulate it in the same way. Their benchmarks are the C6 and our Xsara Picasso, both relatively low-waisted, light, airy and roomy. The former provides lots of interest for the senses too, with electric-reclining, quality leather trimmed rear seats, rear vents with separate controls, and, not forgetting, the wood covered sliding door pocket covers (masterful!), so it’s little wonder that the 3 was a shock to their senses.

But even in isolation, it is pretty disappointing and rather lazy. Mazda has made no attempt to surprise and delight, instead inferring that the owner and rear passengers should forgive and forget. When so many of the other fundamentals are so right, I find it frustrating that it is there, literally, like a dark cloud hanging over the (back of) the car.

The 3 has now covered 5,600 miles in 3 months, and is now averaging about 59 MPG. Everything works as it should, there are still no rattles or creaks or groans, and the car started instantly after having been left for nearly 3 weeks whilst I was on holiday (which is more than can be said for the C6 – new battery required, maybe more). I’m still very impressed with most aspects of driving the car day-to-day. For my personal purposes it’s a pleasure to drive and own so far, it would just be that much sweeter if my family felt the same.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

14 thoughts on “Long Term Test: Mazda3 Fastback 2.2d Sport Nav – The View from the Back Seat”

  1. Thanks for that flight over the landscape of the 3. I feel I have a good impression of the experience.
    It’s fortunate you have another vehicle for conveying passengers. While the 3 is broadly in line with its peers, the disregard for those in the back is still bad enough to make me a bit cross. Taken together, dark colours, the rising window and missing vents make this a car I’d never put children into. It’s a deal breaker. As a person interested in the user’s experience – all of them – I think Mazda and many other car makers are being cavalier in ignoring how the owner can derive pleasure from providing a comfortable place for family and friends. Only Opel’s Meriva offers a rear compartment fit for the intended users: a dropped window line and the option for light fabrics. To be clear, I want a car that’s good to drive but I also want those with me to enjoy the drive too.

    1. Out of interest, who he? It’s a helpful clip and I really like a lot of what he is saying. He’ll have to forgive me for disagreeing on the “elegant” bit. I actually think the Vauxhaul/ Opel Signum and Citroen XM, in their different ways, achieved similar results that made more sense and were more attractive – more elegant to use the Herr’s own words.

  2. I think very much in line with what both of you wrote. Honestly, I was a bit shocked when I read about this very different treatment of front and rear. I’ve never had a car with such obviously stripped down rear door cards, not even my tiny and cheap (5-door) AX. Is this a common practise today? In the C4 Cactus, I saw a similar discrepancy, but its prime vocation doesn’t seem to be a family car. For a car like the Mazda 3, it clearly is, in my eyes.

  3. Surprising, isn’t it? Most of the requirements for a decent rear compartment are not hard to provide: adequate depth for the arm-rests, rear lamps, a vent and a suitably low window line. There also needs to be the option of a lighter interior colour scheme. The fabric choices need to be wider than leather or bullet-proof cloth.

  4. Hopefully some of the designers of tomorrow are currently on their school holidays, maybe even on holiday with their families and sitting in the back of a car vowing ‘when I design cars, they’ll all be just as nice in the back too’. I guess that companies do the surveys and find that the rear seats of 93% of all cars are only occupied for 7% of the time (citation needed as Wikipedia would say). From this, they conclude that it’s justified making the rear passenger a lower priority. I admit that I seldom have passengers in the rear of my car but, when I do, I want them to be comfortable and I spent a fair amount of time sitting in the rear of my Cube, fiddling with seat positions, before I bought it (it only has one seat pocket too – I guess that saved 700 Yen). But please don’t take my comments as a criticism of your choice SV! As you say, you bought it for a specific purpose, which it seems to be performing admirably and, besides, the Mazda’s rear is the rule rather than the exception today. And anyway, your family have been led to unrealistically high expectations with the C6!

    1. I think it’s not the designers who should ride more in back seats, but the penny-pinchers. (Well, the designers too, regarding high waistlines)

    1. I expect they will – it’s just a trend. To be fair, Audi, VW and BMW have largely resisted the trend and, generally, provide very nice rear cabin environments for passengers.

      And, to be clear and honest, I do fault my choice somewhat, but one lives and learns!

    2. On a positive note SV, possibly it’s a good reflection on your offspring that they don’t like the back seat. My own cod-psychological insight into the move towards meaner glass area and privacy glass is that it reflects a modern tendency towards dissociation from the outside world and a desire to live in your own selfish cocoon. The fact that they want to see the outside world can only be good!

    3. It’s certainly a trend, and as with trends, it’s going to be reversed.
      The 1930s were a period where we also see a tendency for ever narrower windows, but the ’50s saw panoramic windscreens and slim pillars.
      I believe it’s also a Zeitgeist thing. In austere times like the pre-war era with a lot of incertainty, people tend to cocoon. A time of optimism and belief in progress makes people want to see and be seen. So I guess we’ll have to wait for such a time again.

  5. This is not a new phenomenon. The rear of my mark 1 Focus was an incredibly austere place to be. There was literally nothing to look at or play with apart from the coverless AA Road Atlas of Great Britain 1995 stuffed into the passenger seat back pocket. Combined with the large front headrests, fat B-pillars and a window line aggressively tapering to the rear, there was nothing to see.

  6. I have a theory that the rise (literally) of the CUV is attributable by the buyer’s desire for visibility; not just parading their expenditure, but also to mitigate the poor outwards views of modern cars. Because of increased crash-worthiness and the need to accommodate air bags almost everywhere, A, B and C pillars are much thicker in both external width and internal depth than they have ever been, creating a claustrophobic internal environment for passengers and the oft commented “pill box view” through the windscreen for the driver. Whilst CUVs are also blighted by this, their comparative height gifts an elevated view of the surroundings, alleviating the feeling of being hemmed in. The irony is that the rearward view in most CUVs is so poor that reversing cameras have become mandatory.

  7. My layman’s understanding is that cost and safety considerations are encouraging shallower glass areas. So engineering say to design ‘let’s narrow the DLO for the next model’ and the designers nod enthusiastically, because they all seem to share the same influences and want a low, wide, big-wheeled look. My ‘family’ car has a rising window line and no rear vents, and one of my kids often feels sick while travelling in it. Our old E39 5 series Touring had relatively big windows, vents and a cream leather interior that my wife mocked mercilessly – but the kids loved every journey in it. The rear cabin was also delightfully comfortable for adults (rear middle seat excepted).

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