It started with an incredibly bumpy ride, raising questions about whether the whole thing was about the come crashing down to earth, but after a few buttock-clenching moments, everything was back on solid ground.
Just a few years ago, few fleets would have given the Mazda brand a glance, thanks to a dull but worthy product line-up.
The company was admittedly in trouble, but was saved from a plunge into motoring history by Ford, which has put its recent focus on quality above profit to great use in creating one of the most remarkable turnarounds since Volkswagen's heart surgery on Skoda.
In just over a year, drivers have had the Fleet News Award-winning Mazda6, the vital RX-8 to create a halo model for the brand, the supermini Mazda2 and now the Ford Focus/Vauxhall Astra/ Volkswagen Golf rival, the Mazda3.
The numbers illustrate Mazda's resurgence. Fleet sales have doubled in 2003 and the firm believes the arrival of the 3 this month is set to further boost the Japanese marque's corporate business.
It notched up about 10,000 UK fleet sales in 2003, compared to 4,582 in 2002, thanks largely to the fantastic reception given to the Mazda6.
Overall, the firm sold 38,900 cars, up 34% on 2002 and a world apart from 2001, when 15,000 new Mazdas were sold, partly due to the upheaval caused by a change of UK distributor for the cars. Clearly that means a lot of people are trying the marque for the first time.
Overall, 80% of RX-8 owners are first time Mazda drivers, while 77% of 6 owners are marque virgins.
Mazda believes the 3 carries forward all the best qualities of the 6, which will boost overall sales to 45,000 this year, including 8,000 of the new model, rising to 12,000 in 2005.
Hatchbacks should take a 75% share of sales, with the saloon taking the rest. This year, diesel should take 22% of sales, thanks to the late start for heavy oil units, but will settle down at 30%, the firm says.
Mazda's fleet and remarketing director David McGonigle claims class-leading residual values and wholelife costs will help its case with fleets, which should take 33% of sales against a 51% retail market, while rental takes 12%, with demonstrators accounting for 4%.
He added: 'UK sales in total are up more than a third year-on-year, making Mazda the second-fastest growing vehicle brand in the UK. However, our fleet sales have rocketed and we expect that momentum to continue with the arrival of Mazda3 coupled with a full year of sales from the recently-launched RX-8.'
A staggered launch of the 3 over the next year starts this month with the 1.4-litre 83bhp, 1.6-litre 104bhp and 2.0-litre 148bhp petrol-engined five-door hatchback models.
In March, a 1.6-litre diesel goes on sale, with 108bhp (adding between £1,500 and £2,000 to the price compared to an equivalent 1.6 petrol) and offering a fix for heavy-oil addicts who can't wait a few months for the Euro IV models to arrive, which won't be hit with a 3% benefit-in-kind tax supplement. Fleet managers beware if your drivers are in a hurry to order diesel early – make sure they know the consequences.
In June, at the same time as the saloon models arrive, a 1.6-litre diesel that is Euro IV-compliant goes on sale, offering 108bhp. An 89bhp 1.6 diesel will come on stream in early 2005, but emission figures are not yet available. In June a 1.6-litre four-speed automatic will also be available, creating an 18 model line-up.
The standard specifications normally used by Mazda remain, with S, TS, TS2 and Sport trim levels.
Prices start at £10,650 on-the-road for the five-door 1.4 S, including the usual Alphabetti Spaghetti-approach to safety, with ABS and EBD (electronic brake force distribution) and EBA (emergency brake assist), along with front and side airbags.
TS (for £1,350 extra) adds alloy wheels, body-coloured door handles, a CD player (you get a cassette in the S), air conditioning, curtain airbags front and rear, steering wheel controls and some other smaller details.
TS2 (an extra £900) adds a few more letters, with DSC, (dynamic stability control) and TCS (traction control system), better alloys, six-disc CD autochanger, climate control, one-touch rear electric windows and leather steering wheel, while Sport (another £900) completes the range with bigger alloys, xenon headlamps with washers, a sports pack, six speakers and automatic headlight levelling.
Metallic paint costs £300 extra for all models. Topping the price charts is the 2.0 four-door Sport at £15,500, while the Euro III diesel range starts at £13,350 and increases to £14,800.
Behind the wheel
AFTER flying into Cornwall with landing gear problems, through turbulence, crosswinds and slewing down the runway in view of fire engines with their lights flashing, anything on terra firma seemed like a safe haven. Even so, the new Mazda3 immediately felt like a good place to be.
Start with opening the solid, but light doors shut with a satisfying 'clunk', then move on to the substantial steering wheel, red glowing dials in rounded hoods and an intuitive centre console where everything falls easily to hand and already a class-leading interior package is emerging.
Road noise easily passes the 'speaking to someone in the back without raising your voice at 70mph' test, while space in both the front and back is generous, so front seat passengers can stretch out without crushing the legs of the people behind.
On the road, the 1.6-litre petrol model, offering 105lb-ft of torque at 4,000rpm, seems to gain momentum, rather than offering brisk acceleration, although that is in part down to the extremely smooth unit doing its job without noise intruding into the cabin. Hitting 62mph takes nearly 13 seconds, but it coped well with hard acceleration to join motorway traffic.
The 2.0-litre unit provides 135lb-ft of torque at 4,500rpm and provides much more urge on the road, reaching 60mph in nine seconds, with a sporty exhaust note at the same time.
The suspension set-up smoothes out general chatter from uneven road surfaces, but still keeps you in touch with what the front wheels are doing.
The damping effect means the steering wheel doesn't judder over rough surfaces, but it is nicely weighted and you feel confident turning into corners that you know just how the car is going to react.
The five-speed manual gearbox changes swiftly, thanks to the light clutch and the brakes are progressive and firm without being grabby.
Dashboard materials are not quite up to the standards of Volkswagen and the overall dark interior can seem a little oppressive, but in general it is a very good environment that exudes quality and sets a high standard for the price.
As a benchmark for the sector, the Mazda3 sets a very strong challenge for the new Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra to reach when they are launched this year.
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||83/6,000||104/6,000||148/6,000|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||88/4,000||105/4,000||135/4,500|
|Max speed (mph):||106||114||125|
|Fuel consumption (mpg)||39.8||39.2||34.4|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||169||172||196|
|Transmission:||5-sp man||Prices (OTR):||£10,650-£15,500|