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  • Midsize Hatchback Comparison: 2006 Mazda3 S vs. 2005 Toyota Matrix vs. 2007 Dodge Caliber vs. 2006 Chevrolet HHR

Midsize Hatchback Comparison: 2006 Mazda3 S vs. 2005 Toyota Matrix vs. 2007 Dodge Caliber vs. 2006 Chevrolet HHR

Rolling Coasters: Will the hatchback formula work in America this time around?

Greg N. Brown
Oct 16, 2006
Photographers: Brian Vance
Just look at what's happened to the five-door hatchback. The once mundane two-box compact hauler has been tweaked into all manner of exterior form, the powertrains refined for greater pep and efficiency, sophisticated technologies introduced into even the least-expensive models, and lists of options enriched to near luxury-car levels. Style and affordability, comfort and utility, all in one package. What could be better?
Better yet is that this continuous mutation of shape and content hasn't messed up the hatchback's basic chemistry: a compact chassis for nimble around-town duty; a tall, extended body with four passenger doors and a big rear hatch to ease the movement of people and things; and a small, economical engine with enough performance for the cut and thrust of city traffic. Our assembled five-doors were built to that winning formula, so it's not surprising they share many dimensions and physical traits beneath their stylish skins.
Each is a nice compact container ship that can ferry passengers comfortably when it's not hauling stuff and junk, but we'll return to the question of utility later. First, let's sift through their qualities as driving machines, not as mobile storage sheds.
At the Wheel
Before this ride leaves the staging area, however, we'll save you some letter writing. Due to the limitations of manufacturer press fleets, these four testers aren't perfectly matched. We have manual transmissions, an automatic, and a CVT; front and all-wheel drive; varying trim levels, base, and as-tested pricing. Before you draw your final conclusions, do your homework, spec out the cars the way you want them, and then compare.
The most fun of the bunch, by a good margin, is the Mazda3 s Touring. Even though its 160-horsepower, 2.3-liter four was the least-powerful engine in this test, it ran the sprints about as quickly as the lighter and more powerful Matrix, and it plain spanked all comers in the slalom, figure eight, and skidpad tests, testament to its balanced chassis and superb handling. Its dynamic balance is underscored by equally excellent ergonomics. The thick-grip steering wheel adjusts for rake and reach (the only one among the group to do both), the five-speed manual shifter--as slick as an RX-8's--is precise and quick to find the next gear, the pedals are properly placed for heel-and-toeing, and the seating is supportive and comfortable. The steering precision and feel rivals many expensive sports cars, and the four-wheel disc brakes are strong and superbly tuned for aggressive motoring.
The Mazda3 may be the epitome of a well-tuned sport hatchback, but it's also a bit like that hyperactive little brother who won't stop plucking at your sleeve while chattering nonstop. Meaning there's lots of extraneous data flowing freely into the cockpit along with all the good information from the road and the engine and the wind that an informed driver uses to plot the best course. Some will find the insistent feedback annoying; others will revel in this intimate involvement with the machine.
Those who enjoy a more sedate pace and seek versatility over performance won't put the Mazda first, nor the Matrix--at least the performance-tuned 164-horsepower XRS model in our test. (A much milder 126-horsepower 1.8 is available in other Matrix models.) In all its forms, this Corolla-based wagon has Toyota goodness throughout, but the XRS's peaky 8200-rpm 1.8-liter engine transforms the Matrix into a semi-bad boy. The XRS is quick, but the engine's relatively weak torque and a horsepower curve that peaks way up at 7600 rpm (1100 rpm higher than the Mazda's) make the driver work harder for that quickness than in the Mazda. This isn't a wholly unpleasant task, as the six-speed manual transmission's shifter and the foot pedals are well placed for sporty driving, but it would've been better with a steering wheel that adjusts for reach and rake.
The Matrix doesn't handle as well as the Mazda3; that's not to say the Matrix's steering and suspension are anything less than entirely competent, but in contrast to the Mazda's sport-tuned control systems, and in typical Toyota practice, the calibrations are conservatively tuned and weighted on the side of comfort. This means the Matrix is the more relaxed freeway cruiser, but at the expense of the precise inputs and detailed feedback that make the Mazda so much more rewarding to drive quickly.
Chevrolet's retro-styled HHR provided one of the surprises of this roundup. Despite its slow-footed gait, the HHR is a pleasure to wheel around L.A.'s congested city streets. It's simply the easiest to get in, start, and drive, even if it's not the most thrilling. The suspension is comfortably compliant, and the steering is quick to direct the front wheels. The 172-horsepower, 2.4-liter Ecotec engine is sufficient to the task, though it growls like a big dog on the other end of a rope when pushed hard. Despite the commotion, the revs are always accompanied by a resolute flow of power through the optional four-speed automatic. Even if the HHR seldom leads the pack, it nevertheless has enough power to keep it in the thick of whatever mad dash is at hand.
The tallest of the group, the HHR's at-the-edge handling is hampered by a good amount of body roll and weight transfer, and its 16-inch running gear, smaller than that worn by the other three, made it slightly less stable through the corners of our test track. Still, around town, when driven with patience and civility, it responds with a gentle mechanical sweetness reminiscent of an earlier, simpler age. Okay, there's a stink of nostalgia in the air here, but we'll cop to a feel-good reaction to the HHR's straight-ahead cockpit controls and down-home styling, homage to the 1949 Chevy Suburban. Its chrome-accented black livery drew plenty of interested stares around westside L.A., where even the latest exotics are often greeted with a yawn.
Newest to the five-door family is the 2007 Dodge Caliber, successor to the Neon line of compact cars. Because it's so new, it was thrown into the mix at the last minute and with an unfair disadvantage--its weight. The only Caliber available to us was the top R/T model, and with its all-wheel-drive system and larger 18-inch wheels and tires, the compact crossover is as weighty (3368 pounds) as it looks. That's about 300 pounds more than a front-drive Caliber SXT, almost 200 pounds more than the HHR and 500 pounds heavier than the lightest of the group, the 2872-pound Matrix.
By our reckoning, the Caliber had the fewest features to aid cargo hauling (only two tie-downs in back), and it also doesn't sport enough of the clever package bins and trays that were to be found throughout the other vehicles. It doesn't even offer a prop-rod or hook to hold open the rear luggage floor/spare wheel cover.
Instead, the Caliber seemed geared strictly for human cargo--young, hip humans. The coolest touch, literally, was the Chill Zone beverage bin, located just above the conventional glovebox, that cools four 20-ounce bottles. Tailgaters will like the nine-speaker Bose sound system with MusicGate, a pair of speakers that swivels down from the opened liftgate to blast whomever might be nearby. Cool. Other neat touches are outlets between the front seats offering both 12V and 115V power, an auxiliary radio input jack, and a removable and rechargeable flashlight integrated into the rear of the headliner. The sliding center console/armrest that contains a neat flip-forward plastic tray for a cell-phone or MP3 player also seems a good idea, but when deployed it just gets in the way, directly between the driver's hand and the shift lever mounted low in the middle front console.
Without wanting to appear like we're waffling, it really comes down to the stuff that supports your lifestyle. We once knew a chef who carried an entire kitchen of tools and a full-size espresso maker around in his VW Rabbit, so anything seems possible with these four small-on-the-outside but big-on-the-inside space machines. If passengers matter, the Toyota and Mazda provide the more comfortable cabins, but if lumber, ladders, or surfboards are more common companions, the HHR and Caliber are the better choices. If we had to pick the one that delivers the best combination of comfort and utility, it would be the Toyota. Our own taste for the sporty side of life as driving enthusiasts makes us choose as our winner the Mazda3. It carries a bit less stuff, but you'll really enjoy the trip to wherever you are taking it. n
How Will It Play In Europe?
Dodge Caliber SXT vs. Renault Scenic 2.0 turbo
by Frank Markus

The Caliber launches this spring as Europe's first mainstream Dodge, to be followed by the Nitro. It should thrive, as tall two-box compacts have been hot in Europe since Renault launched its Megane Scenic in 1996. For Euroduty, the Caliber gets stiffer suspenders with 17- and 18-inch wheels only, a diesel engine (the 2.0-liter VW TDI, making 229 pound-feet), and a 2.4-liter five-speed manual R/T variant. All-wheel drive won't be offered, but right drive will be.
Photo 2/18   |   renault Scenic Turbo side View
Compared with the segment pioneer from Renault, the Caliber's package seems less astute. It's over six inches longer, but 2.5 inches narrower and 3.4 inches lower, so it's harder to park and carries less. A high dash, close steering wheel, and bunker-slit visibility are uniquely American attributes, but the low, flat rear seats are no match for Renault's thrones. Calibers should, however, sell for at least $3000 less than similarly equipped Scenics.
Our 2.0-liter turbocharged Scenic with five-speed stick packed 161 horsepower and 199 pound-feet, but didn't outperform the 2.0-liter Caliber by much, given their similar weight-to-power ratios and the flexibility of the Caliber's continuously variable tranny. Renault claims an 8.6-second 0-to-62-mph time. The Dodge also corners flatter and feels as though it grips the road harder. This and Caliber's can-do Yankee charm may help it compete against sportier rivals like the VW Golf wagon and Alfa Romeo 147.

 2006 Chevrolet HHR 2LT2007 Dodge Caliber R/T
Drivetrain layoutFront engine, FWDFront engine, AWD
Engine typeI-4 , alum block/headI-4, alum block/head
ValvetrainDOHC, 4 valves/cylDOHC, 4 valves/cyl
Displacement145.5 cu in / 2384 cc 144.0 cu in / 2360 cc
Compression Ratio10.5:110.5:1
Power (SAE net)172 hp @ 6200 rpm*172 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque (SAE net)162 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm*165 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
Redline6750 rpm6500 rpm
Weight to power18.5 lb/hp19.6 lb/hp
Transmission4-speed autoContinuously variable auto
Axle/final-drive ratios3.91:1 / 2.66:16.12:1 / 2.41:1
Suspension, front; rear Struts, coil springs, anti-roll multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar Struts, coil springs, anti-roll multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Steering ratio18.5:116.6:1
Turns lock-to-lock3.32.8
Brakes, f;r11.7-in disc; 9.8-in drum, ABS 11.5-in vented disc; 10.3-in disc, ABS
Wheels16 x 6.5-in cast aluminum18 x 7.0-in cast aluminum
Tires215/55R16 91S M+S, Firestone Affinity Touring215/55R18 89T, Firestone Affinity S3
Wheelbase103.5 in103.7 in
Track, f/r58.7 / 58.7 in59.8 / 59.8 in
Length x Width x Height176.2 x 69.2 x 65.2 in173.8 x 68.8 x 60.4 in
Turning circle37.7 ft 37.2 ft
Curb weight3181 lb3368 lb
Weight dist, f/r58 / 42 %57 / 43 %
Seating capacity55
Headroom, f/r39.5 / 39.6 in40.0 / 38.9 in
Legroom, f/r40.6 / 39.5 in41.8 / 35.6 in
Shoulder room, f/r53.5 / 52.7 in54.2 / 53.4 in
Cargo vol behind f/r63.1 / 25.2 cu ft48.0 / 18.5 cu ft
Test Data
Acceleration to mph
0-303.2 sec3.7 sec
Passing 45-65 mph4.75.1
Quarter Mile16.9 sec @ 81.3 mph17.7 sec @ 79.4 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph133 ft127 ft
600-ft slalom61.4 mph64.1 mph
Lateral acceleration0.76 g avg0.79 g avg
MT Figure Eight29.3 sec @ 0.55 g avg28.5 sec @ 0.56 g avg
Top gear revs @ 60 mph2200 rpm1850 rpm
Consumer Info
Base price $16,890 $19,985
Price as tested$21,255$21,450
Stability/traction controlNo/noNo/no
AirbagsDual frontDual front, front side, f/r curtain
Basic warranty3 yrs/36,000 miles3 yrs/36,000 miles
Powertrain warranty3 yrs/36,000 miles3 yrs/36,000 miles
Roadside assist period 3 yrs/36,000 miles3 yrs/36,000 miles
Fuel capacity16.2 gal13.5 gal
EPA city/hwy fuel econ23 / 30 mpg23 / 26 mpg
Recommended fuelUnleaded regularUnleaded regular
*SAE Certified

 2006 Mazda3 s Touring2005 Toyota Matrix XRS
Drivetrain layoutFront engine, FWDFront engine, FWD
Engine typeI-4 , alum block/headI-4, iron block/alum head
ValvetrainDOHC, 4 valves/cylDOHC, 4 valves/cyl
Displacement137.9 cu in / 2260 cc109.6 cu in / 1796 cc
Compression Ratio9.7:111.5:1
Power (SAE net)160 hp @ 6500 rpm164 hp @ 7600 rpm
Torque (SAE net)150 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm125 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
Redline6500 rpm8200 rpm
Weight to power18.3 lb/hp17.5 lb/hp
Transmission5-speed manual6-speed manual
Axle/final-drive ratios4.11:1 / 3.12:14.53:1/ 3.28:1
Suspension, front; rear Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs,anti-roll bar Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs anti-roll bar
Steering ratio14.6:119.5:1
Turns lock-to-lock2.93.4
Brakes, f;r11.8-in vented disc; 11.0-in disc, ABS10.8-in vented disc;10.6-in. disc, ABS, EBD
Wheels17 x 6.5-in cast aluminum17 x 7.0-in cast aluminum
Tires215/50R17 90T Firestone Firehawk GTA M+S,215/50R17 90H, Goodyear Eagle LS
Wheelbase103.9 in102.4 in
Track, f/r60.2 / 59.6 in59.3 / 58.5 in
Length x Width x Height176.6 x 69.1 x 57.7 in171.3 x 69.9 x 61.0 in
Turning circle34.1 ft 37.9 ft
Curb weight2929 lb2872 lb
Weight dist, f/r60 / 40 %59 / 41 %
Seating capacity55
Headroom, f/r38.2 / 38.3 in 40.6 / 39.8 in
Legroom, f/r41.9 / 36.3 in41.8 / 36.3 in
Shoulder room, f/r54.9 / 54.0 in53.2 / 52.6 in
Cargo vol behind f/r31.2 / 17.1 cu ft53.2 / 21.8 cu ft
Test Data
Acceleration to mph
0-302.7 sec2.9 sec
0-404.1 4.2
Passing 45-65 mph4.24.0
Quarter Mile16.3 sec @ 85.0 mph16.3 sec @ 86.8 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph121 ft127 ft
600-ft slalom67.0 mph64.5 mph
Lateral acceleration0.88 g avg0.82 g avg
MT Figure Eight27.0 sec @ 0.63 g avg28.0 sec @ 0.59 g avg
Top gear revs @ 60 mph2550 rpm2700 rpm
Consumer Info
Base price $18,175$19,830
Price as tested$19,065 $21,437
Stability/traction controlNo/noNo/no
AirbagsDual front, front side, f/r curtainDual front, front side curtains
Basic warranty4 yrs/50,000 miles3 yrs/36,000 miles
Powertrain warranty4 yrs/50,000 miles5 yrs/60,000 miles
Roadside assist period 4 yrs/50,000 miles3 yrs/36,000 miles
Fuel capacity14.5 gal13.2 gal
EPA city/hwy fuel econ26 / 32 mpg25 / 32 mpg
Recommended fuelUnleaded regularUnleaded premium
*SAE Certified
1st Place Mazda3
We're willing to give up a few liters of interior space in return for this car's dynamic excellence. By far the sportiest and most fun to drive.

Photo 3/18   |   2006 Mazda3 S front View
Photo 4/18   |   2006 Mazda3 S dash

Photo 5/18   |   2006 Mazda3 S engine
Photo 6/18   |   2006 Mazda3 S side View
2nd Place Toyota Matrix
The styling is a bit long in the tooth, but it's got the best combination of performance and utility, with lots of neat touches to make life easier.

Photo 7/18   |   2005 Toyota Matrix dash
Photo 8/18   |   2005 Toyota Matrix engine

Photo 9/18   |   2005 Toyota Matrix rear View
Photo 10/18   |   2005 Toyota Matrix front View
3rd Place Chevrolet HHR
It has a large, inviting interior, one of the friendliest faces on the road, and is easy to drive, but only if the pace is sedate.

Photo 11/18   |   2006 Chevrolet Hhr side View
Photo 12/18   |   2006 Chevrolet Hhr dash View

Photo 13/18   |   2006 Chevrolet Hhr front View
Photo 14/18   |   2006 Chevrolet Hhr engine View
4th Place Dodge Caliber
A well-packaged compact car that looks more rugged than it is. Muscular lines promise an equally stout platform, but it wimps out over rough roads.

Photo 15/18   |   2007 Dodge Caliber front Grill
Photo 16/18   |   2007 Dodge Caliber dash

Photo 17/18   |   2007 Dodge Caliber engine
Photo 18/18   |   2007 Dodge Caliber front View