All-new Mazda3 first drive: baring its fangs in Baler
With recent improvements of the 116.37-kilometer Baler-Casiguran Road in Aurora, Baler beckons irresistibly not just to surfers, beachcombers, filmmakers, travelers, backpackers and weekend warriors these days but also to the most jaded motoring journalists.
What used to be a grueling drive of nine hours has now been reduced by almost half: a scenic route that cuts through six provinces via NLEx SCTEx and several national highways, and posts 286 km from Manila can now be reached in around five hours—give or take, depending on the number and length of stopovers.
The drive features mostly concrete highways, few rough and spotty roads, up-and-down slopes and winding passes which provide a delicious playground to test new and upcoming vehicles, for instance—the all-new Mazda3 SkyActiv.
Departing from the C1 platform Mazda3 previously shared with Ford Focus and Volvo S40, Mazda3 SkyActiv features the new “Kodo-Soul of Motion” design language, expressed by the sense of forward motion that the car evokes even when it is standing still. It is the third vehicle to sport Kodo, after the latest incarnation of CX5 and the much lauded Mazda 6.
Masaya Kodama, the Mazda3 SkyActiv program engineer who joined us in the test drive, has an exact metaphor—that of a runner about to sprint, bursting with potential energy and consequent [images of] kinetic energy.
The raked profile pushes the cabin back, which rises dramatically towards the rear. While this emphasizes the Mazda 3 SkyActiv sporty look and feel, it creates an optical illusion of a smaller cabin than its predecessor. But it isn’t: while the new hatchback has the same exterior length than the old, it’s 40 millimeters wider.
Inside, with thoughtful design, the new Mazda3 brandishes a bigger rear shoulder room, legroom and knee clearance. While the rear seatbacks are 50 mm taller, and the front seatbacks are hollowed out to provide more knee room for rear passengers. The floor mounts for the front seats are also positioned wide apart to give rear occupants more space in which to place their feet.
Consistent with Kodo, the front grille with thick bold bars is positioned low on the face, exuding strong sense of forward motion. The signature wings are there too, seemingly chiseled from solid metal, flowing across the body and merging into the headlamps.
As one of the Mazda 3’s significant design features, the fender shapes create more dramatic three-dimensional contours and taller peaks positioned closer to the center of the body.
Sporty look, snuggly feel
Our trip to Baler starts from Mazda C5 Pasig showroom via C5-Mindanao-NLEx route aboard the red, 2-liter R SkyActiv hatchback version, the sportiest among the available four variants.
It has automatic bi-xenon headlamps with daytime running lights; power-folding side mirrors; 18-inch alloy wheels with 215/45 R18 tires; dual exhaust tailpipes; a leather interior upholstery; a leather-wrapped steering wheel; additional curtain airbags; and drum roll please—a sunroof, a prized feature for photographer-passenger.
From the moment I switch on the engine using the push start/stop button, I feel snugly at home: the seat wraps around my body; the Commander Control, which consists of rotary commander and five function switches to toggle through the car’s entertainment and navigation system, is set ergonomically below the shift lever.
The touchscreen 7-inch LED display towers over the dashboard and is designed to keep the driver’s eye on the road while providing the ideal amount of information. While few of the motoring journalists I have talked with have mixed opinions on the Active Driving Display, a clear vertical panel on top of the meter hood which shows the vehicle speed and turn-by-turn directions seemingly integrated on the windshield. I like it as it minimizes quick glances on the dashboard and has this futuristic Star Trek feel.
I find the accelerator pedal a bit firm to step on, and I need to exert a little effort to push it forward—which is probably the new control function that anticipates how the vehicle responds to accelerator-pedal action working—one of the expositions of the Jinba Ittai driving experience.
The Mazda3 SkyActiv handles really well, and credit goes to its SkyActiv-G technology, an umbrella label encompass several major points of improvements such as high tumble port, multi-hole injectors, cavity pistons, 4-2-1 exhaust system, and dramatic weight reduction that made Mazda evaluate 300 mechanical and electrical auto parts and shave off 23 kilograms of old tech weight.
Our first stop was the Mazda showroom beside Matutina’s Seafood House & Restaurant on McArthur Highway in Tarlac City, 138.4 km from Manila. If this wasn’t the Mazda SkyActiv Experiment 3 run, Inquirer Motoring editor Jong Arcano says the spot still merits a stopover—if only for Matutina’s sinfully rich chili crabs.
After a filling lunch, our nine-car Mazda3 convoy proceeds to Hillocks Café, a country-inspired snack house on the winding road towards Pantambangan, Nueva Ecija, 89 km northeast of Tarlac. And like every drive through Central Luzon, the route is peppered with rural obstacles such as palay drying on the highway, the sneaky kuliglig and the ubiquitous tricycles. My snack of California burger—more like CDO Ulam Burger—and iced tea is uneventful, but the cool shade of the trees and the quaint picnic table amid the greenery make up for it.
The 12.8-km drive from Hillocks to Pantabangan Dam is characterized with sharp turns on gravel road, and so it’s not a surprise that this route has been the site of many auto rally. It’s here that the new Mazda3 with its SkyActiv body demonstrates its new vibration-minimizing structures and noise-insulating materials to achieve a level of cabin quietness that’s among the top in its class.
From Pantabangan, Baler is just 70-km drive away, punctuated by rolling terrain which opens to invigorating mini valleys with rice paddies.
I can understand Jong’s affinity with Baler; it’s his fourth trip to this surf town but he tells his Baler adventures like a virgin unmade: mountain spring, cool waterfalls, the enchanting 600-year-old balete tree, infinite water sport activities, the surfer’s shacks and old town charms. The hushed story of how the whole province even the remotest beach cove is virtually owned by a political clan can be a turn off, but isn’t it the same story repeated in all of the Philippines’ 81 provinces?
Like a Shangri-La
Costa Pacifica, hands down Baler’s premier tourist address, juts on Sabang beach like a Shangri-La. We left Manila just before 10 a.m. and arrived in Baler a little after 8 p.m. The posh resort’s minimalist façade lights up with warm lights; and while the big, artful tropical seats in its reception seem inviting, the prospect of pigging out on the buffet table—with its seafood lasagna, barbecue ribs, pumpkin soup and grilled fish, freshly caught early in the day—offers the most logical choice.
I can only imagine the sojourn of “Apocalypse Now’s” director Francis Ford Coppola, and actors Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall and Marlon Brando in 1977 during the shooting of the cult classic Vietnam War film when roads were hell and accommodation a hellhole.
Baler was the site of the scene where American soldiers do surfing while a nearby Viet Cong village amid coconut trees cooks in napalm. The image was the most haunting image of what is considered one of the most powerful war films ever made.
When the film crew left the surfboards with local kids, little did they know that they would inadvertently plant the first seeds of the Philippines’ surf culture. The kids eventually became the country’s first surfers known as Baler Boys, and Baler the birthplace of surfing in the country. One of the boys, Edwin Namoro, now owns several rooms for rent with surfboards for hire.
In 2012, Baler received almost 50,000 visitors, mostly local surfers as well those from countries like Czech Republic, Switzerland, France, Korea and Japan. In the last two years after the opening of Costa Pacifica and its L-shaped pool with Jacuzzi amid landscaped garden fronting Sabang beach, the family crowd and honeymooners have started to surf the turf.
Tonight, I will dream of driving a Mazda3 SkyActiv to La Sunshine Resort, the gateway to more than 15-km Dinadiawan beach along Pacific Ocean and backdrop of Sierra Madre; to the historic hills of Ermita, the haven for the seven families saved from a tsunami known as Tromba Marina in 1735; and to Dicasalarin Cove, Baler’s hidden gem and site of Baler Lighthouse. It’s a one-lane steep and cliff-side ride which should put a test to the redesigned SkyActiv-Drive with short torque converter.
So good night: I’ll have Apocalypse later—or none at all.
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