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Mazda just won’t admit that this is the next 3

But we have a feeling the Kai Concept is the one

For the production version, don't expect the 20-inch wheels to be offered. PHOTO BY VERNON B. SARNE

At the 45th staging of the Tokyo Motor Show, Japan’s biennial automotive expo that’s open until November 5th, Mazda is displaying two of the best-looking cars of the whole bunch. And I’m not saying this just because I’m a guest of the Hiroshima-based carmaker during this trip. You can check the photographs and verify for yourself.

One of these two exhibits is a concept hatchback in attention-grabbing Soul Red Crystal. Called the Mazda Kai, the car is believed by many to be the prototype of the next-generation 3 compact hatchback—a belief Mazda executives would neither confirm nor deny.

With the Kai Concept, Mazda designers followed the 'less is more' principle by discarding all unnecessary visual elements. PHOTOS BY VERNON B. SARNE

“Kai,” according to Mazda, means “pioneer.” The use of the word isn’t accidental. The company intends for this concept car to “set the stage for the next generation.” That next generation includes the advanced Skyactiv-X engine and the suite of technologies that will complement it. Mazda brags that this powerplant will be “the world’s first commercial gasoline engine to use compression ignition.”

The Kai Concept has dimensions that put it squarely in the compact segment. PHOTO BY VERNON B. SARNE

Here’s the thing: No matter how persistently we pressed them, the high-ranking Mazda officials we interviewed refused to say if the Kai was indeed a preview of the coming all-new Mazda 3. The standard line was always some variation of this: “I’m sorry, I’m not allowed to discuss that.”

Fair enough. But automotive journalists are a determined bunch. We don’t drop a topic just because possible sources are trying to dismiss it with a “no comment.” So let me probe a little.

Two things have struck me about the Kai Concept. First is that it is about the same size as the compact 3. It is 4,420mm long, 1,855mm wide and 1,375mm tall, while the current 3 hatchback is 4,470mm long, 1,795mm wide and 1,465mm tall. The Kai’s wheelbase, meanwhile, measures 2,750mm, while the current 3 hatchback’s is at 2,700mm. This basically confirms that the Kai Concept is in the compact segment in terms of dimensions.

Mazda chief designer Yasutake Tsuchida talks about the Kai Concept, while the author raises his eyebrow. PHOTO BY MIKKO DAVID

Second is that we met the chief designer of the Kai Concept. His name is Yasutake Tsuchida, a 41-year-old debonair fellow who politely declined to validate our suspicion that his latest creation was actually a precursor of the next-generation 3.

But check this out: When I asked him what other Mazda cars he had designed in the past, he cited the first-generation and the third-generation (current) 3. When I inquired why he had not been involved in the design of the second-generation model, he said he had been assigned to another project at the time.

So this car designer is someone who is deeply rooted in the history and evolution of the Mazda 3. Do we still doubt that the Kai Concept is actually a teaser for the next iteration?

The author shows the Kai Concept's designer his Instagram account that nobody follows. PHOTO BY MIKKO DAVID

Then I showed Tsuchida-san my Instagram post featuring the Kai Concept, proclaiming it to be “quite possibly the best-looking car at the 45th Tokyo Motor Show.” I wrote “quite possibly” because I still couldn’t decide whether I liked the Kai better than the absolutely exquisite Mazda Vision Coupe. The chief designer’s eyes lit up.

He said that the greatest fulfillment a car designer could experience was to receive compliments for his creation. And for the nth and final time, he apologized for not being able to say whether his new creation was a pre-production 3 or not.

Vernon B. Sarne

Vernon is the founder and editor-in-chief of VISOR. He has been an automotive journalist for 26 years. He became one by serendipity, walking into the office of a small publishing company and applying for a position he had no idea was for a local car magazine. God has watched over him throughout his humble journey. He writes the ‘Spoiler’ column.