Just reaching dealers now, the redesigned 2014 Mazda3 is far from perfect — it remains a bit cramped, and our drive through the mountain roads northeast of San Diego in both sedan and hatchback body styles suggests little advancement in ride quality — but the redesign gives compact-car shoppers an alluring choice outside and in, with a satisfying mix of efficiency and performance.
The third-generation Mazda3 is lower and wider than its predecessor, and it loses the 2013 model's grille. Perhaps the worst aspect of the last Mazda3, it smiled at you, creepy clown lips and all on the MazdaSpeed edition. Many onlookers frowned. And Derek Jenkins, Mazda's North American design chief, was one of them. "I'll be honest, it wasn't my favorite," he told reporters on Sept. 18.
Jenkins arrived at the Japanese automaker after that car's development, so blame the last guy. Jenkins' handiwork appears on this new 3. Mazda says it moved the A-pillars 3.9 inches backward versus the outgoing car, and the results give the hatchback a cab-rearward, sort of tennis-shoe profile. The sedan wears them better, with short overhangs and a menacing face — but on both cars, a front license plate will all but ruin the look. The tail could use more of what the front received; it's a spitting image of the Hyundai Elantra sedan.
But this is a svelte car — especially inside, where an optional dash-mounted, tablet-like 7-inch screen steals the show. Dubbed Mazda Connect, the system has various apps you work through the touch-screen or a knob controller which has flanking shortcut keys and a handy, Audi-like volume knob. The optional SD-card navigation system boasts crisp graphics, fast map rendering and swipe-to-move map scrolling. You can also scroll or zoom the map with the knob. It would make a compelling smartphone alternative but for Mazda's insistence on locking out all map scrolling — with the touch-screen or control knob — while the car is moving. Bah.
Materials have improved over the previous Mazda3, with convincing faux-metal details and piano blacks down the console. Rich-looking, padded surfaces line the upper doors where hard, coarse graining once sat. Cheap headliner and budget rear door trim revert to the compact-car norm, but the Mazda3 competes — and wins — in many other tactile areas.
Our 2.0-liter Mazda3 i Touring proved capable with two adults aboard, with smooth revving and a decent plateau of usable power. Mazda's SkyActiv direct-injected four-cylinder makes the same 155 horsepower and 150 pounds-feet of torque as before, but thanks to revised exhaust routing and a higher compression ratio, Mazda says the torque curve is a bit broader. Our tester's six-speed automatic has its ups and downs; it kicks down smoothly at higher speeds but suffers long, widely spaced low gears. First gear is a lengthy wind-out, and 2nd dumps revs to begin the ascension all over again.
Lifted from the Mazda6 and CX-5, the 184-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder mates to the same long gearing transmission, but its extra 35 pounds-feet of torque makes the journey up the tach more enjoyable. The extra thrust comes in handy at all speeds, but there isn't a vast difference between the two. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder can also come with a six-speed manual, but Vehicle Line Manager Dave Matthew promised a manual will come on the 2.5-liter engine eventually. We only drove the automatic. Mazda ditched last year's electro-hydraulic power steering for a fully electric setup this year, and the results are mixed. Steering inputs come with a light touch, and the wheel avoids feeling buoyant or over-boosted at low speeds. At higher speeds, however, I wanted the car to settle in better; it requires periodic corrections to stay on course.
Both our testers' tires hugged the road, though the conditions (dry, with temperatures in the 80s) favored traction, both for the Mazda3 and every competing model Mazda furnished. Understeer arrives progressively in the Mazda3, though not to any greater degree with the 2.5-liter engine. The car attacks corners with little body roll and progressive steering feedback, but some may wish for quicker turn-in precision. The nose reacts a tad slowly to initial steering inputs; the 2014 Toyota Corolla is sleepier still, but the Ford Focus and Honda Civic both respond sooner.
Over the drive route's few rough patches, the Mazda3 appeared to ride no differently than its firm predecessor. Tuned for the same ride across both drivetrains, the suspension cushions bumps well enough. But it settles into a steady rhythm of mild disruption over undulating pavement — despite Mazda increasing this generation's wheelbase by 2.4 inches, which should aid isolation. The Mazda3 rides a lot like the Civic; the Focus isolates better, and my memory tells me the Chevrolet Cruze — absent from Mazda's competitive set — does, too.
Still, Mazda gets high marks for noise control. Gone is the car's pervasive road and wind roar; with 16-inch wheels, the Mazda3 impressed me even at 70 mph. The 18s kick up more road noise.
The front seats proved firm but comfortable over my daylong drive, with large bolsters that hold you in without pinching your sides. (Or I've lost weight. And I seriously doubt that.) The driver's seat — six-way manual or power, depending on trim — adjusts far enough back for taller drivers; my 6-foot frame had an inch or so of rearward adjustment range to spare. Still, some drivers may want more space for their knees. The Mazda3 feels closer to the Ford Focus, whose high center console confines your right knee. Lower consoles in the Honda Civic and 2014 Toyota Corolla leave more space. Not that Mazda puts the bulk to good use: From the glove compartment to the door pockets and center console, storage areas are small.
Leatherette (vinyl) upholstery goes in uplevel 2.0-liter Mazda3 i trims, with real — and perceptibly richer — leather reserved for the 2.5-liter Mazda3 s. The backseat has enough legroom and headroom. But the bench sits low to the floor, which will leave adults' knees elevated, and a significant center floor hump guarantees discomfort for any fifth passenger. Add it all up, and the Mazda3 sedan's 96.3 cubic feet of cabin volume is near the head of the class (and up 2.2 cubic feet from before) but it doesn't feel that way.
Cargo room is up to 12.4 cubic feet in the sedan from last year's 11.8 cubic feet, but that's still behind the class. And the Mazda3 hatchback's expanded cargo space — now 20.2 cubic feet behind the backseat or 47.1 cubic feet with the seats folded — still trails the Hyundai Elantra GT (23.0/51.0 cubic feet) and Subaru Impreza (22.5/52.4) hatches.
Outright utility may still come up short, but other strengths give the Mazda3 reason to push hard for a seat at the table. The prior generation was far and away Mazda's bestseller, outselling every Mazda car plus the CX-9 SUV and Mazda5 minivan combined through August. Still, its sales volume can't hold a candle to the compact-car segment's five bestsellers: the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra and Toyota Corolla, listed alphabetically. Those five combined for nearly two-thirds of all non-luxury compact sales, leaving more than half a dozen other nameplates to fight for the remnant.
But four of the five mainstays are approaching middle age, with redesigns dating back to 2011 or 2012, and Mazda hopes more than a few shoppers will notice the redesigned Mazda3's looks — and zero-in on the EPA-estimated combined mileage in the low-to-mid 30s across the line-up.