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2019 Mazda3 First Drive: Improvements Fall Short of Luxury Aspirations

Mazda’s redesigned 2019 Mazda3 is a head-turner, especially the hatchback model with its teardrop shape and sleek appearance. But Mazda’s goals for this car aren’t limited to pushing the style envelope — the new Mazda3 is being launched as an example of where the company is headed: in a more premium/luxury direction. 

Related: 2019 Mazda3 Gets Sharp New Look and Steep New Price to Boot

I headed to Lake Tahoe, Calif., to test the 2019 Mazda3 in both hatchback and sedan form and see if it’s more of a luxury contender, or pretender. (Per our ethics policy, Cars.com pays for its own lodging and transportation at such automaker-sponsored events.)

Mazda has reworked the trim levels for the Mazda3. Gone are the Sport, Touring and Grand Touring. Instead, you can add option packages on top of the base Mazda3, named Select, Preferred and Premium. All three are available on the sedan; the hatchback is offered only with the Preferred and Premium packages on top of a base model that’s better equipped than the sedan.

Both vehicles that I tested came pretty much fully loaded: all-wheel drive and the additional Premium Package. Each had a sticker price of more than $30,000 — $30,635 for the sedan and $31,335 for the hatchback (including destination charges). 

How It Drives

What’s under the hood of the Mazda3 will look familiar, apart from one big change. Last year’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder is back as the only engine (for now), with a few small tweaks that raise the output ratings ever so slightly to 186 horsepower and 186 pounds-feet of torque. We are still waiting on more announcements from Mazda as to when the hybrid version of the Mazda3, or the SkyActiv-D (diesel) or SkyActiv-X (compression-ignition) powertrains will arrive in the U.S. (those two have been promised for other countries already).

2019 Mazda3

Front-wheel drive is standard, as is a six-speed automatic transmission. Strangely, if you want the optional six-speed manual, it’s offered only on hatchback models with the Premium Package, and that model starts at $28,395 — so even though the price is the same for either transmission, you’ll have to buy a more expensive package to get it. The big change for 2019 is the addition of all-wheel drive, which comes only with the automatic transmission. All-wheel drive is available on all trim levels of both body styles except for the base sedan, for $1,400. This makes the Mazda3 one of the few compact cars in this price range to offer AWD, alongside the Subaru Impreza and the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen/Alltrack. (AWD is more common among luxury compacts.)

I drove the Mazda3 on a snow course with two different tire options, and the differences between the FWD and AWD cars was most apparent on a hill section, where we tried to move the car up a snow-covered hill from a stop. The FWD car struggled with an all-season tire, starting to spin the tires without moving forward. But the AWD car moved up the hill easily without slipping, and of course the AWD car with winter tires ate up the course with ease. The Mazda3 AWD seems to be a good fit for colder climates, especially with the right rubber.

The Mazda3 also changed up its rear suspension for 2019; gone is the multilink design in exchange for a simpler torsion beam. Mazda says that with this setup, you can tune the suspension more firmly to make the car feel more responsive while maintaining ride quality. I can’t say precisely why it’s the case — and there’s no question torsion beams are fundamentally cheaper than multilink suspensions — but I can say that the 2019 Mazda3 does ride better than the outgoing car. The 2018 Mazda3 felt busier on the road, while the 2019 has better composure while still being communicative. 

2019 Mazda3

Unsurprisingly, the steering remains a highlight and Mazda has dialed in just enough body roll (a touch more than the old car if my highly accurate butt-meter is right) that the car is communicative without feeling out of control. It’s a fun car to hustle around bends with rewarding feel and good balance.

Where the Mazda3 falls short for me is in the engine compartment: It feels like it could use another 30 hp or some forced induction to help with low-range torque. There’s a noticeable weak range to the powerband, and if you’re trying to drive with any sort of quickness, Sport mode becomes a must, helping to keep the rpm up. Hopefully the turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder that Mazda puts in a few of its other vehicles can take up residence in the Mazda3 engine bay.

Multimedia Pains

Mazda also updated the Mazda3’s technology, with a new 8.8-inch widescreen display mounted high up on the dash where Mazda says that it is less distracting to drivers. Moving the screen up that high also means that it isn’t a touchscreen anymore; it’s controlled via the rotary knob located between the front seats. Though the graphics have been redone and the display looks much nicer, I still had trouble using the system. Previous problems with Mazda’s system haven’t been solely due to the controller — it was a complicated menu structure and required too many button presses to perform simple tasks. Those issues persist.

For 2019, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay have been added, which is a big upgrade. The two smartphone mirroring features are standard on the hatchback and included on the Select Package for the sedan. One thing to watch out for — if you do plug in an Android phone, be prepared for Android Auto to show in a smaller area with large black empty spaces on both sides. 

Mazda tells us that Google is planning to update Android Auto so that it supports widescreens, and once that occurs (sometime in the first half of 2019), Android Auto will expand to fill the whole display.

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Tight Squeeze

While I was generally pleased with the Mazda3’s materials and design (especially the new red leather upholstery that’s exclusive to the hatchback), there are a few glaring interior deficiencies starting with the backseat. The backseat reminded me of the Corolla Hatchback, in a bad way: no visible air vents, no device-charging provisions and no room. Sitting in the outboard seats, my hair was touching the ceiling, which means that if the car went over any kind of bump, it’d be my head hitting the ceiling.

Legroom is also hard to come by; I’m 5 feet, 11 inches tall and with the driver’s seat positioned where I’d drive, my knees were firmly pressed into its seatback fabric. The roof also dips down quite low, which makes the whole area feel claustrophobic and gives your head another spot to bump into, just above the windows. Fitting three people across will also be challenging, in part because both FWD and AWD models have a pretty significant seat hump in the center.

Fixes Still Needed

The 2019 Mazda3 does have characteristics that are nearly luxury grade — I’m thinking of the materials and cabin design, as well as how quiet the cabin stays on the road (Mazda made 49 individual changes to improve noise, vibration and harshness). But those aren’t enough to overcome its stumbles.

For the Mazda3 to compete where Mazda would like it to, certain improvements need to be made. It needs an overhaul of its multimedia system and more power under the hood so that the engine doesn’t feel as taxed all the time. I’d also like to see more amenities and room for the backseat as well as some more charging options — the new car has only a pair of USB ports, both located up front. 

I came away from my time in the new Mazda3 appreciative of the attention to detail that Mazda still pays to how the car drives. But that gaze needs to widen a little more to get the next generation of the Mazda3 to take the next step.

2019 Mazda3

Cars.com’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

 
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