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2019 Mazda3 Review: Niche Appeal

The verdict: Redesigned for 2019, the Mazda3 doubles down on its roots as a car for drivers, not passengers.

Versus the competition: Drivability and quality shine in the fourth-generation Mazda3, but a cramped interior and fussy controls might push consumers to more practical — and often less expensive — alternatives.

Available as a sedan or hatchback, the Mazda3 comes standard with a punchier four-cylinder engine than is the compact-class norm. The prior generation’s base engine has been dropped for the U.S. market, but all-wheel drive is newly optional. Stick-shift enthusiasts can still get a manual in the sedan’s highest trim level; other trims have an automatic. We tested the automatic with AWD on a well-equipped Mazda3 hatchback, which you can compare with the rest of the lineup here. Stack up the 2018 and 2019 Mazda3 here, or read our initial thoughts after driving the Mazda3 at a media preview.

Styling and Visibility

Mazda hinted at the Mazda3 hatchback with the beady-eyed Kai concept in late 2017, but the production car is no less dramatic. A heavily raked windshield sweeps nearly over the front seats, while enormous rear pillars envelop the back half. It’s as much pillar as you get in hatchbacks like the Hyundai Veloster or erstwhile Honda CR-Z, and it hurts visibility just as much. If the prior Mazda3 hatch suffered poor sight lines, its successor is even worse. Glance over your shoulder, and an enormous column separates the tapered rear-door window from the tiny rear window.

We haven’t evaluated the Mazda3 sedan, but both cars position the cabin toward the rear of the car. In the hatchback, that makes the windshield seem especially close to the front seats, though it extends far enough over your head to keep traffic lights within your field of view.

How It Drives

Characteristic of the drivetrains in other Mazda products, the Mazda3 pairs a smooth-revving engine — in this case a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 186 horsepower and 186 pounds-feet of torque — with an efficiency-oriented automatic transmission that limits performance potential. The six-speed automatic downshifts swiftly when you need more power, but its tall gearing makes for a long climb up the tachometer. The four-cylinder has gratifying midrange power, but it takes forever to get there from a stop or to hit the sweet spot again after an upshift. A driver-selectable Sport mode improves accelerator response and keeps revs higher by staying out of the highest gears, but it seldom upshifts even if you stay at a steady speed, so there’s sure to be a mileage penalty.

If Mazda could shorten up the gearing by way of an eight- or nine-speed automatic while preserving kickdown response, the drivetrain could be dynamite. (Alas, it seldom works out that way.) It might also improve gas mileage, which is EPA-rated at 30 mpg for automatic front-drive models. As compact cars go, that’s unimpressive. AWD models are rated 27 to 28 mpg, depending on body style.

Ride quality is firm but sophisticated, with controlled shock absorption that belies the Mazda3’s move from its longstanding independent rear suspension to cheaper, torsion-beam hardware for 2019. Still, isolation is not its forte: At higher speeds, weathered roads highlight turbulence that rivals like the Chevrolet Cruze and Volkswagen Jetta do a better job of filtering out. (Both competitors also do that with torsion beams, mind you. The results, not the formula, are what matters.)

AWD might aid cold-weather traction, but don’t expect a boost when it comes to warm-weather handling. Push the Mazda3 hard through a sweeping curve and Mazda’s system shows little interest in sending power rearward to reorient the nose. Still, it’s not like the car begs for help; the chassis masks understeer quite well on its own, and its all-season tires (Toyo Proxes P215/45R18s on our test car) give plenty of warning before progressive sliding sets in. The brakes are strong and steering feedback is excellent, though the rival Honda Civic remains atop the class for steering quickness; the Mazda3’s wheel feels a little slower in terms of ratio.

The Inside

Quality trumps quantity in the new Mazda3, which boasts lavish materials but little space. Drivers of many sizes will find their knees pinched between the doors and center console, and adults in back will sit with their knees jammed into the front seats. Despite that, the Mazda3 has improbable storage space accessible to drivers — a failing of its predecessor — with generous provisions in the dash, doors and center console.

Interior styling mixes overlapping materials that arc around each other, with controls draped into the gaps; it’s a style that’s in vogue right now (see the new Lexus ES). Most controls feel meticulous enough, and certain sounds — the ticking turn signals, the chime when you end a Bluetooth call — have a unique, upscale vibe. Ditto for the materials; on that front, the Mazda3 could pass for an entry-level luxury car. Low-gloss panels cover the upper doors and dash, and generous stitched wrappings extend down to knee level — areas where mass-market competitors often revert to lower-budget plastics. The materials don’t cheap out when you get to the backseat, which is another common practice in the non-luxury class. Premium touches include fabric-wrapped A-pillars and one-touch express windows all around. Many pricier mid-size sedans don’t have it this good, and much of the Mazda3’s quality comes even in base trim levels.

Missteps come on the technology front, where the Mazda3’s standard tablet display (an 8.8-inch widescreen) no longer operates as a touchscreen. It’s high atop the dash and too far away to easily reach even if it was a touchscreen, but the result is a step backward for usability nonetheless. You have to use a multifunction controller ahead of the center armrest, which is anathema to the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto systems included on most trim levels. Consumer surveys show owners prefer touchscreens over console controllers, and both smartphone integrations are optimized for the former. Mazda is going the wrong way here.

Other head-scratchers: Android Auto consistently crapped out on one editor, and the display is too wide for its own good. The smartphone mirroring doesn’t use all the screen (Mazda says an update from Google should fix this sometime in 2019) and the backup camera occupies only about 60 percent of the space. The camera display also has static guidelines, not the dynamic lines widely available now. Multiple times while driving into the sun, editors observed messages that our test car’s driver-assistance systems were temporarily disabled.

Value

The 2019 Mazda3 received Top Safety Pick status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Once it is, ratings will supersede the 2018 results here. The cheapest variant, an automatic front-drive sedan, starts just under $22,000 with destination. That’s some $700-$1,500 more than automatic-equipped versions of the Civic, Jetta and 2020 Toyota Corolla, and value-priced versions of the Kia Forte and Hyundai Elantra will save you even more.

At its base price, the Mazda3 lacks Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and automatic emergency braking — three must-have features in any compact car. Higher trims have all three features, plus leatherette (vinyl) or leather seats, depending how much you spend. Other options include stop-and-go adaptive cruise control, a power driver’s seat, keyless access and a moonroof. Lane-centering steering, a feature increasingly available in the class, isn’t offered in U.S. models. Loaded with factory equipment and AWD, the Mazda3 sedan tops out around $29,500. That’s also pricey for the class, but most competitors are front-drive only.

Mazda’s latest compact might build a case as a value alternative to entry-luxury subcompacts like the Audi A3 or Mercedes-Benz A-Class, but mass-market value is not its forte, especially when you consider its mileage deficit — and the extra-long warranties (Hyundai, Kia, Volkswagen) or free maintenance (Chevrolet, Toyota) offered elsewhere. Driving enthusiasts and quality aficionados will find something to like, but it’s hard to build a case for broader appeal.

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