Versus the competiton:
The redesigned Mazda3 will impress driving enthusiasts, and it improves upon its predecessors in a number of other areas. If I were in the market, it would be high on my list. But these days, my backbone does as much as my right foot to sway my opinion — and I have to concede that Mazda doesn’t have the most comfortable small car out there.
I drove a Mazda3 sedan with an automatic transmission; I’ll offer up a short take on it here. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive review of the car, read our evaluation of the stick-shift hatchback version here; you can also compare the 2010 Mazda3 to the 2009 Mazda3 here. The turbocharged MazdaSpeed3, sold only as a hatchback, is covered separately in the Research section.
My test car had the smaller of two available four-cylinder engines; coupled with a five-speed automatic, its power is comparable to a Honda Civic or Kia Forte — and greater than the relatively pokey Toyota Corolla. The automatic’s gear ratios are well spaced for workable 60-to-70 mph spurts, even with two adults onboard, but it sometimes bogs down when kicking down to lower gears.
I found enough power to get around town, but if you’re looking to move away from intersections a bit quicker, consider trading the 148-horsepower four-cylinder for the 167-hp four. It’s optional in the sedan and standard in the hatchback. I’ve driven it, and it packs a gratifying — and palpably stronger — amount of power. Beware, though: You’ll sacrifice 2 – 4 mpg overall, depending on transmission.
| Mazda3 Engines and Mileage Compared
|| Standard on sedan
|| Optional on sedan, standard on hatchback
| Horsepower (@ rpm)*
|| 148 @ 6,500
|| 167 @ 6,000
| Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)
|| 135 @ 4,500
|| 168 @ 4,000
| EPA gas mileage (city/hwy., mpg)
|| 25/33 (manual); 24/33 (automatic)
|| 21/29 (manual); 22/29 (automatic)
Some may find the Mazda3’s steering wheel too stiff to turn easily at low speeds. The handling payoff, however, is dramatic: The steering lightens up when you hit 20 – 30 mph, and you can actually carve corners with this thing. Body roll is well-contained, and the steering wheel exhibits good precision with excellent feedback of the road surfaces. A few competitors — the Mitsubishi Lancer and Volkswagen Jetta come to mind — are similarly fun on winding roads. I can’t say the same for many others.
Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard, with traction control and an electronic stability system on most trim levels. The brake pedal doesn’t provide the most linear stopping power, but the response is strong enough. Senior editor Joe Wiesenfelder found the hatchback’s brakes more impressive — though his came with larger discs, as do all trims with the 2.5-liter engine, so that may have had something to do with it.
Mazda tunes its suspensions “to the handling side of ride [versus] handling,” spokesman Jeremy Barnes told me. He’s right: The Mazda3 rides on the firmer side, even with the test car’s 16-inch wheels. (Cars with the larger four-cylinder get similar suspension tuning but 17-inch wheels with lower-profile tires.) Highway expansion joints come and go with a noticeable kathunk, and uneven pavement can leave you in a constant pattern of down/up motions as the car follows each dip and rise. The suspension sorts things out well enough after each bump, with few reverberations as the car resettles itself, but the shocks could stand to soak up a bit more. The Civic and Forte ride a bit better, and the Corolla veritably glides over the rough patches.
There isn’t much wind noise, and the Mazda3 remains pretty well unfazed by highway crosswinds. Road and tire noise, however, are a different story. They’re noticeable at all times and, over some surfaces, are downright loud. I took the car some 350 miles between Chicago and upstate Michigan, and the road played a constant backdrop to my music. I ended up having to crank the stereo volume to overcome it — which incidentally revealed the mediocrity and overblown bass of the six-speaker system.
If the Volkswagen Jetta leads the pack in small-car cabin quality, I’m prepared to award the silver medal to Mazda. The dashboard panels have upscale textures and padded surfaces, and most controls feel high-rent for the segment. The windshield and dash slope far forward, giving you a sense of roominess that’s similar to the Civic. Over time I felt like I was sitting above everything: The cockpit doesn’t wrap around you so much as it’s arrayed before you, a layout that might take some getting used to.
The cloth seats have supportive backrests, though there could be more shoulder support; the sport seats in 2.5-liter models are intended to help with this. There’s enough bolstering to hold you in as you sling the car through a corner, but my 5-foot-11 frame never had enough thigh support. Part of that is because of the short seat cushions, but the seating angle is also to blame: It didn’t slope back enough for me, particularly when you jack the cushion up — as I do — with the standard seat-height adjuster. It’s possible the highest Grand Touring trim addresses this, as its power-adjustable driver’s seat includes a seat-angle adjustment.
Even in its least fun combination — with an automatic transmission and the smallest engine — the Mazda3 courts driving enthusiasts like few cars in this price range can do. When Mazda introduced it for the 2004 model year, I lived in Los Angeles where I could fling cars around impossibly twisty canyon roads. In short order, Mazda’s Civic fighter tore the Civic a new one.
I’m pleased the automaker didn’t tinker with a good formula. The Mazda3 is still a fun little car, and provided your commute is free of too many potholes, it’s a mighty compelling choice.