In a field that’s exposing also-rans at a torrid pace, the 2011 Mazda3 compact sedan and hatchback still shine.
The popular Mazda3 remains unabashedly fun to drive, which should appeal to driving enthusiasts who want a practical car. And although it falls short on ride quality and fuel efficiency, the latter is set to improve with next year’s four-cylinder drivetrain, which should get 40 mpg highway.
Mazda offers three drivetrains: two normally aspirated four-cylinders — each with a manual or automatic transmission — and a manual-only Mazdaspeed3 hatchback with a turbocharged four-cylinder. (Click here to stack them up.) Since the Mazda3 was redesigned a year ago, we’ve driven all three engines. A newly standard electronic stability system is the chief difference for the 2011 car, which you can compare with the 2010 Mazda3 here.
Ever since its late-2003 launch, the Mazda3 has held platinum membership in the fun-to-drive-econobox club — a group that has included, at times, only a handful of peers: the Ford Focus, the Honda Civic and the Volkswagen Jetta. A few more have joined the ranks recently, but the Mazda3 remains at the head. Few sub-$20,000 cars achieve such harmony across the driving experience. Steering turn-in is precise, allowing for quick darts from one lane to the next. At low speeds, our 2.5-liter test car’s wheel felt both light and lively — better than last year’s 2.0-liter Mazda3, whose wheel could have used more low-speed power assist. Regardless of body style, the car’s 34.2-foot turning circle beats much of the field.
Editors raved about the Mazda’s high-speed handling; in our review of last year’s Mazda3, which involved some time on Wisconsin’s Road America racetrack, one editor lauded the car’s go-kart-like manners. If there’s any criticism, it comes with the Mazdaspeed3. I was unimpressed: The steering — which has the same ratio but less power assist — tracks well, but the car’s nose pushes relentlessly on sweeping curves, and our tester’s Dunlop SP Sport P225/40R18 summer tires ceded grip sooner than high-performance rubber ought to. The Mini Cooper S is more driftable, as go-fast hatches go. Though I offered repeated invites, the Mazdaspeed3’s rear was loathe to dance.
The base four-cylinder’s power is comparable with many other compacts — perhaps even a smidge better than some, given the optional five-speed automatic upshifts smoothly and the gear ratios are well-spaced for quick 60-to-70 mph passing. Kickdown, however, could be a bit swifter.
If you’re looking to move away from intersections a bit more quickly, consider trading the 148-horsepower four-cylinder for the 167-hp four. It’s optional in the sedan and standard in the hatchback. It packs a gratifying — and palpably stronger — amount of acceleration, thanks in large part to 33 extra pounds-feet of torque. Beware, though: You’ll sacrifice 2-5 mpg overall, depending on which transmission you choose.
The Mazdaspeed3 comes only with a six-speed manual. Like the stick shift in the normally aspirated car, it has longish throws but a short, satisfyingly hefty shifter. The car’s turbocharged four-cylinder feels a bit old-school, with noticeable turbo lag followed by a sudden, peaky stretch of power. The burst thrusts the car forward and kicks the tachometer needle to its 6,700-rpm redline at breakneck speed. Driving hard, you’ll have to upshift too often to savor the climb. For its sub-$24,000 price, the Mazdaspeed3 is stunningly quick — our friends at “MotorWeek” hit 60 mph in just 5.2 seconds with theirs — but longer gearing would help drivers enjoy the experience a bit more. So would better mitigation of the car’s torque steer, which becomes a major force on hard takeoffs, but such is the case in most powerful front-drive cars.
The Mazdaspeed3 has four-wheel-disc antilock brakes, with larger front discs than the regular Mazda3. They offer forceful, linear pedal response, though our test car’s were a bit too touchy when I lifted off to start moving again.
Combined city/highway gas mileage ranges from 21 mpg in the Mazdaspeed3 to 28 mpg in a manual Mazda3 with the base four-cylinder. (As is the case with many high-performance cars, the Mazdaspeed3 needs premium gas.) None of these numbers are particularly good: The Hyundai Elantra, 2012 Civic and 2012 Focus are all better, getting as much as 33 mpg. Armed with a new direct-injection four-cylinder, next year’s Mazda3 should get around 32 mpg overall.
Ride quality marks the latest battleground among small cars, and the Chevrolet Cruze and Elantra are plowing through the competition. The Mazda3 trails both; it’s worth a competitive test-drive to see the difference for yourself. With the Mazda’s 16- or 17-inch wheels, 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 shock absorbers could stand to soak up a bit more.
||2.3L turbo four-cylinder
|Horsepower (@ rpm)
||148 @ 6,500
||167 @ 6,000
||263 @ 5,500
|Torque (lbs.-ft., @ rpm)
||135 @ 4,500
||168 @ 4,000
||280 @ 3,000
|EPA combined MPG
The Mazdaspeed3 has 18-inch wheels and a performance-tuned suspension. There’s less up-and-down movement on the highway, and the car absorbs mid-corner bumps without becoming skittish. At low speeds, however, the ride is quite choppy. You’ll find yourself driving around ruts and potholes, as they make for a jarring experience.
Wind noise is moderate, though the Mazda3 remains mostly unfazed by highway crosswinds. Road and tire noise, however, are a different story: The sound is always noticeable, and it gets downright loud over some surfaces.
Cabin quality in the Mazda3 is competitive overall, though cars like the Cruze and Elantra have leapfrogged the class. The Mazda’s dashboard panels have upscale textures and padded surfaces; unfortunately, the doors and anything below eye level look considerably cheaper. Still, 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.
The Mazda3’s basic cloth seats offer decent lateral support but insufficient shoulder and thigh support, though sport seats improve matters in the 2.5-liter and Mazdaspeed models. Across all our cars, my 5-foot-11 frame could have used another inch or so of rearward adjustment range, like in too many cars in this class.
Such limitations preserve some backseat room, to be sure — and anyone sitting back there will need it. The legroom dimensions are misleading: There’s an alleged 36.2 inches in both the sedan and hatchback, which would put the Mazda3 near the top of the segment in terms of backseat legroom. In reality, though, it’s snug; the Civic, Kia Forte and Jetta easily trump it.
Trunk volume in the Mazda3 sedan is just 11.8 cubic feet; the Cruze and Jetta offer 15 cubic feet or more. The Mazda3 hatchback offers a more usable 17 cubic feet behind the backseat, with 42.8 cubic feet of maximum volume with the seat folded down. Both figures are competitive among hatchbacks.
With top scores in front and side-impact crash tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Mazda3 earned Top Safety Pick status for both hatchback and sedan body styles. Standard safety features include side curtain airbags, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. (Last year’s Mazda3 sedan lacked a stability system in lower trims.) Click here for a full list of features, or here to see our evaluation of child-safety seating provisions in the hatchback.
Reliability for the second-generation Mazda3 has been above average. That’s about even with the segment, which has proved reliable on the whole. The Mazda3 sedan starts at $15,800; it comes standard with power windows and locks, a CD stereo with an auxiliary MP3 jack, and steering-wheel audio controls. Move up the trims, and you can get air conditioning, a moonroof, alloy wheels, heated leather seats and a navigation system. Check all the boxes, and the car can come with adaptive xenon headlights, dual-zone automatic climate control and a power driver’s seat — three features not usually seen in this class. Mazda3 hatchbacks, which come standard with the larger four-cylinder, start at $20,045. That’s $500 more than an equivalently trimmed sedan.
With all the options checked, the Mazda3 tops out around $26,000. That includes things like Bluetooth audio streaming, but — curiously — no USB/iPod connectivity beyond the basic auxiliary jack.
A bumper crop of new competitors — among which the Elantra looks particularly compelling — are making at least one recently redesigned car seem outdated, but not the Mazda3. It’s not the most refined, roomy or fuel-efficient choice, but Mazda still offers driving enthusiasts the most complete compact-car package. Next year’s fuel-efficiency improvements can only raise its standing.