The Mazda3 remains a dream car for driving enthusiasts who want an affordable compact, but a few drawbacks blunt its appeal among practical-minded shoppers.
Versus the competiton:
Refined drivetrains and expert handling still distinguish the Mazda3, but rivals have larger backseats and plusher ride quality in an increasingly family-friendly field.
Mazda updated its compact mainstay for 2017 with a few styling tweaks, some interior upgrades and more noise insulation. As before, the Mazda3 comes as a sedan or hatchback with a choice of two engines, each with a manual or automatic transmission. We tested a manual Mazda3 Grand Touring, the highest of three trim levels (Sport, Touring and Grand Touring). Compare them here, or stack up the 2016 and 2017 Mazda 3 here.
Exterior and Styling
How It Drives
The Mazda 3’s optional 184-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder moves the sedan from a stop with gratifying lb-ft of torque and smooth, even revving. There’s adequate passing power even with four adults aboard, and the swift throttle response makes for quick rev-matched downshifts. Mazda also offers a 155-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder that’s adequate in its own right, and the six-speed manual that’s available with both engines has short throws and clean gates. In an age where manual shifters in compact cars are usually rubbery afterthoughts meant only for a base trim level, it’s nice that Mazda stuck with a good stick — and offers it even in top trims.
A six-speed automatic transmission is optional. We’ve driven it in the current generation; it kicks down smoothly but has tall lower gears, an area where the larger engine’s extra 35 lb-ft of torque adds welcome oomph. Among run-of-the-mill compacts, it’s worth noting that the Chevrolet Cruz, Honda Civic and Volkswagen Jetta offer smaller engines with turbochargers, and the results push the acceleration envelope. The Cruz, for one, feels quicker than any flavor of Mazda3, and most versions get better gas mileage to boot. Consider appropriately.
Handling remains a strong suit, with minimal body roll, quick-ratio steering and limited understeer. Still, many competitors ride better than the Mazda 3. The suspension tackles potholes well enough but makes for a busy highway ride even over relatively good roads. Expect plenty of turbulence on long road trips, with soupy, wander-prone steering at high speeds that never quite settles in. It’s a wearisome trait that some might deem a deal-breaker.
EPA-estimated combined mileage for the Mazda 3 with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder and manual transmission is 29 mpg for the sedan, 28 mpg for the hatchback. The smaller engine and automatic-equipped transmission max out as high as 32 mpg. Those are average figures for the class; if fuel economy is paramount to you, the Honda Civic sedan’s 36 mpg beats all comers.
The Mazda3’s straightforward cabin adds a few more storage areas for 2017, plus an electronic parking brake to replace the mechanical one (perhaps to the chagrin of some enthusiasts). There’s also some attractive stitched trim flanking the center console. Cabin materials are competitive overall, with a plusher grade of leather in our test car than is typical in the class. (Cloth upholstery is standard; vinyl and leather are options.) Still, you don’t have to look far to see ill-fitting trim pieces or mismatched materials, and the low-budget headliner needs an upgrade. Some competitors — the Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra GT come to mind — are a step ahead.
Mazda redesigned the steering wheel for 2017; a heated rim is now optional. Still, the optional power driver’s seat has limited sliding range, and it lacks a cushion-tilt adjustment — a curious omission given the previous-generation Mazda3 had one. The backseat has decent headroom, but long-legged adults might find their knees uncomfortably elevated or digging into the front seatbacks (or both). If you need a bigger backseat, try other compact sedans, like the Nissan Sentra, Hyundai Elantra sedan or Volkswagen Jetta.
Ergonomics and Electronics
As affordable compact cars go, the Mazda3 has an exceptional list of standard infotainment features. Among them are a multimedia system with a 7-inch display, a backup camera, HD radio, two USB ports and various internet radio apps, including Pandora, Stitcher and Aha. The Mazda 3 system works through a touchscreen (when stationary) or a knob controller on the center console. Bose premium audio is optional, but Mazda does not offer Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration, a feature available in several competitors.
Cargo and Storage
Mazda tripled the size of the door pockets, which were tiny before, and added some open storage ahead of the gearshift by ditching the available CD player. Both are welcome improvements, but the sedan’s trunk still measures only a smallish 12.4 cubic feet. The hatchback has 20.2 cubic feet of space, 47.1 cubic feet with the seats folded. That’s a more competitive figure versus other compact hatchbacks, though not directly comparable to the sedan’s 12.4 cubic feet because trunks are measured differently from hatches.
Both the hatchback and sedan Mazda 3 notched top scores for crashworthiness and available crash-prevention technology performance from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, putting the Mazda3 ahead of most of its class. Crash-prevention options include forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, plus blind spot monitoring and lane departure warning systems — the latter with steering assist.
Value in Its Class
The Mazda3’s $18,680 starting dealer price is a bit steep for this class, but it comes well-equipped, particularly with multimedia. Climb the trim levels and you can get leather, a power driver’s seat, keyless access, rain-sensing wipers, Bose audio, adaptive cruise control and heated front seats and steering wheel. A loaded Mazda3 5-door Grand Touring hatchback will set you back about $30,000. That’s also at the high end of the class, so expect some sticker shock if you want the extra features.
The Mazda3 is still a driver’s car, and compact-car shoppers who value practicality over fun-to-drive options should look elsewhere. But the drawbacks are reasonable for those who sign up, and the payoff remains strong.
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