If my recent experiences are any guide, we may be in a golden age for good, cheap cars. Between the current Golf, Fit, Fiesta, and even larger family cars like the Accord and Mazda6, budget buyers are spoiled for choice. But as good as all those cars are, the new Mazda3 comes within a whisker of being the pick of the litter.
The little Mazda delivers nearly unparalleled quality and style in its class. And, in terms of performance, I would say it is hitting on all cylinders … if it weren’t for the underwhelming SKYACTIV powertrains. Even so, Mazda has done something a bit special with the new Mazda3.
Punching above its weight
Sitting down in the Mazda3, it is hard to believe that a well-equipped model can be had for less than $25,000. That said, my range-topping Grand Touring press demonstrator hit the high side of $27,000.
The leather interior, with its contrasting stitching, heads-up display, and silky aluminum trim, looks like it belongs on a car that costs nearly twice as much. But it’s not just the sitting experience that is upscale; it’s the driving experience, too.
The Mazda3 may be a small family car burdened with front-wheel drive, but everything about the ride and handling is crisp. The suspension is firm, but with enough suppleness to make the ride comfortable for every day driving. Even with the nice ride, what really stands out is the lovely steering. The slim, leather-wrapped wheel provides a great sense of connection with the road.
Throwing the Mazda3 into a tight hairpin corner, it was easy to forget that I was in a family sedan rather than the road-hugging MX-5 sports car. This sensation was helped by the fact that my Grand Touring press demonstrator came with the greatest option of all: a manual transmission.
Very few Mazda3 customers will go with the old-fashioned stick-shift. Those who do, however, will be rewarded with one of the very best manuals on the market. Fortunately, those choosing the automatic should also be pleased with their choice. It isn’t quite as outstanding as the manual, but the six-speed automatic offers smooth shifts and even fairly good manual control via steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
Unfortunately, these great transmissions don’t get the engine they deserve. Mazda3 buyers are offered a choice of two four-cylinder engines: the base engine is a 155-horsepower 2.0-liter and the top-end engine offering is a 184-pony 2.5-liter.
The 2.0-liter, which I had the chance to drive at the car’s launch, is an adequate choice for those who value the Mazda3 as a basic form of transportation. The fact that it is a bit underpowered and low on torque might be frustrating, but in a base engine it is forgivable.
The little Mazda delivers nearly unparalleled quality and style in its class.
The catch is that the 184-hp 2.5-liter isn’t much better. Mazda’s SKYACTIV engine technology seems to have bought fuel economy at the cost of performance, particularly low-end torque. The car is sluggish off the line, and the engine seems to struggle at times. To enjoy the car, I found that I had to rev the engine well above 3,500 rpm. Once there, the engine does have some power … but it isn’t overwhelming.
This is too bad because driving the Mazda3 like this destroys what is otherwise an impressive fuel economy rating of 25 city and 37 highway mpg.
Don’t get me wrong, though; the engines don’t ruin the car. The excellent driving dynamics are constant reminder that the car could be much more fun than it is.
All the car you will ever need
The best quality of the little Mazda is that it can just about do it all. I found that my press demonstrator not only attractive but also surprisingly spacious for such a small car.
Along with spaciousness, and the very luxurious interior the Mazda offers a surprisingly upscale tech package. A fully-loaded car comes with Mazda’s excellent, new command-wheel-operated infotainment system, reverse camera, keyless start, and a heads-up display.
Both the heads-up display and infotainment system are among the best in their class. Unlike most of its competitors, Mazda has opted for a small transparent heads-up screen rather than projecting the image onto the windshield. This placement gives it greater adjustability as well as making it easier to see. Heads-up displays may be inherently gimmicky, but the one of the Mazda is at least very well executed.
As for infotainment, the new Mazda has bucked the trend of touchscreens and gone with very well executed command wheel system. Compared with the entries from Hyundai, Toyota, VW, Honda, and Ford in this segment, the Mazda’s system is a clear winner.
In fact, my only real complaint about the Mazda’s tech is the reverse camera. The image quality is not very good to begin with, and it is made worse by the camera’s placement. During my week with the Mazda, I had to clean the camera lens several times, as it was constantly being spattered with road grime.
The Mazda3 is unquestionably one of the best small cars on the market. It offers customers style, quality, and tech all on a budget. Unfortunately, like its big brother, the Mazda6, the Mazda3 is let down by underpowered SKYACTIV engines.
Despite the underwhelming engines, the Mazda3 is a good choice for drivers who want an upscale experience from an entry-level vehicle. For performance-oriented drivers, I would highly advice opting for the excellent manual. It may not fix the engine, but it is very distracting … in a good way.
- High quality interior
- Excellent technology options
- Great manual transmission
- Good ride and handling
- Underpowered engine options
- Low-quality rearview camera