The Mazda 3 is distinctive, which isn’t an easy trick for a compact. Both the sedan and hatchback designs show flair, and the driving experience is fun. When you add safety and value, you’ve got a contender. The Mazda 3 is a driver’s car, like the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf.
The powertrain choices are satisfying. There’s a SkyActive 2.0-liter or SkyActive 2.5-liter four, and a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission, built by Mazda. SkyActive basically means designed from a clean sheet of paper for overall efficiency down to the tiniest detail. The Mazda 3 was redesigned for 2014, including the suspension and steering system.
There isn’t that much difference between the 2.0-liter and 2.5-liter, which is a big compliment to the 2.0. The 2.0i is quick enough, and gains one or two mpg over the 2.5s. The engines have the same smooth personality through their entire range. However, the benefit to the 2.5s is its torque; it makes 185 pound-feet of torque at 3250 rpm, while the 2.0-liter makes 150 lb-ft at 4000 rpm. This means the 2.5s is stronger under acceleration, and can better pull the automatic transmission.
Equipment is improved for 2016, with more available popular features, and a lower price for the base 2016 Mazda 3. A rearview camera is standard. One interesting feature is the i-ELOOP system, part of the Tech Package on the top Grand Touring model. A super capacitor gathers energy generated by deceleration and braking, and uses it to help power the car’s electrical components. These are the kinds of details in the SkyActive plan.
The Mazda 3 earns the IIHS Top Safety Pick+, thanks partly to six standard airbags.
The Mazda 3 comes in base SV, Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring models. Between sedan and hatchback, 2.0-liter and 2.5-liter, and manual or automatic transmission, there are nearly 20 combinations and models, ranging from the manual SV sedan ($16,945), to the 2.0-liter i Sport sedan with a manual transmission ($17,845), to the 2.5-liter s Grand Touring hatchback automatic ($26,495). The hatchback is about $600 more than the sedan, the automatic about $1000 more than the manual. (All prices are MSRP.)
Mazda calls its design language Kodo, or soul of motion, and the Mazda 3, especially the hatchback, is one of the most eye-catching compact cars out there.
The contemporary design looks like it was influenced by a sports car, maybe the BMW Z4 because the hood is so long, like it came off the Mazda 6 sedan. It’s got a blunt front end, aggressive grille, thin sweeping headlamps, that long hood with rearward A-pillars, and a rearward cab. It’s quite aerodynamic, keeping with the SkyActive engineering philosophy.
The shoulder line along the sides sweeps back gracefully, with crisp edges and gentle curves, leading to pointed taillights. The roofline has a hint of fastback that ends in a softly rounded hatch. It looks svelte and sexy. Yet for all the long curves, it still looks taut.
That long hood steals some from interior space, and the roofline steals some from cargo space in the hatchback. Good legroom remains in the supportive front seats, but the roofline brings the ceiling down in the rear of the hatchback.
The cockpit is focused on the driver, with the controls thoughtfully located on both sides of the steering wheel where the driver can easily reach them. The instrumentation looks high tech, again not like your everyday compact. There’s a large central analog cluster with wings that display digital information. There’s an available Active Driving Display that’s like a head-up display, rising from the dash and showing speed, turn-by-turn directions, and more.
The trim on the center stack and doors is glossy black, which looks cheap despite satin chrome highlights.
As for infotainment, there’s Mazda Connect, with a big and colorful touch screen on the dash. Unlike in the Mazda 6 sedan and CX-5 crossover, it’s quick, and easy to navigate. If you don’t want to use the touch screen, it can be operated with the rotary Command Controller.
i-ActivSense is what Mazda calls its safety system, using cameras and radar to do the robotic things that more cars are doing nowadays. There’s adaptive cruise control, a blind-spot monitoring system, lane-departure warning alert, and auto high/low beam headlamps. There’s also an alert if the car is closing too quickly on something, and a Smart City Brake Support system that applies the brakes at up to 19 mph if it thinks you’re going to hit something.
One unusual mechanical design is the gas pedal, which is hinged at the bottom. We like it; it’s more comfortable.
The driving experience is very satisfying overall with the athletic Mazda 3. On paper, the power with the 2.5-liter engine isn’t the best in the class. However, with either engine or transmission, the responsiveness is better than that of most compact cars, as the driver is never caught without enough power. The throttle response is consistent, unlike some cars that sometimes are either too slow or too quick on the draw with the gas pedal.
The handling dynamics are excellent in hairpins, the suspension doesn’t allow much body motion, and the disc brakes inspire confidence. However there’s a lot of noise and harshness in the cabin.
The electric power steering is one of the better systems in this class. It feels precise most of the time, with a strong sense of center at lower speeds but not on the freeway where the steering requires adjustments from the driver. Also, on steeply crowned roads, it doesn’t do well.
The transmissions seem well-suited to the engines. The manual gearbox is neat and precise like the automatic, with a clutch that’s easy and clean. The 2.5s comes with the 6-speed automatic, and paddles for shifting, which is great because the transmission shifts with the precision and confidence of a dual-clutch system. There’s a tall overdrive that keeps the rpm down near 2000 at 70 mph. However the ratios leave a noticeable gap between first and second.
There is a Sport mode for quicker throttle response and later gearshifts. That Sport mode also relaxes the stability control, giving the driver more control over the car when driving hard.
To get a car like this for less than $18,000 is a thing of beauty. The options are nice, but the heart and meat of a Mazda is the mechanical engineering, and with a Mazda 3 Sport, you get all that. We like the hatchback with the 2.0-liter and 6-speed manual and we like the 2.5-liter and 6-speed automatic.