The Mazda3 is an extremely popular front-wheel-drive compact hatchback and sedan, for good reasons. It has standout styling, superb driving dynamics, and terrific value.
Mazda3 got a bunch of improvements for the 2017 model year. For 2018, there are few changes. Automatic emergency braking becomes standard equipment on the 2018 Mazda3.
Mazda3 competes with the Volkswagen Golf, Honda Civic and Ford Focus, and we think it’s the most fun.
Called Smart City Brake, Mazda’s automatic emergency braking system can prevent a collision at speeds up to 12 miles per hour. There’s an optional system called Smart Brake that can stop the car at higher speeds. More available safety equipment for 2018 includes active lane control and automatic headlights.
The base engine that comes in the Mazda3 Sport model is a 2.0-liter four cylinder making 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque. Mazda3 Touring and Grand Touring models get a 2.5-liter making 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet. The engines are mated to either a 6-speed automatic or 6-speed manual transmission that makes the most of the power.
Fuel mileage for both engines is outstanding, rated by the EPA at 28/37 miles per gallon City/Highway, or 32 mpg Combined for the 2.0-liter engine with automatic, and, more impressively, about the same for the 2.5-liter. Both engines have high compression ratios, but don’t require premium gasoline like many other small cars with high-compression engines, Subaru to name one. That’s another impressive and important thing, often overlooked when it comes to value.
The Mazda3 was named Top Safety Pick Plus by the IIHS. All-wheel drive is not available on the Mazda3, or most compacts (Subaru being the main exception in the class).
The 2018 Mazda3 comes as sedan or hatchback in Sport ($17,845), Touring ($20,045), and Grand Touring ($22,545) models.
The Sport is well equipped with cloth upholstery, air conditioning, rearview camera, Bluetooth, keyless ignition, steering-wheel audio controls, internet radio, 7.0-inch infotainment touchscreen, and 16-inch wheels.
Touring and Grand Touring models get the more powerful engine and more features.
The Mazda3 is distinctive and stylish with its cab-back design, including a long hood that makes it look more costly than it is. There’s also a raked windshield, sweeping roofline and high tail contributing to the sleek and athletic shape of the hatchback. The shoulder line rises and meets pointy taillamps on a rounded hatch. We love it in white.
This styling is a result of some re-touching in 2017 with a lowered front fascia, pushed-up grille, and trimmer foglamps and turn signals. At the rear, a cleaner bumper eliminated some cladding.
Meanwhile, the sedan looks more like a rear-wheel-drive car, than front-wheel drive.
The hatch is especially stylish.
The cabin materials are excellent, with the exception of a flimsy headliner and plastic door inserts. There are four seating materials: cloth, upgraded cloth, leatherette (vinyl), and leather. The perforated leather in the Grand Touring is luxury level.
The controls on the instrument panel are arranged symmetrically around the driver, with an available head-up display to complete the efficiency and driver focus. We like the electronic emergency brake. The throttle pedal is hinged at the bottom like the pedals of an organ (or a Mercedes-Benz).
The front seats are supportive and comfortable, among the best in the class, with lower cushions for longer legs. The seatbacks afford a natural sitting position and good lateral support. Legroom in the rear is slim, however, with only 35.8 inches.
There’s a lot of content for the price, especially on the touchscreen, but it would be nice if the infotainment were better.
The sedan offers 12.4 cubic feet of cargo space in its trunk.
That’s nothing compared to the hatchback’s 20.2 cubic feet behind the rear seat. The rear seat in the hatch folds down to create 47.1 cubic feet of cargo space, about the same as the Chevy Cruze hatchback, not far off from the cargo capacity of a small SUV.
The standard 2.0-liter engine is reasonably responsive, with a consistent and linear throttle pedal, but it has a high torque curve with a maximum of 150 pound-feet, so the power doesn’t come on strong until 4000 rpm, which makes it awkward and less responsive around town. The standard 6-speed manual transmission helps, but not without work.
The power in the 2.5-liter is more available at lower rpm, while the torque max is 185 pound-feet, a difference you can definitely feel over the 150. This engine never gets caught flat-footed. The fact that it gets nearly the same fuel mileage as the 2.0-liter makes the 2.5 a better call. And it’s so very smooth.
The manual transmission is standard, and it’s a good one, as it shifts neatly and precisely, with a clutch take-up that’s easy and clean. But with the 2.5-liter engine we prefer the 6-speed automatic that shifts with paddles, and with the decisiveness of a dual-clutch automatic-manual transmission.
The ride is a bit busier than most compact cars, and a bit harsh. We’ve found it’s smoother with the standard 16-inch wheels and tires.
The electric power steering, like other steer-by-wire systems, does not enhance dynamic driving due to its lack of feedback to driver, and the electro-hydraulic system in the previous generation was better in that regard. The electric system offers a strong sense of center at lower speeds and out of corners, but it doesn’t do well on oddly crowned roads, and it doesn’t track all that well at highway speeds, calling for frequent small adjustments to keep the car straight. (Some of that could be due to tires.)
These cars handle well and are enjoyable to drive in a spirited manner, probably.
Part of what makes them enjoyable to drive comes from the engine management system called G-Vectoring Control, which modulates torque to the front wheels based on steering input, to reduce body roll and improve directional stability. It also squeezes on the brakes to shift weight forward onto the front wheels to carve a tighter line around corners. It’s all magic, in that you can’t feel it happening, you only feel the result.
If you want to criticize the Mazda3, you might find a smallish rear seat, limited infotainment, and slightly bumpy ride. But the many significant positives overwhelm those flaws. Stylish looks in the hatchback that move it out of the realm of compact or economy car. Precise handling that comes from the invisible G-vectoring Control. Comfortable front seats and driver-focused instrument panel. Huge cargo space in the hatchback. Best safety rating. But most of all, awesome 2.5-liter engine with a top-notch 6-speed paddleshifting automatic transmission, and stunning fuel mileage.
Sam Moses contributed to this report.