Mazda’s have always been the sportier alternative to Toyota and even Honda for that matter. Heck, their slogan nowadays is “Driving Matters” although I prefer the “Zoom-Zoom” of yesteryear. The Mazda 3 is no exception to this company philosophy. In fact, after spending a whole week with it, I have no idea why anyone shopping in this class would buy anything else. The only other contender is the Subaru Impreza, but I would only recommend that if you needed all wheel drive.
The driving dynamics are by far the Mazda 3’s party piece. The way it steers and maintains composure is distinctively Mazda. Let’s talk about the weak points first. The engine feels average. We have the Grand Touring with the larger 2.5 liter four cylinder engine. It’s good for 184hp and 185 lb-ft of torque. These numbers are very similar to the Honda Civic Hatchback Sport I drove earlier this year. The big difference with the 3 is the immediate delivery of power, since there is no turbo. The advantages of having a naturally aspirated engine really help with the overall peppy-ness of the vehicle. I just wish there was 20 more horsepower or so (perhaps Mazda can do a Mazdaspeed version of this generation). I also only averaged 25 mpg or so which is low for this class. Then again, I was also driving it like I stole it so your results may vary. The other disappointment were the brakes. They stopped the car okay but really lacked feel and overall felt spongy. Brakes aren’t a Mazda strong suit, we noticed something similar when we tested the CX-9. However, I’ll explain the silver lining of the poor brake pedal feel in a bit.
The rest of the handling is stunning for what is, essentially, a normal hatchback. The steering is tight. It almost feels hydraulic despite the lack of steering feel. It has more dead spot on center than I prefer but the weight of it is perfect. It’s actually on the heavier side for the class and doesn’t get too light at low speeds like the Miata. It’s tuned brilliantly and really inspires confidence under hard cornering. The shifter requires a bit more effort than you expect and provides a notchy mechanical feel to it. The Miata has one of the best shifters on the market right now and it’s clear the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. The clutch caught me off guard. Not as light as expected with the engagement point towards the middle of the pedal, at which point the clutch would engage rather aggressively. It is not linear at all. This is normal in a hot hatch but not in a regular compact car. The throttle response is great, even if it is connected to an okay engine. The placement of the pedals is also fantastic. The soft brake feel paired with the floor mounted gas pedal make for easy heel-toe rev matched downshifts.
All of these things add up to a package that flatters you and makes you feel like a great driver. This is a sensation I did not receive in the Civic, even in the Si. The big surprise with the driving dynamics was definitely the ride comfort. I made a lot of excuses when I reviewed the Civic, endlessly referring to the fact that it was normal for compact cars to have less than luxurious rides but the Mazda 3 is an exception. It soaked up rough patches of payment like a champ without sacrificing handling.
The Grand Touring comes with an array of standard features. It has automatic LED headlights with high beam, LED fog lights, leather seats, Bose sound system, color heads up display, blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert. Our test car also had the Premium Equipment Package which includes navigation, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, traffic sign recognition and even radar cruise control even though it has a manual. I’m pretty sure it’s the only car in the world that offers radar cruise control with a manual transmission. It also had the Appearance Package which adds front air dam, rear hatch spoiler, rear bumper skirt and side sill extensions. It’s $1,750 but makes the car achingly pretty and yes, I would totally get suckered into getting it. Sorry.
The interior is very pleasant. From the design, to the placement of controls, and the materials used, Mazda did a great job of making the car feel premium. I know we cheated by having the Grand Touring trim with leather everywhere but I’ve also sat in a base Mazda 3 with no options and even then, the interior was pleasing. There were far more soft touch surfaces than I expected and the center color media control screen is now standard on all trim levels. Mazda’s infotainment screen is still the best in the business in my opinion, second only to Tesla. There’s a decent amount of headroom, both front and rear but the legroom was a little lacking for rear passengers. The trunk is also five cubic feet less than a Civic hatchback when the seats are up, but has one more cubic feet when the seats are down.
The exterior has been refreshed for 2018. The headlights are a little sportier and the LED daytime running lights are a halo affair now rather than a small line in each headlight. There are also new dark silver alloy wheels which I love. I like the the smooth curves that are a part of Mazda’s KODO design language.
If you are shopping in the compact car segment and you do not need AWD, the Mazda 3 is a strong choice. The handling is sharp and playful, reminding you that you don’t need to settle when shopping in this class. The design is striking, unique. The interior, well designed and well put together. It’s refreshing to see a car manufacturer that shares its racing and sports car pedigree with every car it makes. From its two door roadster (Miata), to its family crossover (CX-9), to its simple compact (Mazda 3), it’s clear they are all cut from the same cloth.
Soft Brake Pedal
Mediocre Legroom and Trunk Space
Specs: Engine: 2.5L DOHC 16-Valve I4 (Zoom-Zoom) Drivetrain: FWD
Power: 184hp @ 5,700 rpm Torque: 185 lb-ft @ 3,250 rpm Transmission: 6-Speed Manual Wheelbase: 106.3 in Curb Weight: 3,046 lbs (59/41%) Base Price: $18,095 Price as Tested: $28,720