If you managed to wander into to The Garage Blog, odds are you are a car enthusiast like us. And if you are like us, you are not shy about it. Your friends and family know you are the go to guy for car questions. And when the question goes “Hey, I’m looking for a good, relatively inexpensive compact car, what do you suggest?” The car enthusiast can always be counted on recommending the Mazda3. Days pass, and you see your friend and ask what they bought. And they always almost reply “Oh, I got a Corolla/Civic/Sentra.”
While the Mazda3 is Mazda’s best selling car in North America, it is also the best car in its class that is consistently overlooked. The 3 can trace its lineage back to the GLC (Great Little Car!) of the 1970’s to the 323, and Protégé. The first Mazda3’s appeared in 2004, and in 2014, the latest 3 appeared all-new for the third generation.
While each successive generation was an improvement over the last, the current 3 certainly represents a major step forward, especially with the exterior styling. Gone is the polarizing and silly gaping smile of the last car. The 3 now sports a serious, focused look, softened up with an elegant, flowing profile. Mazda designers deserve high praise for penning a car that achieves the near impossible-an inexpensive car that doesn’t look inexpensive. Available as a four door sedan or five door hatchback, I would argue the hatch offers a more sophisticated appearance.
Another step forward is apparent once you step inside. Past Mazda3 cabins were fine, but unremarkable. Now, the 3’s interior is something to look at. A large center tachometer with an inset digital speedometer is a clear sign this is not your grandma’s compact. Your hands settle on a fantastic feeling steering wheel. The seats are comfortable, and well bolstered for enthusiastic driving. Unfortunately, compared to the competition, the 3’s rear quarters are cramped. If hauling a small family or road tripping with friends is a thing for you, the 3’s back seat is a compromise. Other drawbacks are minor. the 7″ touchscreen display looks tacked on, like it was an afterthought in an otherwise well executed interior. Piano black trim might be popular now, but I fear in a matter of a few short years that trend will be over and it will look hopelessly outdated. I also found myself constantly wiping off fingerprints. And finally, the attractive interior shot above with contrasting color? You’re going to want the top of the line 3 for that-in lesser models you are staring at a sea of blackness.
One area not in need of any improvement was in the engine room, so it should come as little surprise Mazda saw little need to completely overhaul what were already good powerplants. Both engines employ Mazda’s SkyActiv technology which delivers good fuel economy without compromising brisk performance. The Mazda 3i offers a 2.0L four rated at 155hp, while the 3s employs a 2.5L four rated at 184hp. Either engine can be had with either a six-speed manual or automatic. Our test car had the larger engine with the automatic but still offered commendable EPA fuel economy ratings of 27/37 MPG city/highway. All well and good, but as always, the Mazda3 offers a fun to drive factor that is simply without peer in this class. Exceptional handling and near telepathic steering with responsive engines work in perfect harmony. This is as close as you are going to get to a sports sedan driving experience for the money.
With a choice of two engines, two body styles and different trim levels, it should be easy to find a Mazda3 to suit one’s needs and budget. Our test car was the top of the line five door Mazda3s Grand Touring. Standard equipment includes 18″ alloys, rain sensing wipers, dual exhaust, power moonroof, leather seats, heated front seats, power driver’s seat, dual zone auto climate control, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, bi-xenon headlights, LED tail lights, navigation, Bose audio and SiriusXM radio. With the optional appearance package (front air dam, door mirror caps, rear hatch spoiler) and a smattering of minor accessories, the MSRP totaled $30,270USD, including destination. The thought of a Mazda3 cresting the $30,000 mark may be hard for some to stomach, but you are getting a fully loaded car with premium features. Keep in mind you can pick up a Mazda 3i Sport four door with a 6-speed manual for under $18,000 and not miss a thing about what makes the 3 a great car.
In enthusiast circles, the BMW 3-series is the sport sedan against which all rivals are judge. In the compact car world, the Mazda3 holds the same distinction. Why then, you ask, is the 3 so often overlooked by compact car buyers? Generally, cars like the Corolla or Sentra are cars for people who really don’t want to think about cars. If the most awake they can feel at the wheel is with a cup of coffee in hand, the Mazda3 driver knows that he’s getting a level of character and driving enjoyment his contemporaries are missing out on. If that’s the secret only us car guys know and appreciate, so be it.