An excellent compact at the top of its class For a lot of gearheads, the ideal setup is a two-car garage made up of one impractical and inefficient weekend car, as well as a practical and efficient daily driver.
The Mazda3 has proved to be very popular amongst cost-conscious Canadians looking for something that was just a bit more than the standard anonymous transport appliance. Believe it or not, some people value the journey as well as arriving at their destination. Replacing the long-time Protegé, the Mazda3 was introduced in 2003 in several world markets. In 2006, the Mazda3 was Canada’s second-bestselling car, and that doesn’t surprise me one bit. At the time, I felt that the Mazda3 did a good job hiding its entry-level pricing and provided a high-quality feel that punched above its weight class. Its handsome looks, premium feel, and fun-to-drive overall demeanor attracted a significant following. Just within Toronto, there is a large community of Mazda3 diehard fans that make up “TorontoMazda3”. If you see a modified 3 in the city somewhere, chances are that they are a part of this community.
The second-generation 3 rolled in for 2010 and brought in Mazda’s new design language that, while new, saw its share of detractors. The most contentious item was the big smiley-face grille that stared at you, front and centre. While the platform engineering underneath the skin was largely carried-over from the first-gen 3, the skin on the outside was larger in just about every dimension. The big smiley-face was somehow more appropriate on the hardcore Mazdaspeed3 with its highly boosted four-cylinder engine mercilessly overloading the front wheels. Regardless of one’s opinion on the updated styling, the second-gen 3 remained a strong seller here in Canada. I was eager to check out the new 3, so I picked the keys to a 4-door sedan, in mid-level GS trim. My manual transmission tester was equipped with the Convenience Package as well as the Moonroof Package.
The latest third-gen Mazda 3 arrived with a splash, following the big styling wins seen in the Mazda6 and the Mazda CX-5, both of which we recently reviewed. Out goes the cartoonish smiley face, and in comes a very slick KODO-inspired design language. Mazda likes to use a great deal of adjectives to describe their new styling direction, but the bottom line is that all their new cars have been big hits in the looks department. You can see the familial link between the new 3 and its larger brothers in the lineup. The side profile is swoopier than the outgoing model, with defined fender flares, a long hood, semi-fastback greenhouse, and a short rear deck. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s swoopier than the Hyundai Elantra, but I prefer Mazda’s implementation. One thing that would be nice to change, however, has to do with local highway traffic act regulations. In Ontario, front license plates are required. Unfortunately, this puts the plate smack dab in the middle of the grille. Having the plate in the grille makes it look like a big afterthought – I am sure the aftermarket will come up with a solution eventually. The last important detail is that you have a choice of either a traditional four-door sedan or a five-door hatchback. Give me the latter any day of the week. The hatchback for the most part retains the same side profile of the sedan, but grafts on the rear tailgate for maximum practicality.
Inside, the Mazda3 delivers when it comes to technology. The first thing you’ll notice upon stepping in is the big 7” screen mounted to the top of the centre console. It’s almost as if somebody took a Google Nexus 7 tablet and glued it down in landscape orientation onto the top of the dash. It’s not tall enough to get in the way, but it’s large enough to be easy to read by all occupants in the car. The screen can accept touch inputs, and it can also be controlled by an easy-to-reach knob just aft of the shifter. The interface is easy to operate at speed and not overly complicated, compared to some other systems I have seen lately. My tester was not equipped with navigation, but the main menu leaves the icon there to remind you of your choice to skip the option. I use Google Maps navigation built into my phone in conjunction with the standard Bluetooth integration to get my turn-by-turn directions, so this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.
The dominating screen aside, the Mazda3 is a pretty good place to spend time. A lot of its flair is carried over from the Mazda6, and can be described as clean, functional, utilitarian, and not over-styled. Soft-touch finishes are generously used for the front occupants, but the rear passengers are left with harder, cheaper feeling plastics. If you’re spending most of your time in this car alone, chances are you won’t even notice. It appears the side mirrors are carried over from the 6 and CX-5 – both much larger vehicles. I find the mirrors on the 3 to be a little big, slightly hampering visibility just behind of the large housings. The gauge cluster in front of the driver is very functional, showing all sorts of telemetry, but the tachometer on the left side is entirely digital, and a little small. For seasoned drivers, shifting by ear became the order of the day – not that this is a bad thing.
Under the hood resides a 2.0L gasoline four-cylinder engine, codenamed SKYACTIV. This suite of total-vehicle technologies can be seen propagating to the rest of the Mazda lineup. In summary, it promotes higher-strength chassis design, improved safety, lower fuel consumption, all while maintaining the fun-to-drive philosophy that Mazda is so well-known for. The engine produces 155 horsepower at 6000rpm and 150 lb-ft of torque at 4000rpm. This is the engine you get if you choose the base-level GX and the mid-range GS, as seen here. Those looking for more horsepower should consider the uplevel GT model with its 2.5L engine. The tradeoff is that it is limited to the automatic transmission only. I personally found the 2.0L engine to produce adequate power for urban driving.
My particular tester was mated to a sweet six-speed manual transmission. The shifter is very precise and a joy to row through. The clutch take-up is very well-defined, making it tremendously easy to be very smooth behind the wheel. It is super easy to get the car moving smoothly from a stop without any throttle input, which is nice for extending clutch life. Combine all that with surprisingly good electrically-assisted steering, and you can tell Mazda, as usual, paid a lot of attention to the overall driving interface. It is about as perfect as it gets – regardless of price.
Mazda spent quite some time working on the overall SKYACTIV program, and a high priority for everybody nowadays is fuel efficiency. Thanks to items like reduced weight, direct injection, high compression, low friction metals, and fancy exhaust header designs, Mazda has been able to make good on their promise. The 3 is rated at 7.0L/100km in the city and 4.8L/100km on the highway. I managed an average of 7.1L/100km in mixed, but mostly city driving.
One of the reasons why the first and second-generation did so well here in Canada was its strong value proposition in addition to its well-rounded demeanor. The new 2014 model is off to the same start. My tester starts at $19,695, with $1,700 worth of options added on. This brings the subtotal to $21,395. This is right in the middle compared to other popular choices, like the Hyundai Elantra GLS, Kia Forte LX+, Toyota Corolla, and Honda Civic EX. Some of those focus on value for the dollar, but the Mazda 3 manages to be right in the thick of the competition but I feel it additionally offers better driving dynamics than the lot.
Like I said before, I’ve always preferred the hatchback version, and after a spending a week with the 3, I can confidently say that I would actually pick one up for myself. I would take the hatchback, add the Convenience Package and the Moonroof package (also adds Fog lights). All that could change, as Mazda has hinted at eventually introducing a 2.5L variant paired up with a new six-speed manual transmission. For a lot of gearheads, the ideal setup is a two-car garage made up of one impractical and inefficient weekend car, as well as a practical and efficient daily driver. What attracts me to the Mazda3 is that it does those two things very well, but also the fact that it happens to be so enjoyable to drive in nearly all aspects. Mazda calls it a “game changer” – I would call it my choice in this segment.
2014 Mazda3 GS 6-speed Gallery