The SKYACTIV engine goes a long way to deliver an engaging driving experience.
We recently spent a ton of time with the new Honda Civic Hatchback (reviewed here), and unanimously arrived at the conclusion that it sets a new benchmark in the compact segment. But what does this mean for our previous favourite, the Mazda3? Last fully redesigned for the 2014 model year, the Mazda is one of the most athletic drivers in the class, and a joy to pilot. I actually tested the refreshed example briefly at the first drive event (reviewed here), but we figured it appropriate to perform an instrumented test of such an important car.
This is the 2017 Mazda3 Sport GT, with the manual transmission and $2,900 Premium Package. On top of the regular GT, this option adds leather interior, a six-way power driver’s seat, voice-activated navigation, colour heads-up display, radar cruise control, Smart Brake Support, front obstruction warning, lane keep assist, lane departure warning, and a series of other things. The total sticker is $28,200, and it’s the highest possible trim one can have on a three-pedal Mazda3.
Updates for the 2017 model year include some trim level changes, including the elimination of the base “G” trim, incorporating the bare-bones car in with the new entry level GX. Visual cues include new LED headlights with auto leveling, LED fog lights, and an updated fascia and rear end. Personally, I can’t identify the Mazda3 from its predecessor, until I see the monochromatic rear end. The changes are very minor, but the 2014+ car is such a hot looker it didn’t need any more.
Interior updates are subtle, but well needed. There’s a redesigned steering wheel with relocated controls, which feel more natural to use. The Active Driving Display (Mazda-talk for heads-up) is now full colour but remains on its own panel rather than being projected to the windshield. The cupholder area and console are refreshed, though could still use some fine-tuning – having a water bottle in the cupholder gets in the way of your arm when shifting. The seats overall are comfortable, but the six-way power driver’s seat is in dire need of more adjustments. I found it pretty difficult to get to my perfect driving position, and there wasn’t nearly enough lumbar support.
Whereas the base Mazda3 comes with a perfectly potent 2.0L inline-four, the GT model cranks things up significantly. This model is powered by the 2.5L SKYACTIV-G inline four-cylinder, one that can be compared to the turbocharged four in the Honda Civic (reviewed here). This engine is good for 184 horsepower at 5,700RPM and 185 lb-ft of torque, peaking at 3,200RPM. When considering the 3,033lbs curb weight of the Mazda3, this motor is the perfect size. Power is sent to the front wheels with minimal loss, and the car feels peppy and spirited almost anywhere in the power band.
Throttle response is sharp, though there’s a bit of on/off jerkiness when going wide open. This isn’t the engine that will sell to the majority of Mazda3 buyers, but it’s the one to have if you’re coming out of a Mazdaspeed3 or something a bit more powerful. The 2.0L will do the job adequately, but once you’ve driven the 2.5, there’s no going back. The six-speed manual transmission is a delight to operate, with perfect throws on the shifter and a great clutch.
One of the biggest benefits to the Mazda3 over its rivals is that this is quite literally the only car left in its segment with well-weighted steering. It’s an electrically assisted rack, so it’s not quite as analog as say, an Alfa Romeo 4C (reviewed here), but for the compact class, it’s simply the best we have today. Steering response is bang-on, and the car changes direction eagerly, going exactly where it’s pointed. There’s minimal understeer, though being a front-drive car, it will exhibit signs of this if pushed beyond its means.
The new car comes with the Mazda’s new G-Vectoring Control (GVC) system. GVC works with the engine, throttle, suspension, and steering, using algorithms to give a more controlled ride. Overall there’s better body and chassis control. The feature can’t be turned on or off, and it’s not the most apparent when working. We drove this car back to back with a previous-generation example, and the most noticeable trait of GVC is that the car needs a lot less steering overcorrection at highway speeds. Body roll is also minimal, and the Mazda3 is very balanced with decent, albeit very firm, ride quality.
Choosing the 2.5L motor over the 2.0L will result in a fuel economy penalty. This car is rated for 9.6L/100km in the city and 7.0L/100km on the highway, running strictly 87-octane regular fuel. We averaged 8.6L/100km over our weekly commute, which is right in line with what buyers should expect. On a longer trip down to London, ON and back, all highway driving, the Mazda3 Sport GT delivered 7.6L/100km. Not bad, considering this drive took place during the first cold weather alert for 2017. The 50L fuel tank is a bit on the small side, and has a huge reserve. With the trip computer showing a distance to empty of precisely zero kilometers, the car only accepted 42L of fuel. Those wanting strict frugality may want to check out the upcoming diesel variant of the Chevrolet Cruze (reviewed here).
Noise isolation is a bit of a weak point in the Mazda3, as the interior is distinctly louder than rivals. The Hyundai Elantra (reviewed here) is much quieter, and the Civic is also better insulated. At highway speeds, road and tire noise is very obvious, and works to the detriment of the car. Perhaps the winter tires fitted to our test vehicle contributed slightly to this, but we have recommended the current Mazda3 to many of our friends and readers. Regardless of body style, tires, or powertrain configuration, the car is loud.
Mazda introduced their current infotainment system for the 2014 model year, and it has now trickled down into the rest of their lineup, most recently the CX-9 (reviewed here). After using it for longer periods, there are some quirks that have become evident. For instance, the touchscreen is only a touchscreen when you’re stopped. The HMI Commander is responsive, but the knob itself is a bit too small. Tuning between radio stations can prove difficult if you don’t know exactly where the setting is (it’s not obvious), and satellite radio cannot be had with the manual transmission. Small issues, but they add up and could easily be rectified with a minor update.
The 2017 Mazda3 Sport GT is still one of the hottest numbers in the segment, especially if having a hatchback is a priority. The engine goes a long way to deliver an engaging driving experience, and the point-and-go steering makes it a truly sporty little compact. However, from a strict value perspective, the Honda Civic LX Hatchback is $21,390, with the turbo motor as standard equipment. The Mazda only offers the bigger motor on the GT model, which starts around the $26,000 mark. If you want an all-around car that drives dynamically with upscale interior appointments and relative frugality, perhaps the Mazda3 Sport GT is for you. If the powertrain and practicality is all you want, the Civic LX Hatchback is worth a look.