It’s tough to like the Mazda 3 when you just climbed out of a Nissan GTR, or a Corvette Stingray, or even a Camaro. No, this will not pin you back into its seat, and no, it will not destroy anything on the track. The Mazda 3 was not designed for such things and judging it against those standards would be as ridiculous as choosing a butter knife for its stump grinding abilities. The 184 horsepower 185 lb-ft of torque Mazda 3 is a vanilla four door vehicle designed to handle the most grueling of automotive tasks: dreary commutes and lasting a hell of a long time doing it. If this is exactly what you’re looking for then the Mazda butter knife may just give you more thrills than the other butter knives.
The Mazda 3 was one of the last Mazda vehicles to have received the corporate Kodo styling and was a huge improvement over the 2013 model, which had a way of creeping people out with its stalker-ish smile. To be fair, it’s tough to make a small sedan look good due to its terrible proportions: a short hood matched with a relatively tall and long cabin is a recipe for designs that look awkward and slow. It’s the hunchback of cars. However, the new styling of the Mazda 3 is decently attractive with swooping lines that span over multiple panels, and just the right amount of tasteful chrome trim without making it look ridiculous. Compared to its predecessor, it’s more artistic, sleek, and a little bit less bland.Inside, the Zoom-Zoom narrative begins to take shape. The wheel, the shifter boot, and the parking brake have been wrapped with leather, emblazoned with red stitching. It’s sufficiently grippy like a baseball ready for curveball duty. Furthering the sporting attitude, a carbon-fiber patterned plastic cover adorn the button-filled steering wheel. It doesn’t look like a Formula 1 car’s steering wheel, but it’s enough to let your imagination run wild. Sitting in the comfortable leather seats that’s been similarly stitched with red thread, the Ferrari-esque tachometer stares back at you in the face. A digital speedometer has been demoted to the lower right quadrant of the tach, and it quietly says “How fast you’re going doesn’t matter. Intensity matters!”
The 2.5 liter Skyactiv-G 4 cylinder doesn’t dance at the same redline as a Ferrari, but having the tachometer sit front and center is a nice reminder of the car’s sporting aspirations. Detracting from that enthusiast spirit is the absence of a manual transmission in this specific press build; in its place a six-speed automatic with tiny and clicky paddle shifters.
The rest of the dash is sparse, less zoom-zoomy, and monopolized by the infotainment system that looks like a repurposed tablet from 2010. The software, Mazda’s homebrewed MAZDA CONNECT, was zippy enough to handle quick menu changes and doesn’t readily bog down. It has decent performance given what consumers are used to with the supercomputers sitting in their pockets, and it’s refreshing to see infotainment systems that don’t completely suck.
The 7″ screen offers plenty of graphical real estate, but similar to how tablets can double as petri dishes, the Mazda’s display can easily washout behind the bacteria-ridden fingerprint smudges. You’re better off using the BMW-iDrive like rotary dial and buttons 100% of the time, and yelling at your passengers when they touch the screen. It’s good practice as the touch input is disabled when the vehicle is moving.Push the start button and the engine meows to life. A small clear plastic display rotates up revealing a heads-up display projection. My first thought was “COOL!” followed by a “I wonder how long before I break that?”
Once you start driving, you get the appreciation of how futuristic this vehicle and its competition have become. It doesn’t quite have Tesla’s Autopilot feature but it does have a radar based, adaptive cruise control system. Some say this is a great convenience, others will think it’s one less thing to pay attention to so people can more easily sleep on the wheel.
Careening into the ditch and barreling into another vehicle while you’re in dreamland has become a smaller possibility in the Mazda 3 thanks to the same technology (FULL DISCLOSURE: We haven’t tried to sleep on the wheel to test if these systems will wake us up. So… don’t fall asleep on the wheel, drive into a ditch, or into another obstacle, etc.) Mazda has included a forward obstruction and lane departure warnings that would beep and rumble your seat, so you can trigger your fight-or-flight adrenaline and react as needed. Unfortunately, these warnings gave me false positives about half the time, sending me into a panic for no good reason. It might have been the markings on the road or my general driving style that gave the sensors alarm, so I quickly turned off those assists in favor of my own senses. So all of those safety systems and radar stuff sounds decent, but you didn’t care about any of that. You chose this car so you can weave through traffic and blast through that one empty off-ramp from the congested highway. In this regard the Mazda marketing gimmick nails it. After driving the Mazda 3 for more than a week you appreciate the engineer’s intent when they approached the drawing boards. The small sedan is athletic. It’s nowhere near the athleticism of the Miata/MX-5 but the driving spirit and eagerness to attack curvy mountain roads is infused in the way the small sedan handles.
I found myself wanting to take the route home a little bit more aggressively than in my heavier and more powerful daily driver, the BMW 335i. The Mazda 3 weighs about 3,000 pounds and while it’s not the lightest in its segment, the chassis feels nimble. Combine it with a suspension that errs on the firm side, the overall communication between the steering wheel and the road is like a solid fiber optic internet connection. It doesn’t quite feel like the BMW, but outside of the track and at the intensity level of repetitive commutes and highway driving, this nimble little sedan is a satisfying drive.
The Mazda 3 gives off a playful attitude but is not constantly in your face about it. That’s the beauty of the naturally aspirated 2.5 liter engine; its tone depends on how much pressure you apply on the accelerator. If you want it to be a little bit more serious just give it a bit more gas, and if you want it to be angry just give it a lot more. A lot of car manufacturers are cramming turbochargers in the engine bay to get that power advantage, and the resulting driving experience is akin to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where depending on boost levels it can feel like you’re either walking an English Bulldog or a Weimaraner hyped up on Adderall. The playfulness of the Mazda 3 is the same whether you’re in Sport mode or not. It’s actually “Sport” because pushing the button sends electrical signals through the Zoom-Zoom-O-Meter, which turns a special cog that engages the Hype-Machine-5000, further sending electrical current to an amber LED that lights up the word “Sport” on the tachometer. There’s no noticeable difference in the steering damping, throttle response, or shifting profiles. After weeks of ownership you’d start questioning why the button is even there to begin with. Engaging this mode quickly became a repeatable nonsensical task that offers no positive feedback or reward. The button should instead be re-engineered as an “Eco” setting, where shift points are noticeably premature and throttle response is significantly numb.
A true Sport button experience is already available in the satisfying combination of clicking the left shifter paddle and mashing on the gas pedal. The automatic transmission shifts decently fast, and while it’s nowhere near as fun as a manual it’s a lot better than other automatics found in other vehicles. Floor the pedal all the way and you’ll get a 0-60 mph time of about seven seconds, a decent time considering it’s able to achieve an average 28 miles per gallon throughout a week long spirited driving test.Combine all of these factors together and you get something that offers a thrilling driving experience for the money (our tester came in at $30,135 which includes the $2,500 GT Technology Package.) You won’t win any drag racing competition in the Mazda 3. The power levels from the 2.5 liter is eclipsed by the amount of grip coming from the tires, forcing you to keep up the momentum to achieve fast lap/commute times. But keeping the momentum isn’t hard thanks to the Mazda 3’s communicative handling, precise steering, and decent transmission. For a daily driver there are a lot worse options you can choose from, and while this one isn’t fast by sporting standards it’s the most fun you can have in this segment.