Some people still enjoy driving a car, its feel, its handling, its sharp engagement of power, yet their bank accounts don’t allow for a BMW.
What to do?
Mazda has an answer, its Mazda3 in either sedan or hatchback mode. Both are driving dandies. This week’s drive was aboard a dark metallic gray ($300 extra) Mazda3 Premium sedan, its top of the line trim. Making it even better, this one added all-wheel-drive, something only Subaru’s Impreza offers in this price range and market segment. This car was made for Wisconsin.
First, the Mazda3 is a sharp looking compact sedan with a handsomely styled nose and a fabulous looking, and quiet, interior that speaks of luxury, not economy. And, if you want sporty handling to pair up with sporty looks, this is one of the few primo choices that regular folks can afford.
Mazda starts by making its formerly optional 2.5-liter SkyActiv-G I4 engine standard across the Mazda3 lineup (sedan and hatch). It is both fuel efficient and peppy, generating 186 horsepower with a torque rating to match. Not only that, it drinks regular unleaded and expels minimal emissions. The engine is no rocket, but when you engage the electronic Sport drive mode via the console toggle, it leaps to action, zipping the Mazda3 to highway speeds with vigor.
In Normal mode the sedan hesitates a bit upon acceleration, but still has good power, just seems less energetic. Gas mileage doesn’t suffer. I managed 28.0 mile per gallon in about a 50/50 mix of city and highway while the EPA rates this at 25 mpg city and 33 mpg highway, again on regular gas.
Much of that you can attribute to Mazda using a fine 6-speed automatic transmission to engage the power. No CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) here. Sometimes those can be a bit lackadaisical as they aim to save fuel instead of instilling excitement. Note though that the automatic is all that’s available in the sedan and just one Mazda3 model, the Premium trim hatchback, offers a manual.
So while the Mazda3 will scoot pretty well, it’s more sports car peppy than muscle car macho. What it does well is create a joyful, fun feel for the road due to its fine handling. The Mazda3 turns into sharp corners with authority and purpose. There’s good feedback to the wheel that is appropriately firm, but not heavy. That translates to an entertaining, athletic drive.
Ride continues to improve from generation to generation in the Mazda3 and this longer 107.3-inch wheelbase helps create a well-controlled ride. However, Mazda returned to a torsion bar rear suspension (think previous-gen Mustang), away from a multi-link. I’ve enjoyed driving many a car with torsion-bar suspension, but this feels just a bit choppy on our distressed Midwest roads. Ride is never uncomfortable, but you’ll definitely know when you square up on a pothole.
Remember too this model added all-wheel-drive, so traction is improved in wet, sloppy weather, a norm much of the year for Wisconsin drivers.
As much fun as the Mazda3 is to drive, you’ll feel like you’ve slipped into at least an entry-level luxury sports sedan inside the Premium edition.
This sparkly gray tester featured a cream and black leather interior. The dash, doors and seats are all coated in leather, the seats being perforated (yes, and heated). The appearance is stylish and eye-catching. Trim is thin chrome on the dash and doors with satin chrome trim on the black leather wheel’s hub. The console’s face is black gloss with more black leather trim along its sides.
There’s a fine Bose sound system here and its chrome speaker covers on the doors add a bit of a jeweled looked to the interior. Fit, finish and quality inside look much improved from earlier models and the cockpit is much quieter too.
I like Mazda’s dash layout as it’s clean and easy to understand, and the infotainment screen is a sizeable 8.8 inches, plus is nicely tucked into the dash top’s center. That’s a styling improvement from earlier models.
Sadly (and I know I’ve said this before), Mazda doesn’t use a touchscreen, instead sticking with a big knob on the console to control the infotainment system. This is similar to the likes of BMW and Audi, not a good thing. This system isn’t intuitive. Just changing the channel is tough, and forget about setting or deleting favorites. Radios need to be simple enough to tune with a button punch while driving.
That somewhat spoils this otherwise fine interior for me.
Otherwise, the Premium model is a winner, coming with a full list of safety features, such as blind-spot warning, lane departure warning and assist, smart cruise control, automatic emergency braking, adaptive front lighting and driver attention monitor. The latter is touchy, occasionally setting off a series of beeps and flashing a steering wheel image on the center instrument panel screen.
I also found the lane control to be overly strong, really turning the wheel hard away from a centerline to the point of being insistent. Sometimes, it must be noted, there is something that you’re avoiding on the road and you need to quickly adjust the wheel yourself to avoid that pothole, hubcap, mystery item, etc.
Overhead there also is a panoramic sunroof, and the car includes heated seats, a power driver’s seat with two memory settings, visors with extenders, paddle shifters behind the wheel, push-button start and a head-up display. Dual climate control also comes on the Premium model.
Seating is comfortable in front with mild contouring, and note that the heated seats get really warm, so the lowest setting is most used after a couple minutes of bun warming.
Legroom is particularly cramped in back, especially when a taller passenger or driver is up front, necessitating the front seat be pushed well back. Think of this as a back seat for kids primarily.
The rear seats split and fold flat to boost cargo room, which is a reasonable 13.2 cubic feet before seats are lowered. Releases in the trunk allow a driver to put the seats down without opening a rear door too.
Also, it should be noted the sedan is about eight inches longer than the hatchback to create expanded rear seat and cargo room.
There are a couple other concerns though. First, the Mazda3 automatically applies the park brake every time the car is turned off, or put into Park. That might make sense if this had a manual transmission, but it does not. This means the driver must press a brake release button every time the car is started, just to get it rolling. Can’t say how many times I put the car in Reverse only to have it strain against the parking brake as I tried to back from a parking space. It’s a small thing, but annoying daily.
Second, the A-pillars are rather large, somewhat blocking front side views at intersections, and while I was happy to have a wireless charging station ($275 extra), this one is in the storage box/armrest between the front seats. So to access it you must raise the armrest, which is awkward it you need to access the phone while driving. It’s also easy to forget the phone in the box.
Enough whining, the happy news beyond how this drives, is pricing. This upscale Premium version with AWD started at $28,820, including delivery. AWD is about $1,400 extra on a Mazda3 sedan. With just a few minor options the test car ended up at $30,645, a bargain at today’s prices.
Yet a base model with 16-inch wheels and tires, cloth interior, etc. starts at $22,420 for the sedan and $24,520 for the hatchback, considered a premium model of sorts. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are now standard on all Mazda3s.
Select and Preferred trim levels come with 18-inch wheels and tires and leatherette interiors plus dual-zone climate controls. Preferred adds the power driver’s seat and memory features, a 12-speaker Bose sound system, heated seats and XM radio.
Premium gives you the bigger alloy wheels, adaptive lighting, fancy leather interior materials, the head-up display, sunroof and paddle shifters.
Even at the top-end of its trims the Mazda3 is a delight to drive, offering better styling inside and out than many of its competitors.
FAST STATS: 2020 Mazda3 AWD Premium
Hits: Sharp looker and sporty handling, peppy acceleration in Sport mode, controlled ride, plus AWD and good gas mileage. Quiet, luxury interior at value pricing, heated seats, large screen, panoramic sunroof, wireless charger and full complement of safety equipment.
Misses: Park brake sets automatically every time the ignition is turned off and is annoying to disengage each time you start the car, awkward rotary knob to adjust infotainment screen, large A-pillar restricts view, wireless charger location not convenient.
Made in: Mexico
Engine: 2.5-liter SkyActiv-G I4, 186 horsepower
Transmission: 6-speed automatic w/manual mode
Weight: 3,248 lbs.
Length: 183.5 in.
Wheelbase: 107.3 in.
Cargo: 13.2 cu.ft.
MPG: 28.0 (tested)
Base Price: $28,820 (includes delivery)
Cargo mat, $100
Illuminated door sill trim, $425
Machine gray paint, $300
Frameless auto-dim mirror, $275
Navigation SD card, $450
Wireless charging pad, $275
Test vehicle: $30,645
Sources: Mazda, kbb.com
Photos: Mark Savage