2015 Mazda MAZDA3 Test Drive Review

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2015 Mazda MAZDA3 Test Drive Review

2015 Mazda 3s 5-Door Grand Touring The Mazda 3 is a mainstream car that elevates the driving experience so high that it invites favorable comparisons to premium marques. Seriously, this Mazda drives like a light-hearted BMW.

9 /10
Overall Score

The 2015 Mazda 3s 5-Door impresses on all fronts. From its refinement and practicality to its safety ratings, reliability track record and undeniably fun driving character, this car is a terrific all-rounder. As a result, the Mazda 3 is my top choice in the class.

Look and Feel

9/ 10

When Mazda debuted its 3 compact economy car back in 2003, enthusiast types were aghast at the use of the sanctified 3 numeration. It was solely the property of the legendary BMW 3 Series, a singular vehicle in a category all its own for its ability to provide devilishly delicious performance while being completely livable, serene and refined.

As it turned out, the Mazda 3 name was more prescient than first thought, breathing vibrant life into the previously dull penalty boxes collectively known as the compact economy vehicle. The latest iteration is no exception, combining equal parts high-tech toys, a refined cabin that belies its cost, sexy looks and sports-car drivability.

Mazda offers the third-generation 3 in 4-door sedan or 5-door hatchback configuration, along with two engine options and a spate of trim levels. The sedan offers a base 3i SV version that comes outfitted with such features as 16-inch steel wheels, a height-adjustable driver seat, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, a folding rear seat and a USB/auxiliary audio input.

Next, the 3i Sport trim level for both the sedan and hatchback provides a 60/40 split-folding rear seat, a 7-inch touchscreen display, Bluetooth connectivity and an upgraded audio system with HD and Internet radio.

Step up to the 3i Touring for such features as 16-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps, keyless ignition, heated side mirrors, a rear spoiler and important safety features like a blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alerts and a rear-view camera. You can further opt for the Touring Technology package if you want dual-zone automatic climate control, a sunroof, a voice-activated navigation system and a premium 9-speaker Bose Surround Sound audio system. For all of the above features, along with leatherette upholstery, heated front seats and a 6-way power adjustable driver’s seat, there’s the 3i Grand Touring.

A 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine that produces 155 horsepower powers all the Mazda 3i trim levels. The Mazda 3s range has a much more satisfying 185-horsepower, 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine. The 3s Touring is equipped like the 3i Grand Touring but also provides 18-inch alloy wheels, steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters and a head-up display.

At the top of the Mazda 3 lineup, the 3s Grand Touring includes adaptive bi-Xenon headlights and leather upholstery. Furnish the 3s Grand Touring with the Technology package for the i-ELOOP regenerative braking system that improves mileage, an adaptive cruise control system with a forward-collision warning and mitigation system, and a lane-departure warning system.

My test vehicle was a Mazda 3s Grand Touring with an Appearance package and some dealer add-ons, and it wore a sticker price of $28,385 including a $795 destination charge. Unlike the previous generation of the Mazda 3, which wore a hideous grin, this latest iteration resonates with Mazda’s latest design language and preens its tautly rendered, sculptural sheetmetal with plenty of attitude and sass to match.

I opened the door of my test vehicle and found a cabin dressed in classy tan-over-black leather, with piano black accents and metallic highlights to jazz up the joint. While a vehicle with a price inching toward $30,000 could hardly be called an economy car, this Mazda bore little resemblance to the usual small, mainstream car.

Performance

9/ 10

The Mazda 3s shines in many aspects, but performance is where it sparkles. This is a car that makes you seek the long, curvy road home. This is a car that earns the love its owner may be inspired to shower upon it.

Thrills start with a spitfire of an engine, a 2.5-liter SkyActiv 4-cylinder producing 185 horsepower. It balances thrust and momentum into snappy acceleration that rarely feels winded and delivers confident power in almost all circumstances. Enthusiast types are always excited about seeing a manual transmission in a sporty car, for the additional control and engagement it affords. Mazda delivers on this front with its fluid, 6-speed transmission.

In fact, I had so much fun driving this car that I averaged 26.5 mpg during a week that included lots of freeway travel. That’s on the lower end of its EPA-estimated 26-mpg city/35-highway rating.

Precise steering and grippy tires further complement the driving experience, and a compliant yet communicative suspension tell the driver exactly what’s happening at street level. Combined, these attributes make the Mazda 3 particularly rewarding to drive when the road gets twisty.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the outstanding 4-wheel-disc brakes, vented up front for improved performance. Perfect pedal feel and linear application of the binders make for confidence-inspiring halts, and the system exhibited zero fade under duress.

All these traits make the Mazda 3 a honey of a daily driver, and, along with the impressive Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf, it's a mainstream car that elevates the driving experience so high that it invites favorable comparisons to premium marques. Seriously, this Mazda drives like a light-hearted BMW.

Form and Function

8/ 10

Slip into the driver’s seat of a 2015 Mazda 3s Grand Touring and you’ll be met with an upscale cabin. My test car was dressed in a 2-tone tan-and-black color combination. I sometimes have a hard time finding a comfortable driving position in vehicles with a manual transmission, but in the Mazda 3 I found a perfect perch.

The bolstered seats held me securely when cornering, but without making me feel claustrophobic, and the heated front seats were a plus on a chilly autumn morning. Out front, visibility is not an issue thanks to thin windshield pillars and big side mirrors, but the small rear window and rear headrests mean the reversing camera and cross-traffic alert system are put to good use.

Rear-seat passengers may find reason to complain about their accommodations. While my small children didn’t have a problem riding in the Mazda 3, full-size adults will have a hard time getting comfortable. If you’re expecting to regularly ferry more than one other adult in the Mazda 3, you may decide to forego the delights the 3 has to offer.

Aside from its enhanced sex appeal over a sedan—in the Mazda 3’s case, anyway—the whole point of a hatchback is flexibility when it comes to cargo. Behind the rear seat, Mazda gives you 20.2 cubic feet of cargo space from the floor to the ceiling. Fold down the rear seats and you’ll find 47.1.

Information and entertainment features are accessed through a screen on the center stack that’s controlled by a few knobs and buttons located on the center console, not unlike an Audi or a BMW. The learning curve is a bit steep, but MazdaConnect technology is fairly intuitive compared to other systems and vastly superior compared to the more basic setup in the Mazda CX-5. The graphics are crisp, and I found it easy to access the information I needed.

Tech Level

10/ 10

The first thing I noticed when I started the Mazda 3’s engine was a transparent piece of plastic that rose from the gauge cluster. While it seemed cheesy and cheap, this minimalistic heads-up display showed the speed at which I was traveling, and I quickly grew used to referencing it.

MazdaConnect technology controls the Mazda 3’s lengthy list of infotainment features. Through smartphone connectivity you’ve got access to Pandora Internet radio, Aha global radio, and audible social media updates through Twitter and Facebook. You should know, though, that Mazda doesn’t let you update those platforms while driving. A text message service lets you audibly receive and send text messages, while a “Do Not Disturb” function quiets the notifications until the option setting is changed.

Although my test vehicle wasn’t equipped with it, Mazda also offers a feature called i-ELOOP that harnesses the energy created by braking and uses it to power secondary functions like the audio system, climate control and headlights. Mazda says it should improve your average mileage by about 5 percent.

Safety

10/ 10

My 2015 Mazda 3 test vehicle was fairly bristling with active safety features designed to keep a collision from occurring. The roster included HID headlights with an adaptive front lighting system, a reversing camera and a blind-spot monitoring system with cross-traffic alert, features I think are crucial and should be on the standard feature list of every new vehicle.

You can also equip the Mazda 3s Grand Touring with an advanced cruise control system with forward-collision warning and Smart City Brake Support. That latter system scans the road ahead and automatically brakes the car if it senses an impending crash with another vehicle or a pedestrian.

Should a collision be unavoidable, you’ll feel confident knowing the 2015 Mazda 3 received a 5-star overall rating in government crash tests, along with a Top Safety Pick designation based on its performance in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) testing.

Cost-Effectiveness

8/ 10

If you’re looking for a deal on a Mazda 3, they exist in the form of subsidized leases, loyalty rebates, conquest cash and low-interest loans. Availability varies, though, so be sure to check before you go shopping.

Combine these regularly offered deals with high resale ratings, low ownership costs and predictions of good reliability over time, and while a Mazda 3 can cost more up front than other small cars, owners make up for it over time. And not that it’s going to be a problem, but roadside assistance is included for the first 3 years or 36,000 miles of ownership.

The only disappointment in terms of the Mazda 3’s overall value equation was my observed fuel economy number of 26.5. I spent lots of time on the freeway, so I was counting on at least 30 mpg. But I’ll say this: I sure had a blast missing that target.

Updated

Liz Kim has worked within the world of cars for 15 years, at various points reviewing and writing about, or analyzing and marketing, everything automotive. It’s no wonder that she married a fellow automotive journalist. Liz can be found examining and assessing the latest vehicles when she’s not busy keeping the peace between, and the schedule for, her two young daughters.

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