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2016 Mazda MAZDA3 Test Drive Review
The way the Mazda3 effortlessly filters everything unpleasant about driving while amplifying what makes getting behind the steering wheel fun speaks to the company’s mandate to make driving matter.
The greatest criticism that can be leveled against Mazda's Mazda3 is that it is small inside. Even for a compact car. If that’s not a problem for you, then you’re going to love this fantastic automobile.
Look and Feel9/ 10
When you want to buy a fun-to-drive hatchback—and I’m talking about a car that really is fun to drive, and not just in the dreams of the people marketing it—you’ve got a few choices.
Of course, there is the Volkswagen GTI, which is truly fantastic. The standard Golf on which it is based is pretty good, too.
Then there’s the Ford Focus, a car lots of people overlook because it is a Ford, and because they hated the last one they rented.
Then you’ve got the Mazda 3. Or, if you prefer, the Mazda Mazda3. The Mazda blends some of the thrill produced by the GTI and some of the value inherent in the Focus into one terrific little car.
Available as a 4-door sedan or a 5-door hatchback, the Mazda Mazda3 is available in regular-strength Mazda3 i and extra-strength Mazda3 s model series, and in Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring trim levels. Prices start at $18,665 for a Mazda3 i Sport sedan and rise to as much as $32,870 with all the extras.
My Mazda3 s Grand Touring 5-door test car started at $26,265. After adding an automatic transmission, Soul Red paint, the Technology Package, the Appearance Package, doorsill trim plates, a cargo mat, and a cargo net, the price rose to $31,770.
Staggering, eh? Let’s put that into perspective. An Acura ILX A-SPEC runs more than a grand extra, and it’s really just a Honda Civic Si with upscale styling. An Audi A3 without a single option costs about the same, and it’s really just a Volkswagen Golf with a trunk. A Lexus CT 200h is slightly more expensive, and it’s really just a Toyota Prius with less utility and worse fuel economy.
In any case, the Mazda3 s Grand Touring has more style and more equipment than any of them. This car definitely looks better with the larger 18-inch aluminum wheels that are included for the “s” models because they help to reduce the Mazda3’s nose-heavy appearance. Soul Red is Mazda’s current signature color, but the Mazda3 looks great in seven of its eight paint choices. Which one don’t I like? Titanium Flash.
My test car had the Almond color leather, providing sharp contrast against the black dashboard, carpets, and trim, creating a 2-tone appearance that looks terrific. This, combined with piano-black trim and silver metallic accents, gives the Mazda3 a distinctly upscale look and feel.
Choose the Mazda3 i for a 155-horsepower, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. Performance with this refined powerplant is fine, especially when paired with the slick-shifting standard manual gearbox. For better acceleration in exchange for a slight penalty at the gas pump, try the Mazda3 s and its 184-horsepower, 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine. It, too, is paired with a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic transmission.
Either way, prepare yourself for disappointment when it comes to fuel efficiency. In my experience, the Mazda3 averages below the EPA’s official city fuel-economy rating with either engine. A test of a Mazda3 i with a 6-speed manual produced an average of 28.5 mpg, below its combined rating of 33. The Mazda3 s with an automatic returned 26.7 mpg, farther below its combined estimate of 32, despite having the optional Technology Package with i-ELOOP brake energy regeneration, which is supposed to improve fuel economy.
Then again, maybe I get lousy gas mileage because I’m having so much fun driving the damn things. Putting aside its unimpressive fuel-economy numbers, the Mazda3 is dynamically inspired. Joyful, even. If I needed to summarize this car in a single word, that word would be “supple,” because it conveys the sense of refinement here, the sensuality the car exudes in the way that it looks and feels, and the thrill you get when slicing and dicing through traffic.
Mechanically, it’s like the entire car has been dipped into a vat of silicone. The precision, the responsiveness, the way it effortlessly filters everything unpleasant about driving while amplifying what makes getting behind the steering wheel fun speaks not only to Mazda’s attention to detail but also the clear understanding and narrowly defined mandate directing the automaker’s engineers to make driving matter in every possible way.
I have a single complaint about the Mazda3’s driving dynamics, and that’s related to Mazda’s illogical insistence on using an F1-racing-derived manual shift pattern for the automatic transmission.
In a normal car, where a driver is not required to counteract the forces associated with extreme acceleration and deceleration, an intuitive shift pattern is to move the shifter up (or forward) to execute an upshift and to move the shifter down (or backward) to execute a downshift. In the Mazda3, manual shifting is counterintuitive. You shift down to request an upshift, and you shift up to request a downshift.
That makes sense when you’re Sebastian Vettel rounding Casino Square at Circuit de Monaco, first slammed against a racing harness and then pressed hard into the seat, but not when you’re just trying to thread your way through heavy traffic on L.A.’s notorious 405 freeway.
Good thing the automatic-equipped Mazda3 s has shift paddles on the steering wheel.
Form and Function4/ 10
Looking and feeling more like a luxury-brand vehicle, the Mazda3 s Grand Touring’s interior exhibits impressive materials, textures, and color tones. However, my test vehicle, brand new with fewer than 800 miles on the odometer, had squeaking left B-pillar trim and a loose rear-view mirror.
The Mazda3’s control layout reflects Mazda’s intent focus on both driving and helping the driver to prioritize that task. Instrumentation is a model of clarity, and the climate system employs simple, well-marked knobs and buttons. The automaker even disables the Mazda Connect touchscreen’s functionality when the car is moving, forcing the driver to use steering-wheel-mounted controls, voice commands, or the Commander Control knob and buttons on the center console in order to operate the infotainment system.
This arrangement is similar to Audi’s MMI and BMW’s iDrive systems, and in the Mazda quickly becomes second nature, operational by touch and allowing the driver to access primary functions without looking down and away from the road.
Seating is comfortable, but stingy space produces snug accommodations for all occupants. This is less troubling than the fact that I had difficulty dialing in the right mix of driver’s seat height and legroom. Rear-seat passengers, especially people with larger feet and longer legs, will find it hard to get into and out of the Mazda3 5-door.
When packed to the roof, and according to Mazda, the cargo space behind the rear seat measures 20.2 cubic feet. This is highly optimistic. It might prove true if you tossed out the spare tire, which sits beneath the cargo floor, but you’re no more likely to do that than you are to pack the trunk to the roof. Practically speaking, the trunk holds about 10 cubic feet of cargo. Fold the rear seats down, and the Mazda3 5-door swallows a claimed 47.1 cubes of cargo.
Tech Level9/ 10
Mazda Connect is standard in every 2016 Mazda3, an infotainment system that includes Bluetooth with music-streaming capability, HD Radio, and access to satellite radio, Internet radio, and selected social media platforms. Mazda Connect also supports text-message delivery and reply and supplies two USB ports.
Pairing my iPhone to Mazda Connect takes longer than it should, with more steps than ought to be required, but this is usually evident only in direct comparison to technologies provided by other car companies. For example, the same week I was driving the Mazda3 I was also evaluating a Kia Sorento. Kia’s UVO infotainment system pairs quickly and easily, requiring almost nothing of the driver once the request to pair a smartphone is made.
When the Mazda3 is under way, Mazda deactivates the touchscreen’s touch-sensitivity. This might irritate some people, but the approach represents yet another example of how Mazda’s focus is on distraction-free driving. Steering-wheel buttons, voice commands, and the center console’s Commander Control knob can be used to access screen functions, and I find the latter to be the easiest solution once I’m acclimated to it.
Mazda also includes an Active Driving Display for top-shelf versions of the Mazda3. It works like a heads-up display, projecting information onto a plastic screen on the top of the dashboard rather than onto the windshield glass. This solution helps to reduce the effects of glare and reflection on the driver’s visibility.
In addition to earning top crash-test ratings from the federal government and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Mazda3 offers access to key safety technologies on all three trim levels. Standard for the Touring and Grand Touring, and optional for the Sport, a blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert is helpful on a daily basis. Also, as a part of Mazda Connect, an E911 automatic emergency notification system stands at the ready to notify emergency rescue personnel that a collision has occurred.
Reserved for the Grand Touring models equipped with an automatic transmission, the Technology Package adds dynamic cruise control, a forward collision warning system, and an automatic emergency braking system. Adaptive HID headlights with automatic high-beam operation are also included in this upgrade, along with a lane-departure warning system.
The Technology Package costs $2,600 and is one reason my test car’s price tag exceeded $30,000.
While my test car’s price tag was shockingly high, the great thing about the Mazda3 is that you pay for what you choose to pay for.
Want more utility from a hatchback body design? That’s extra, compared to the sedan. Want more horsepower and torque? That’s extra. Want an automatic transmission? That’s extra. Leather? Safety technology? Navigation? Bose premium sound system? Extra, extra, extra, extra.
At the same time, even in basic Sport trim, the Mazda3 isn’t a stripped-down shell of a car. Add an automatic transmission and the Preferred Equipment Package, and you’ve got a practical, efficient, and fun little car equipped with aluminum wheels, Mazda Connect, automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, heated side mirrors, and a blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert, and all for just $21,415.
Deals are frequently available, too. Right now, as this review is published, Mazda is still clearing out leftover 2015s, so the deals on 2016s aren’t that impressive. The deals on the 2015s sure are appealing, though, with a choice between no-interest financing for 60 months and no payments for 90 days, or a $1,250 cash rebate. Plus, if you currently own or lease a Mazda, you can get a $500 loyalty rebate for a purchase or $750 to put toward a new lease.
While it is true that a Mazda3 fails to deliver on its promised fuel economy (when I’m behind the wheel, anyway), in terms of reliability and the costs associated with ownership, Consumer Reports is bullish on the Mazda3. However, it's worth noting that other research organizations, such as J.D. Power and Kelley Blue Book, are not quite as impressed with this car.
Personally, I’d take the plunge. The Mazda3 is a Great Little Car, which is what the company once called its compact GLC model way back in the day. From its style and driving dynamics to its safety and technology, the Mazda3 forges an emotional as well as a rational bond with its driver, inspiring pride of ownership that few of its competitors can match.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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