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2019 Mazda MAZDA3 Test Drive Review
The new Mazda3 has redefined what a small car can be. It’s upscale, refined, and truly athletic… even if it’s not always the segment's most functional.
The compact-car market has come a long way from the days of the dreaded “economy car.” And yet many new compact cars, such as the Honda Civic or Toyota's new 2020 Corolla, still fit a reasonable budget. You no longer have to choose between value and quality. Among a crowd of good, budget-conscious vehicles, the all-new 2019 Mazda3 excels.
The Mazda3 arrived in 2003, and driving dynamics have always been key to its DNA. But it was the third-generation Mazda3, produced from 2014 through 2018, that really started to showcase the aspirational nature of the Mazda brand. If the third-generation Mazda3 set the canvas for the company's upscale agenda, the fourth-gen 2019 Mazda3 is its masterstroke.
Look and Feel
This is one of the best looking cars on the market today. And it's not a sports car or a luxury car. That’s pretty wild. Luxury car designers are tasked with creating dramatic designs that will capture the imagination (and the wallets) of well-heeled shoppers. Volume automakers are all about making cars that meet a certain price point, almost without regard to what styling details need to be cut. And then you’ve got Mazda, putting the whole damn industry on notice.
The Mazda3 comes as a sedan and a hatchback. We drove the latter, and while the sedan is quite sharp, the hatch is where the Mazda designers really got to flex their pens. From the clean panel that makes up the rear quarter to the sharply raked rear window that flows into sports-car-like taillights, the look of the new Mazda3's hatch is guaranteed to turn heads. It’s a stunning car.
And if you think the exterior is sharp, wait until you get inside. Mazda designers have outdone themselves with this interior. The cupholders sit forward of the shifter, and I’m a little worried people might easily spill something on the center dash panel, but for now, it makes for a dramatic look. From the clean, uncluttered spaces to the seamless integration of technology, the Mazda3 punches well above its weight. Go ahead: Look at the interior of the Lexus IS, and then come back to this cabin. If you didn’t know which vehicle was which, you’d swear the Mazda3 was the more expensive car.
Getting into the Mazda3 also has an exclusive feel to it. The driver and front passenger sit low and lean back, like in a sports car. All the controls envelop the driver, including the controller dial in the center console, which sits at a natural position for your right hand. It controls the new 8.8-inch screen that runs the MazdaConnect infotainment system. This screen is so naturally and seamlessly integrated into the converging dash panels, it would make Frank Lloyd Wright blush.
Beyond the base trim, the Mazda3 sedan comes in Select, Preferred, and Premium. The Hatchback's base trim corresponds with the Select Sedan, and then there are Preferred and Premium trims. The base Sedan does not include as much content as the base Hatchback (hence the need for a Select trim), but it does come with 16-inch alloy wheels, push-button start, LED head- and taillights, an 8-speaker sound system, and that infotainment system we discussed. It also comes with one-touch up and down power windows for all four windows. If you saw our Volkswagen Golf SportWagen review, you know how much we appreciate that kind of attention to detail, especially in base trim.
The base Hatchback trim adds 18-inch alloy wheels, rain-sensing wipers, automatic high beams, dual-zone automatic climate control, and a drowsiness alert. It also adds synthetic leather upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and a leather-wrapped shift knob. Much of this additional content can be found in the Select Sedan trim.
The Preferred trims add some key upscale touches, including an 8-way power driver's seat, heated front seats, power-adjustable side mirrors, satellite radio, and a 12-speaker Bose sound system.
If you weren’t convinced of the luxury credentials of the Mazda3 up to this point, the Premium trims will surely have you convinced. Both the Premium Sedan and Hatchback come with leather seats, a power moonroof, a head-up display, and adaptive headlights. Mazda also seems to understand how the manual has moved from an economy-minded feature to an emotional one, as only the Premium trims offer a manual transmission.
Our Premium Hatchback came with an amazing burgundy-and-black leather interior. It truly is a fantastic car, but so is the base hatchback. The base hatch offers so much for the price that it is the CarGurus Recommended Trim.
Every trim of the Mazda3 comes with a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine making 186 horsepower. That power gets sent through a 6-speed manual or automatic transmission to the front wheels or the newly available all-wheel drive (AWD). You can only get AWD with the automatic transmission, but for many drivers, that will be a worthwhile tradeoff. AWD is available in both the sedan and hatchback.
The aforementioned engine (called the SkyActiv-G) may not be the only powerplant for long. Later in 2019 (possibly 2020), Mazda will offer a groundbreaking new engine called the SkyActiv-X. It will use something called compression ignition, which is actually similar to the way a diesel engine works. As such, this new engine is expected to bring the power and efficiency of a diesel, while running on regular gasoline. This combination is the holy grail that the auto industry has been working toward for decades, and we can’t wait to test it.
But that doesn’t mean you should wait to test-drive a Mazda3, as the SkyActiv-G engine in our car is great. From its responsive acceleration to the Mazda3's athletic handling and responsive brakes, this car drives beautifully. It provides a composed ride in typical driving conditions, and yet it carves corners like a dream, without the steering feeling overly heavy or the ride harsh. You don’t have to be a driving enthusiast for this to be a great commuter car, but in the right hands, its full potential can be unlocked.
Until the SkyActiv-X comes out, the most efficient version of the Mazda3 is the front-wheel-drive (FWD) automatic sedan with the Premium package. It returns fuel economy of 27 mpg city, 36 highway, 30 combined. The least efficient version is the AWD hatchback, returning 24/32/27.
As for the rest of the lineup, the sedan with AWD returns 25/33/28. The hatchback with FWD and a manual transmission returns 25/35/29. Both the sedan and hatchback with FWD and the automatic (non-Premium) return 26/35/30.
As for our test model, in our week of combined city and highway driving, we observed fuel economy of 28.2 mpg.
Form and Function
As you may have expected, the sedan won’t beat the hatchback on cargo space. But its 13.2 cubic feet of trunk space is respectable among compact sedans. The hatchback we drove has 20.1 cubic feet behind the rear seats and 47.1 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat folded. That’s serviceable for the class, but if you need real cargo space, check out the Kia Soul, which offers an impressive 61 cubic feet with the rear seats folded.
Likewise, if you care about a commanding driving position, you also might be interested in a car like the Soul, which has an upright seating position (like an SUV). In the Mazda3, you sit low and lean back. If you’ve sat in a sports car before, you’ll be right at home—but getting in and out might take a little more work.
Unfortunately, that seating position really benefits only front-seat passengers. Things are pretty tight in the second row of the Mazda3. Legroom can be adjusted by moving the front seats forward, but what cannot be adjusted is headroom. I'm 6-foot-3, and it’s a tight fit back there for me.
But as an everyday commuter car, drivers should find the accommodations quite comfortable. The center console has a deep tray ahead of the cupholders, and then there's the center bin between the driver and front passenger. I will ding Mazda for this: It’s a pretty terrible center armrest/console cover design. You have to slide it back 6 inches before you can lift it. Mazda does some really great things with this car, but a Subaru or a Kia might be better at taking on all the gear you need to throw at it over its lifetime.
As mentioned above, a new 8.8-inch screen that runs the latest iteration of the MazdaConnect infotainment system sits at the center of the dash. This helps underscore the Mazda3's luxury persona, as it has extremely crisp graphics as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. But there’s just one problem: Mazda has made this system completely remote-controlled.
The previous Mazda3 had a semi-touch system in which you could use it as a regular touchscreen when parked, but in motion, you had to use the controller dial. Now, claiming that touchscreens are less safe than rotary dial controls, Mazda has made it touch-only. Mazda has taken plenty of inspiration from BMW's iDrive and Audi's MMI, but even iDrive has swung the pendulum back toward touch functionality.
That said, as much as I prefer full touchscreens, everyone is different. So if you’re serious about this car, you should test-drive one and play with the system yourself. Oh, and don’t let the salesperson demo it for you; try to change the channel, save a preset, and pair your phone yourself. You need to imagine using this system every day—in traffic.
Our test model came with the available head-up display, which provided terrific graphics. It also had an instrument panel with a fully digital center panel. A button on the steering wheel allows you to cycle through content for the instrument panel, including a graphical representation of a traditional speedometer.
The base hatchback trim comes standard with Mazda’s i-Activsense. This is a comprehensive suite of driver-assistance features that includes automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, and even driver-attention alerts—all standard! Take note that while these come standard on the base hatchback trim, they do not come standard on the base sedan trim. For many of them, you’ll need to opt for the Select Sedan trim.
The mere size of the hatchback’s C-pillars means it will have big blind spots. But there’s another issue with this vehicle: It has an auto-engage system for the parking brake. When you start the car, the electronic parking brake is engaged, and when you put it in Drive, it remains engaged. It releases as you put your foot on the accelerator pedal, but you feel that weird “rise” in the car, similar to when you try to engage a manual-transmission car in first gear with the parking brake still on. It’ll undo itself after a half-second, but it’s far from intuitive. You wouldn't know about that deactivation unless you looked it up. We looked it up.
We also learned from the owner's manual that there’s a way to bypass this with a series of operations. But getting the Mazda3 to operate like other cars should not take the complexity of a video game's cheat code.
The 2019 Mazda3 sedan starts at $21,000 MSRP, and the hatchback starts at $23,600. The Select Sedan trim starts at $22,600. A Preferred Sedan costs $24,200, while the Preferred Hatchback starts at $25,200. The Select Sedan AWD Mazda3 starts at $24,000 for the sedan and $25,000 for the Hatchback AWD. To put it more simply, hatchback trims cost $1,000 more than the equivalent sedan trims (remember, the hatchback starts equivalent to the Select Sedan, not the base Sedan trim), and AWD costs an extra $1,400 (again, starting at the Select trim level for the sedan). All Mazda3's include a $920 destination fee atop these prices.
A range-topping Premium Hatchback AWD, like our test model, starts at $28,900. With options like wireless charging and navigation, our test model came in at $31,355. That might seem pricey for a commuter on a budget, but it's a solid value, considering what it buys you. Still, given the amount of content you get for the price, and the fact that its drop-dead gorgeous looks come standard, the CarGurus Recommended Trim is the base-level Hatchback FWD.
The Mazda3’s competitors are all about being optimized for commuting, prioritizing fuel efficiency, ride comfort, and value. While the Mazda3 delivers on these fronts, it also goes quite a bit further than what you’d expect from a compact car. In fact, we might be looking at this all wrong. The Mazda3 isn’t a sporty, upscale compact car. It’s a luxury sports sedan... that also happens to be available as a hatchback.
From open-wheel racecars to specialty off-road vehicles, George Kennedy has driven it all. A career automotive journalist, George has been a contributor, editor, and/or producer at some of the most respected publications and outlets, including Consumer Reports, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Autoblog.com, Hemmings Classic Wheels, BoldRide.com, the Providence Journal, and WheelsTV.
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