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2021 Mazda MAZDA3 Test Drive Review
A turbocharger returns to the Mazda3, but rather than take a traditional pocket rocket approach to making this already fun car go faster, the 2021 Mazda3 2.5 Turbo follows a more subtle, mature, and refined path in keeping with the automaker’s desire to move upscale.
Mazdas are fun. All of them. Even the SUVs. But until recently, they weren’t particularly fast. The joy in driving a Mazda derived from the expertly tuned ride and handling qualities that made piloting the automaker’s products a sheer delight. And then Mazda started turbocharging cars and SUVs equipped with its 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine. Now, the 2021 Mazda3 2.5 Turbo arrives, one of the last members of Mazda’s fleet to add forced induction for boosted power and performance. The result, as you might guess, is absolutely delightful.
Look and Feel
After the redesigned 2019 Mazda3 debuted, it won the prestigious World Car Design of the Year for 2020. It’s not hard to see why. It’s alluring bodywork simultaneously reflects drama and sophistication, daring and refinement.
Naturally, the 4-door sedan is the more conservative version of the car. The 5-door hatchback adopts a comparatively pugilistic stance, its lidded stare, minimalistic greenhouse, and short overhangs giving it an aggressive, forward-leaning appearance. Sadly, the hatchback was not the version of the new 2021 Mazda3 2.5 Turbo that we tested. But the sedan offered plenty to entertain the eye and the soul.
Sitting atop a newly expanded 2021 Mazda3 lineup, the 2.5 Turbo comes in both body styles, includes all-wheel drive (AWD), and features standard or Premium Plus trim. The base price is $29,900 for the least expensive sedan, and $33,750 for a hatchback with Premium Plus trim. Our test car, the sedan, had Premium Plus trim and extra-cost Machine Gray Metallic paint, bringing the price to $33,890, including the $945 destination charge.
Interior color and upholstery choices depend on trim level and body style. In standard specification, both the hatchback and sedan offer black or greige leatherette. Upgrade to Premium Plus for supple Nappa leather. The hatchback provides a choice between black and red leather colors, while the sedan offers black or white.
Our Mazda3 Turbo test car’s white leather looked and smelled terrific, though rumor has it that dark blue jeans can ruin their appearance in a hurry. Nevertheless, the resulting high-contrast two-tone interior easily supports Mazda’s efforts to move its brand into premium territory. In addition to the leather, the Mazda3 exhibits close attention to design detail, deft execution of bright metallic accents, and one of the clearest and most legible sets of gauges in a modern automobile.
Quality is pervasive, despite the substantial use of hard plastic to trim the lower half of the cabin. Design is paramount, as evidenced by how the asymmetrical Mazda Connect infotainment system melts into the dashboard. And the driver takes center stage, the entire cabin revolving around the person who is in control of the car.
If anyone doubts that a Mazda3 is a legitimate entry-luxury car, have them check out a 2.5 Turbo Premium Plus version’s interior.
This is where the Mazda3 Turbo story gets good, and before we address the heart of the car, know that aside from the drivetrain, Mazda made only a couple of tweaks to the standard suspension when compared to a normally aspirated Mazda3.
You might be familiar with Mazda’s turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, which is available in the Mazda6, CX-5, CX-9, and soon, the CX-30. As is true for those applications, if you fill the tank with 93-octane fuel, the Mazda3 Turbo makes 250 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 320 pound-feet of torque at 2,500 rpm. Use 87-octane gas in the 2.5-liter turbo, and the figures are 227 hp at 5,000 rpm and 310 lb-ft at 2,000 rpm.
You can get a Mazda3 Premium Hatchback with a six-speed manual transmission, but not a Mazda3 Turbo. Mazda pairs the more powerful engine with a six-speed automatic transmission with both Sport and Manual modes. It feeds the power to a next-generation version of the automaker’s i-Activ AWD system, which Mazda says can deliver three times the amount of motive force to the car’s rear wheels than previous iterations of i-Activ, improving the Mazda3’s corner-exit capability. Non-turbo Mazda3s can be equipped with either AWD or front-wheel drive (FWD).
Given that the turbocharged powertrain adds no more than 120 pounds to the Mazda3, yet it supplies 64 extra horsepower (at 1,000 lower rpm) and 134 added lb-ft of torque (at 1,500 lower rpm), well, you can guess the impact on performance.
It is transformative.
Mazda tunes this application of the powertrain specifically to the Mazda3 2.5 Turbo, striving to attain engine and transmission response that is as smooth, predictable, and consistent as possible. Based on our experience, the company achieves this goal, delivering stunning speed without any of the freneticism of a typical high-powered compact car.
Select Sport mode, and it adjusts the transmission for more precise and direct shifts. Simultaneously, it tweaks the G-Vectoring Control Plus (GVC+) software to produce improved turn-in when cornering by downshifting the transmission as the driver brakes during the approach to a corner or curve. This action eliminates unnecessary shifts in the middle of the corner that could make the car feel unsettled or slow to respond when accelerating past an apex, resulting in a more natural driving character on a twisty road.
All 2021 Mazda3 models get improved steering feel and response, and the 2.5 Turbo uses stiffer front suspension springs and dampers to handle the added weight over the car’s nose. It is beyond sporty. The brakes are identical to non-turbo Mazda3 models, and the Turbo sits on 18-inch wheels wrapped in 215/45 Bridgestone Turanza all-season tires. A summer tire option is unavailable, but you can get a set of 18-inch BBS forged aluminum wheels for less than a grand.
Believe it or not, the car doesn’t need stickier tires. As it sits, the Mazda3 2.5 Turbo is delicately calibrated for maximum driving pleasure. Not even the torsion beam rear axle suspension detracts from the number of smiles you’ll wear per mile of driving this car.
It's not a Mazdaspeed3, but on our testing loop, the Mazda3 2.5 Turbo begged us to drive it at extra-legal speeds. Enhanced by the car’s speakers, the engine note is a delight, and both the powertrain and dynamic tuning meet every one of its engineers’ goals in terms of smoothness, consistency, and predictability. It drives as though the car anticipates exactly what you want, and exactly when you want it.
As a result, this is a car a driver comes to know and trust. Understanding how the Mazda3 Turbo is going to behave and trusting that it will respond to a situation in the manner you’ve come to expect makes it much easier to enjoy. You learn where the limits are, and the Mazda3 2.5 Turbo never moves the goalposts on you.
Of course, exploring this car’s potential elevates your heart rate, narrows your focus, and forces payment of intense attention. That’s all a part of the fun. And we’re almost speechless to describe the reward.
Turning to a more practical matter, we must report that during our test drive the Mazda3 2.5 Turbo averaged 20.4 mpg, falling well short of the EPA estimate of 27 mpg in combined driving. However, this result is reflective more of how we drove the car than any abject failure of the powertrain. Most likely, given our experience with other turbocharged Mazdas, you’ll get about 24 mpg in the real world.
Form and Function
Lined in Nappa leather and equipped with heated front seats and a heated steering wheel, the Mazda3 2.5 Turbo feels and smells like a luxury car. However, it lacks a few important details that could help to truly elevate it to premium status.
When Mazda says this car’s cabin is driver-focused, it’s not kidding. While the driver’s seat offers eight-way power adjustment, the front passenger’s seat does without. Neither front seat offers ventilation, and rear-seat passengers suffer more than cramped accommodations. Air conditioning vents and USB charging ports are missing from the back seat.
In-cabin storage is adequate, but no more. You’ll find enough space for the small personal items you regularly carry with you. Just be forewarned that, according to the company’s website, if you opt for wireless smartphone charging, Mazda inexplicably locates it at the bottom of the center console bin, effectively eliminating its capacity for storage.
Trunk space is competitive with other compact sedans, measuring 13.2 cubic feet. If you really want a fun car with plenty of utility, get the Mazda3 2.5 Turbo hatchback. It provides 20.1 cubic feet behind its rear seat, and 47.1 cubic feet with it folded down.
Mazda Connect is the name of the company’s infotainment system, and it combines an 8.8-inch display with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and a three-year trial subscription to Mazda Connected Services. You can even get a WiFi hotspot (free for six months or 2GB of data), and a MyMazda smartphone app provides remote operation of the car’s door locks, engine, and more.
But, because Mazda wants to limit driver distraction, the infotainment screen is not touch-sensitive. Unfortunately, this choice serves to magnify just how terrible Mazda Connect’s voice-recognition technology is. When asked about the system’s failure to accurately respond to any of my standard test prompts (except for “Find the nearest Starbucks”), a Mazda spokesperson explained that most people will issue voice commands through their smartphone’s digital assistant while running Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
We’re not buying it. If Mazda is not going to offer a touchscreen, then its embedded voice recognition had better be on par with Siri, Hey Google, or the systems in the cars the company targets as competition.
Beyond this, we couldn’t figure out how to change radio stations or skip through my favorite pre-sets without using the center console control knob and going through the Entertainment menu. The steering-wheel and center-console controls that looked like they should perform this function instead activated a music replay feature.
More than any of this car’s few flaws, it is Mazda Connect that causes the most irritation.
Mazda pairs the infotainment system to a 12-speaker Bose premium sound system. It includes Audio Pilot road noise reduction, and to further improve sound quality the automaker has taken steps to remove noise, vibration, and harshness at the frequency ranges most relevant to human perception. Also, Mazda says the speakers are arranged like a home audio entertainment system might be.
To its credit, the Bose system sounds better than most wearing the brand and at this price point. But the key is to listen to FLAC files for the best audio quality. While listening to satellite radio, Bob Marley and The Wailers caused the rear deck subwoofer to suffer serious flatulence.
An Active Driving Display, or head-up display (HUD), is standard on the Mazda3 2.5 Turbo, and it remains visible when the driver is wearing polarized sunglasses. It’s quite useful, showing current speed, the posted speed limit, and safety technology status including when another car is in the Mazda3’s blind spot.
Mazda says its safety philosophy is that technology should support the driver, not replace the driver. As such, the company’s i-ActiveSense collection of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) is designed to keep the driver engaged and, in the absence of action, step in to try to prevent a collision.
The i-ActiveSense list of ADAS is a long one, and you can configure various warning types and sensitivity levels using the settings menu in the infotainment system. In addition to increasingly common features and functions, the adaptive cruise control supplies stop-and-go capability and the automatic high-beam LED headlights provide an Adaptive Front Lighting System that helps the driver to see around corners and curves.
With the Premium Plus trim, the Mazda3 Turbo is equipped with a few safety features that are exclusive to this model. In addition to a high-definition surround-view camera and front and rear parking sensors, the new features are low-speed reverse automatic braking and Traffic Jam Assist.
Mazda is clear that Traffic Jam Assist is not a Level 2 ADAS. The driver is always in control of the steering. Rather, this technology adds a lane-centering assistance function when the adaptive cruise control is set. It works at speeds under 40 mph, and it uses the stop-and-go function to manage speed in heavy traffic.
Overall, Mazda does a great job with i-ActiveSense. The ADAS operates in a smooth and sophisticated manner, which means the driver is more likely to use it than to turn it off.
In terms of safety ratings, the Mazda3 excels in crash tests. In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) testing, the car earns top five-star ratings in every assessment including for rollover resistance. As this review was published, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) had not carried over the Mazda3’s “Top Safety Pick+” rating from 2020.
Slowly but surely, Mazda is moving upscale into premium territory. Better yet, the company appears to understand that if the product does not support the positioning, Mazda will lack credibility and the attempt will fail. And that means, as Mazda is in the middle of its transformation, you’re getting more than you’re paying for.
Based on our experience with the new 2021 Mazda3 2.5 Turbo, the car can legitimately target vehicles such as the Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz A-Class. Even the BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe and Mercedes CLA-Class are not far out of reach. From this perspective, the Mazda is a genuine bargain, offering far more performance and equipment at a lower price.
However, Americans buy luxury cars as much for the cachet of the brand than the actual substance behind it. For now, Mazda still struggles in this regard, and its lofty $30,000-and-higher price tag could be viewed as folly by consumers who don’t know how to measure the Mazda3 2.5 Turbo’s true value.
But, even for skeptics, all it takes is one drive in a turbocharged Mazda3 for you to realize it is worth every penny.
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