The last Mazda I reviewed, the Mazda 6, had kind of disappointed me in the way it drove. As good of a midsize sedan as it is, it did not quite deliver on Mazda’s “driving matters” sports sedan promise and somewhat failed at distinguishing itself from its shark bait segment of Accords, Camrys, and Malibus. So when Mazda Canada asked me if I wanted to take the 3 for a spin instead, I immediately said yes by asking for one with an automatic. That’s right, not the manual. Why? In my quest to justify an entire car brand’s purpose, I figured that if the one with the automatic impresses me, then a manual-equipped one will absolutely kick ass.
That said, the current Mazda 3 is a car I have been yearning to review for quite some time now. For some unknown reason, I never quite got the opportunity to put my hands on one, and everywhere I turned my head, everyone, from owners to automotive journalists, kept praising the car as if it were a thing sent by the gods.
Well, I finally got one. And it’s as good as everyone says.
It’s already been three years since this generation Mazda 3 was introduced, and although it still looks fresh out of the box from a slight face-lift done earlier this year, it’s actually getting kind of old already, approaching the end of its production cycle. Mazda’s compact car also now faces some serious contenders with the arrival of the oddly-styled but extremely competent Honda Civic, the unassuming but overachieving Volkswagen Golf, and the super-solid Hyundai Elantra. All of these cars check off the right boxes as far as compact cars go: they’re affordable, fuel efficient, and packed with value. And some, like the Civic, are actually fun to drive without need of advertising it.
Mazda on the other hand claims to have the driver’s car of all compacts in its arsenal. Driver involvement is Mazda’s battle horse, and I’m here to find out if this time, with the Mazda 3 in its most undesirable trim level, the Japanese carmaker’s promises have been fulfilled.
Before I go on rambling about how this thing drives, I want to take a minute to salute Mazda’s design team once again. We’re getting used to seeing the Mazda 3’s face by now from the millions of these things driving around on the road, but each time I take a minute to glance attentively at the way this car was styled, I can’t help but wonder what kind of thrilling sex life Mazda stylists must have, presumably much more so than Honda’s designers.
Let’s all be honest with ourselves here, the Mazda 3 is an absolutely gorgeous little car, and while many will argue that the hatchback version is the prettiest, I have personally always preferred the sedan. But what I admire the most about this Mazda 3 isn’t the way its curvaceous lines and creases blend harmoniously with each other to create a tightly wrapped package, but how perfectly proportioned the entire car remains. In a world of bloat and excess, seeing a compact car that’s still actually – ahem, a compact, is tremendously refreshing.
As I’m writing this, I’m driving around in the MX-5 (Miata) RF. I’ll be releasing the review of that car shortly. Driving that Miata is a revelation about Mazda’s whole Skyactiv weight-minimization efforts to improve fuel efficiency, handling and performance, as well as the Jinba Ittai philosophy; essentially a term used to describe the driver’s connection to the car akin the unity of a horse and its rider.
The Miata, of course, is all these virtues concentrated and at their peak. But once you’ve driven it, you suddenly understand how all of it trickles down through Mazda’s lineup. It all makes sense now, the Mazda 3 was in fact infused with the Miata’s DNA.
You sense this the moment you throw the car into a corner at higher speeds than you should. The car feels light, engaging, fluid and neutral, evoking confidence, and making you want to push harder, instead of pulling back from fear of losing control like you would in a Chevrolet Cruze for example. You’ll end up doing things in a Mazda 3 you never thought you could do in an economy car.
Then there’s the way that engine revs. All base Mazda 3’s come with the same 2.0-liter, dual-overhead cam four as in the MX-5, but slightly retuned for better efficiency and low-end torque. Power is rated at 155-horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque. Of course, you need to get yours with the slick-shifting, five-speed manual.
My tester was the GT, fitted with the larger, 2.5-liter engine also found in the Mazda 6. It’s obviously the one you want, thanks to much more substantial power figures rated at 184-horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque, as well as better acceleration off the line.And what lively engine that loves to rev and swing with eagerness all the way to its redline. Acceleration, from 0-100 km/h is rated at 6.9 seconds, putting the Mazda 3 in the same ballpark as the turbocharged Civic sedan. And thanks to Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control system, which, unlike in the 6, can actually be felt in the 3 by diminishing engine torque when turning into a corner, and transferring additional load to the front tires to make them respond better to steering inputs, the Mazda 3 is an eager little pup that blends suppleness and handling prowess very much like the Miata.
Another benefit of opting for the 2.5-liter is its fuel efficiency. During my time with the car, I’d pull an actual 7.5 l/100 km average. But sadly, that engine also sounds somewhat harsh, with a cheesy “zing” to its decibels as it climbs the rev counter, making it feel low-rent and cheap. The damn thing also crackles like a diesel when on idle – urgh. But the automatic gearbox is good, with quick, crisp gear changes and a tendency to maximize the engine’s powerband. Manual mode almost mimics the lightning-quick reaction times of an actual dual-clutch system, so even with the slushbox, this Mazda 3 isn’t a total penalty box. I definitely prefer this over a soul-sucking CVT.
Doing It With Style
Like with its larger sister, the Mazda 3’s interior design theme doesn’t disappoint. This compact greets your with an elegant, well put together cabin, where soft plastics, brushed aluminium and shiny plastics dominate. The instrument cluster is very MX-5-inspired, with a prominent tachometer sitting right smack in the center. Mazda’s dashboard-mounted touch-operated interface remains an oddity by not offering a retractable feature. I’m always afraid it’ll break off. It does, however, remain one of the simplest, easy to understand, and fluid user experiences in the industry.
But as stellar as the Mazda 3 is in the areas that matter, it does come with its share of shortcomings. That cabin remains loud at highway speeds, tire roll and suspension noise are also an issue, and although Mazda’s efforts of minimizing the car’s weight in the name of fuel efficiency and agility do work; the Mazda 3 feels somewhat flimsy overall, as if there’s isn’t much insulation between you and the actual road. Next to the rock-solid Elantra, and the Teutonic Golf, the Mazda 3 feels like it was wrapped in paper instead of actual steel.
Finally, the rear bench is a smidge on the cramped side. Headroom is acceptable, but long-legged passengers might find their knees kissing the front seats. In favor of going for more compact, tidier proportions, the Mazda 3 takes a hit from the Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra in terms of rear occupant space.
Prices for a 2017 Mazda 3 sedan kick off at a very Honda Civic rivaling $15,900 for an entry-level GX model. The sedan gets a total of four trim levels to choose from, three of which have the 2.0-liter engine, and the top-flight GT being fitted with the 2.5L. My tester, the GT, which is the most equipped sedan, with the technology and $900 moonroof packages added on, sells for $28 250 and came with convenience options such as attractive 18-inch wheels, a blind spot monitoring system with rear cross traffic alert, a heads up display, paddle shifters for the automatic, leather heated seats, and rain-sensing wipers.
My final verdict with the 2017 Mazda 3 is this: it’s a hell of a lot of fun to drive and remains true to the small car formula of being affordable, thrifty and packed with value. Sadly, it takes a hit from newer rivals in terms of refinement and chassis solidity. But Mazda’s promises of driver involvement have been fulfilled.
Here we have an engaging little machine whose driving experience isn’t obstructed by electronic nannies, heft or complication. That’s refreshing. In a sea of sameness, Mazda’s small car remains the underdog; the one that dares to walk out of the heard, which is precisely what Mazda needs if it wishes to remain alive against the current juggernauts of the industry.
Review of the 2017 Mazda 3 Sedan by William Clavey
- Beautiful exterior design.
- Fun and engaging to drive.
- Fuel efficient and well packaged.
- Loud wind and tire noise.
- Feels flimsy.
- Cramped rear seat.