Who said modesty and fun can’t go hand in hand? Mazda’s latest 3 sedan and hatchback start at a humble price of around $17,700, and top out at less than $30,000 with all the options. (Those $100 all-weather floor mats? Bring ‘em on.)
Jamming over narrow, bumpy Michigan roads, the Mazda 3 doesn’t seem scrappy or harsh, like many compact cars. Rather, it hums along smoothly over ragged ridges of bad pavement, showing off a supple suspension that’s so good as to be unlikely. Mazda has sprinkled engineering magic dust into that charming chassis: it rides as well as cars twice its price.
The 2014 model year is the third generation of the 3, and it’s an especially important car for Mazda, which is a niche player compared to Japan’s behemoth brands, Toyota and Honda. The 3 is Mazda’s best-selling model in the U.S. So the all-new car, which went on sale in September, must have a broad appeal. To achieve that, Mazda offers the compact both as a four-door sedan and a five-door hatchback, with a variety of trim levels and two engine choices.
The base sedan has a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, with 155 horsepower, standard with a six-speed manual transmission. That gets 29 miles per gallon around town, and a full 41 on the freeway.
The more expensive models are available with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 184 horses and 185 pound-feet of torque. The downside is that, currently, it only comes with a six-speed automatic. The extra power sacrifices some efficiency, for 28 and 37 mpg in the hatchback.
It really is a shame about the transmissions, because the more potent engine would be sweeter if it were also offered with the manual for maximum driving fun. After all, Mazda has one of the better stick and clutch combos in the business.
Though the company says buyers can expect one eventually, that’s of little help to them today. And the automatic could use a seventh gear, making the shifts smoother and a little less noisy, one of the drawbacks to the otherwise quite refined car. It’s one of the loudest I’ve driven in some time, a combination of racket from the tires, wind and engine.
The good side of the 2.5 liter is it rarely feels underpowered, especially on secondary roads, where it happily wrings its little heart out.
There’s plenty of midrange punch, which is to say it’s easy to surge from 35 to 55 mph. Steering on the car is good, and the Mazda negotiates through both curves and tight spaces with precision. While it isn’t pint sized like a Fiat 500 or Smart, it fits easily into narrow parking spots.
My test car was a Grand Touring hatchback with a base price of $26,495 and $29,185 as tested. It was painted a flashy black that nicely complimented the gray rims on the 18-inch wheels.
The hatchback has the more captivating of body styles. It’s quirky, with a long, bulbous hood and a cabin placed further aft than one typically finds in a front-wheel-drive car. The sides are shapely, with an interesting interplay of contours. Compared to the last generation, the new look wins hands down.
(The compact segment used to be a barren desert design-wise, but has taken a serious turn for the better with competitors like the Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra.)
The hatchback has plenty of room. It’s easy to pop luggage or groceries into the hatch, and I spent two hours in the rear seat with minimal complaint. My knees weren’t jammed against the seat backs, nor was my head jack-hammered into the roof liner.
Few buyers will ever buy a Mazda because of the fine qualities of its materials. The new interior design is clean and efficient, with a minimum of button clutter. However, you won’t spend much time running your hand over the leather-trimmed seats or plastic.
Plenty of electronic safety equipment is on offer, including blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alerts which come standard on the upmarket trim levels. There’s also an available lane departure warning and forward collision warning system if you’re into that kind of thing.
The car looks good, even adequately expensive, and doesn’t stint on the technology. But it’s really the overall drivability and ease of use that makes the new 3 as the new potential king of the compact cars. Pop it into sport mode and you may find yourself looking for the long way around to do errands.
The 2014 Mazda 3 S Grand Touring hatchback at a Glance
Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in about seven seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 28 city, 37 highway.
Price as tested: $29,185.
Best features: Good design, peppy engine.
Worst feature: Loud.
Target buyer: The shopper who wants a compact with some pizazz.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)