A very good compact car and hatch take an abrupt turn into high-end territory, making the Mazda3 more competitive than ever.
Review and photos by Tom Sedens. And yes, it was a sunny day and the snow was flying when I photographed the sedan. Alberta weather!
I’ve always been a fan of Mazda’s 3, in particular the hatchback Sport models. They have traditionally provided a lot of driving fun, with enough comfort and practicality to make them worthy of consideration to a large cross-section of shoppers. And they have improved with every generation. This latest one is no exception.
I reviewed two samples of the Mazda3 in a row – first a front-wheel drive sedan, then an all-wheel drive Sport hatchback. Wait! Did I just write “all-wheel drive”??? Yes I did. Arriving alongside the all-new 3 is the possibility of getting one in AWD. Both cars arrived in the top-tier GT trim.
I have generally not preferred the Mazda3 sedan – but the latest generation brings great styling to the table. It looks significantly bigger than the last generation.
I liked the noticeable character crease from top of front fender to well past the front door – it’s so aggressive that you can see it from a long ways away and pending on the lighting, it changes the entire side view of the car. Both cars sport the new corporate Mazda grille. It works really well here – it’s aggressive and sleek and looks expensive. The LED headlights are bright and very effective. Out back are a set of cool LED partial-ring-style tail lights.
Speaking of out back, for the first time ever, I don’t prefer the Sport’s styling over the sedans. Mazda has designed a rear end for the hatch that is very heavy in terms of surface area, particularly from the rear 3/4 perspective. There’s a lot of sheet metal going on there, and while I don’t hate it, I think the sedan looks better.
I loved the Soul Red Crystal Metallic colour on my Sport review car – it’s worth every dime, in my opinion, and the 18″ alloy wheels on both vehicles looked great!
Stepping into the new interior is a great experience. The driving position is sporty – you sit deep in the car, low over the road and you’re surrounded by a high beltline. This gives you a secure cockpit type of feeling and I loved it.
The cabin is beautifully crafted out of nicely textured plastics and stitched panels. The sculpting on the dash is delightful. The sleek, clean design works well and the fit and finish on both cars was exceptional. The one misstep in the materials department is the glossy black trim on the console – it is exceptionally prone to showing fingerprints and dust, and just looks terrible after driving around for a day or so. I would honestly keep a microcloth handy to clean those surfaces on a daily basis.
A crisp 8.8″ screen juts out of the dash, with a rotary joystick knob on the console to interact with it – the all-new interface is excellent and a big improvement. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality is baked in.
There isn’t really a centre stack to speak of but the middle section of the dash below the screen houses a dual-zone climate control system.
The outstanding leather front seats provide plenty of comfort and bolstering support and are heated – so is the steering wheel. I thought the BOSE system (which places the woofers in an innovative new spot in the car’s frame) sounded great!
There’s a standard sized sunroof overhead, and plenty of driver assistance technology in the higher trim – all of it works very well. You get blind-spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, a back-up camera and rear parking sensors, adaptive cruise control and a legit heads-up display (not that piece of plastic that pivots out of the dash any more).
The rear seats are comfortable and spacious enough for a compact car. I’m 5’10”, and sitting behind my own driving position, I had enough leg room, foot room to spare and about an inch and a half of head room. That goes for the two outboard seats. The middle position doesn’t work well and straddles a large floor tunnel.
The middle seatback folds down to become an armrest with a couple of cupholders, but unfortunately that’s about it – no charge points for back seat passengers. There are two sets of ISOFIX anchors for child seats.
At the front of the centre console is a rubberized open bin. There is a USB plug above it, which makes me think it was intended as a landing spot for your phone – but unfortunately the bin wasn’t big enough to fit my iPhone X. Behind that are cupholders under a lid.
You’ll find a small bin under the armrest lid along with 12V and USB plugs.
The sedan trunk is a nice size at 374L and is easy to load. There’s a remote trunk lid release on the dash. That said, the hatchback is obviously more practical and significantly bigger (569L).
Under the Hood
Mazda’s SKYACTIV 2.5L 4-cylinder soldiers on here. It makes 186HP and 186 lb.ft of torque. The entry-level GX trim gets the 2.0L engine. The engine is mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission and comes as a front-wheel drive car. The big news, as mentioned earlier, is the availability of all-wheel drive as an option in the GS and GT trims.
The cars were rated at 8.8/6.6 L/100 km city/hwy for the sedan and 9.8/7.4 L/100 km city/hwy for the all-wheel drive Sport.
As is typical with Mazdas, the 3 is not the most powerful thing out there, but is so, so rewarding to drive. There’s just something about how the engine interacts and works in concert with the transmission that conveys a sense of purpose and perfection to the driver. It’s not underpowered and does everything you ask of it. There is plenty of get-up-and-go for urban warriors. Passing on the highway isn’t this car’s forte, although it does just fine there as well.
Sometimes, when I encounter a 6-speed transmission, it feels dated and as if it’s missing some gears. So many manufacturers have moved on and are offering 2, 3 or even 4 more gears. But the Mazda transmission feels perfectly modern. It’s fast, it never seems to be missing gears, and it is very intelligent, almost always driving in the correct gear. It can be shifted manually with paddles or with the gear selector too.
Continuing with the typical-Mazda-theme, the suspension is beautifully sorted. The ride is euro-firm but very comfortable and the handling is simply outstanding. The car feels like it wants to play and the more you pick up the pace, the more confident the car feels. I sensed a slight difference in ride firmness and Mazda Canada confirmed that, although the tuning is identical, the rear spring and damper themselves are slightly different to make up for the added weight in the Sport – so the hatch felt ever so slightly firmer to me. Even so, I thought the sedan came out feeling marginally more nimble – perhaps because it weighs 100kg less, and perhaps because it doesn’t have all-wheel drive.
The all-wheel drive Sport felt ever so slightly less responsive than the front-wheel drive car. This isn’t a dig on the car – they are both awesome. But driving them one after another, it felt like the front-wheel drive was a bit more responsive off the line and again in terms of handling.
I found the brakes to be wonderfully powerful and easy to modulate. Overall, the driving experience is far more refined than you might expect in a car in this class. It is so quiet – wind and road noise are almost completely defeated, even in these cars that were equipped with winter tires.
One thing that may seem trivial to others drove me absolutely crazy about the 3. The car automatically sets the parking brake when you park the vehicle. In order to turn it off, you have two options – you need to manually disengage the brake, or you can place the car into gear (Drive or Reverse will work), hit the gas and eventually the car disengages the brake for you – but not before you’ve run up against a set brake and the car lurches.
I studied the owner’s manual for a long time before realizing there is nothing to defeat this functionality. So I finally took it to the dealership. They confirmed there is no way to turn that off, and they also confirmed they regularly have customers come back asking the same thing. They also quietly admitted that everyone hates that the car does this and that there is no way to turn this off.
I know it sounds like I’m making a big deal out of something small, but it still drove me crazy after spending two weeks in these two cars. If I’m wrong about this, and the dealership was wrong too, and this “feature” can be disabled, I would love for someone to correct me.
UPDATE: Achilles Mazda out of Milton, Ontario was kind enough to a) look into this further and b) follow up with Mazda Canada. It has been confirmed that the procedure in the owner’s manual does allow for this feature to be disabled, but not permanently – which means you’d have to go through a fairly tedious process every time you fire up the car – something I’m certain nobody wants to do. They also found out that Mazda is working on a solution to permanent disable this due to customer demand. Good on Mazda for listening to its clients!
WAF (Wife Approval Factor) was pretty high. She thought the sedan looked great, that the interiors were very nice and she really liked how the cars drove.
The new Mazda3 is simply an outstanding car, whichever version you choose. Sedan or hatch, front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive – all of them are fantastic.
It feels like a high-end car inside and regardless of which facet of the vehicle you discuss, you can’t help but use the word “refined” over and over. And for this kind of money, I don’t think you can get a better car.
I can’t recommend the new Mazda3 enough – it should be on anyone’s shopping list who is looking for a compact sedan or hatchback.
Pricing: 2019 Mazda3
Base price (GT trim): $26,200
Options: $2,500 Premium Package; $300 Machine Grey Metallic paint
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $30,795
Pricing: 2019 Mazda3 Sport
Base price (GT trim): $27,200
Options: $2,500 Premium Package; $1,700 i_ACTIV AWD; $450 Soul Red Crystal Metallic paint
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $33,645
Disclosure: Vehicles were provided by Mazda Canada.
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