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Mazda3 Hatchback: Sporty Luxury…On A Budget

Car Reviews

Mazda3 Hatchback: Sporty Luxury…On A Budget

Mazda3 Hatchback:

Sporty Luxury…On A Budget

My love affair with Mazda was born more than 30 years ago.

I was headed home from some sort of interminable meeting when I decided the shortest distance was not nearly as desirable as dropping the top on the Miata I was testing and heading cross country for a midsummer spin on sweeping curves of U.S. 259 through Oklahoma’s Ouachita Mountains.

As the sun disappeared behind the hills, the steam of the day yielded to the sweet, musky smells of creeks cutting through pine forests, punctuated by an occasional whiff of honeysuckle and freshly mowed hay.

Soon, a brilliant buck moon illuminated a wide and winding road. Traffic was light and, assessing the probability of patrol cars to be minimal, I asked the little car what she could do. Light, nimble, nicely balanced, and responsive, she whipped through curves with nary a trace of body roll. She seemed naturally to locate apexes and longed to accelerate through exit points.

The reason for the journey may be forgotten but not the joy that the car brought. It elicited the same peaceful smile to my face as a rainbow after a storm.

“Zoom-Zoom,” was an advertising tagline that Mazda began using in its commercials around 2000 to describe the emotion of motion inherent in Mazda vehicles. In 2015, that was changed to “Driving Matters.” Both intertwine a love of dynamic movement with an innocent, childlike perception of fun.

Both apply today, but in the past few years Mazda has gone further. With a well-deserved reputation for innovative design, competent engineering, and meticulous craftsmanship, Mazdas have been smart choices among cars and SUVs for decades. To that foundation, the Hiroshima, Japan, corporation has added a near-luxury feel to its interiors.

No matter the model or price point, Mazda cabins outpace competitors with modern, upscale materials that are cleverly designed and carefully assembled.

Affordable luxury

That certainly is the case with the Mazda 3, a compact sedan or hatch that comes in six trim lines, starting at $23,700 for a 191-hp 2.5L and can climb to more than $35,000 for a 250-HP AWD Turbo Premium Plus. The base edition includes a list of items normally found on near-luxury cars: LED headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, power windows and doors, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, voice controls, Apple CarPlay™, Android Auto™, lane-keep assist and radar cruise control.

Climb the model tree, and Mazda adds goodies like premium sound systems, proximity keys, 360-degree camera views, leather seating, full-color head-up display, keyless entry, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert. 

In short, these are very nice cars for the money, and the good news is they still drive like a Mazda. Or at least Blonde Bride and I thought so. The current iteration has been on the streets for three years and most critics simultaneously praise a ride that is more refined than the previous version, but not as crisp handling. 

We maintain that most people are not looking for a car to take to the track on weekends; instead, they need something comfortable for commuting, shopping, and living in the 21st century. On that score, the Mazda3 excels. The little car darts in and out of traffic as effortlessly as a shadow slipping from darkness to light and back.

The car has picked up several major design awards, including 2020 World Car Design of the Year, so obviously some people find it comely. I find the exterior pleasant enough but a little nondescript and I mention all this only to contrast it with the interior. Sitting in the driver’s seat gives one the impression of sitting in something upscale from Germany or Sweden.

Competitive field

Only in the United States, a wealthy and sprawling nation with limited mass transportation, are large, lumbering machines revered. The rest of the planet finds greater value in maneuverability, fuel economy, and the ability to navigate crowded urban centers with narrow streets and limited parking.

Thus, there exist refined and affordable competitors in the compact and subcompact markets. Chief among the Mazda3’s rivals: Toyota Corolla, Subaru Impreza, Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic, Kia Forte, VW GTI and Jetta. 

Read all the reviewers and no consensus emerges as to which is best, but the Mazda3, which comes in both sedan and hatchback models, consistently ranks in the top tier.

Strengths include:

  • Excellent driving dynamics thanks to a well-balanced chassis, responsive steering, and a peppy engine.
  • Spacious interior: The Mazda3 Hatch has a surprisingly spacious interior for a compact car. It has plenty of legroom and headroom for front and rear passengers, and the cargo area is also quite large.
  • Reliable and long-lasting: The Mazda3 Hatch is a reliable car that is known to last for many years. It has a good reputation for being well-built and easy to maintain.

Weaknesses including:

  • Mediocre fuel economy: The Mazda3’s fuel economy is not the best in its class. It gets an EPA-estimated 27 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway.
  • Lack of rearward visibility: The Mazda3 Hatch’s rearward visibility is not great. The rear pillars are thick, and the rear window is small. Fortunately, a backup camera is standard.
  • Shaky driver-assist technology. The Mazda 3’s lane-keep feature was one of the worst performing ones we’ve seen, usually waiting until touching a lane marker before reacting and then overcorrecting. The adaptive cruise control was similarly unreliable. It is supposed to be able to bring the car to a halt in stop-and-go traffic, but more than once we felt compelled to hit the brakes first. It was also slow to accelerate back up to speed.

Oddly enough, few of these cars come with hybrid powertrains, which not only deliver better fuel economy but also are far more durable. (I’m not talking about electric cars. Hybrids do not plug in. They draw current from the gas engine.)

Both the Corolla and Elantra hybrids achieve about 48 mpg, or 29.7% better than the Mazda3 on a good day. Adding the hybrid adds about $1,500 to the price of the vehicle, though it is hard to put a hard number on that because manufacturers toss a load of desirable goodies into the hybrids’ parts bins.

Blue-eyed Beauty and I are leaning heavily towards purchasing an Elantra because of superior fuel economy, more developed safety gear, and its 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty.

If you’re into Zoom-Zoom, however, you owe it to yourself to stop by a Mazda dealer before you buy.

In four decades of journalism, Bill Owney has picked up awards for his coverage of everything from murders to the NFL to state and local government. He added the automotive world to his portfolio in the mid '90s.

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