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2019 Mazda3 AWD first drive review: Surefooted sweetheart

Does all-wheel drive add new dynamic dimension to the already-enjoyable 2019 Mazda3?

Mazda

Back in January, Roadshow's Steven Ewing spent a day driving the brand-new 2019 Mazda3 through sunny Southern California, and came away impressed. It's as great to drive as ever, but the new Mazda3 boasts significant improvements in onboard tech, not to mention creature comforts. Overall, it's a better-rounded car, but hasn't lost any of Mazda's characteristic on-road verve.

But while Ewing's test was relegated to the front-wheel-drive car, a big part of the 2019 Mazda3 story is its newly available all-wheel drive. That's what brings me to Lake Tahoe, California, for this second take, to find out whether AWD truly elevates the Mazda3's appeal.

All-wheel drive, Mazda style

Most all-wheel-drive systems are reactive, meaning they don't move power around until slip is detected. Additionally, most systems favor the front wheels for as long as absolutely possible. Mazda's i-Activ system is a little bit different.

Dave Coleman, Mazda's manager of vehicle dynamics, says i-Activ AWD monitors things like steering inputs, G-forces and vehicle speed, to get a better idea of how much load is being applied to each tire. "It's figuring out where it should send the torque based on which tire has the most grip available to use that torque," he says.

In other words, Mazda's system is a bit more predictive. It automatically routes power to the wheels that already have the most grip, can predict oversteer or understeer situations and mitigate those situations before the front or rear axles have the chance to be overwhelmed. This methodology makes the Mazda3 more surefooted in all situations.

It's easy to experience the virtues of the i-Activ AWD system on a Mazda-designed snow course near Lake Tahoe. Starting with a front-wheel-drive car, then moving to an all-wheel-drive Mazda3, the difference is noticeable, even on all-season tires. With the added four-wheel power, I can move through the snow faster and with more confidence -- the AWD car is much more willing to tuck into corners, even in these slick conditions.

With all-wheel drive and winter tires, the Mazda3 easily handles the slippery snow.

Mazda

A final run in an AWD Mazda3 equipped with Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires provides the best experience -- a reminder to always equip your car with season-appropriate rubber, regardless of drive configuration. With all-wheel drive and proper snow shoes, the Mazda3 attacks a snowy slalom course with total aplomb. If I lived in a place that routinely saw snow, I'd love to have this combination of fun-to-drive capability.

All-wheel drive gives the 2019 Mazda3 an extra layer of dynamic depth on dry roads, too. With 186 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque coming from a naturally aspirated, 2.5-liter I4 engine, there isn't a huge performance envelope to dig into. But AWD lets you make better use of that power while cornering. The Mazda3 isn't a sports car, but it certainly doesn't mind being driven like one.

As Ewing explained in his first drive, the Mazda3 offers great steering feel at speed, with a nicely tuned chassis that allows for natural-feeling on-road reflexes. All-wheel drive simply lets you carry a bit more speed through each turn, knowing you've got the advantage of power application at all four corners.

Adding AWD comes with a small weight penalty -- 177 pounds on the sedan -- but it's not something you'll truly feel from behind the wheel. However, it's worth noting that adding AWD reduces fuel economy a bit. A front-wheel-drive Mazda3 sedan has EPA-estimated ratings of 27 miles per gallon city, 36 mpg highway and 30 mpg combined. Adding AWD drops those numbers to 25, 33 and 28, respectively. If you want the all-wheel-drive hatchback, you're looking at a further reduction, to 24 mpg city, 32 mpg highway and 27 mpg combined. Certainly not hugely detrimental, and remember, your mileage may vary.

All-wheel drive is available on both the Mazda3 sedan and hatchback.

Mazda

Four doors or five

In addition to all-wheel drive, my second go with the 2019 Mazda3 involved a chance to hop behind the wheel of the hatchback model; Ewing was only able to test the sedan. As you'd expect, the cars drive pretty much identically. The hatchback only weighs 7 pounds more than the sedan.

I still can't get down with the hatchback's profile, which kind of looks like a squatting dog, but I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Of course, the hatchback shape affords a bit more practicality. With its rear seats up, the Mazda3 hatchback offers 20.1 cubic feet of cargo space, which bests the Toyota Corolla Hatchback, but falls short of the Honda Civic Hatchback and Volkswagen Golf. Mazda has yet to release a seats-folded cargo number.

Otherwise, the Mazda3 hatchback is as nicely appointed as the sedan, but pretty cramped for rear passengers. At 5 feet, 10 inches tall, and just 125 pounds, even I approach the size limits of the Mazda3's back seats.

The Mazda3's cabin is nicely appointed and offers better tech, but the hatchback's rear compartment is somewhat tight.

Mazda

More to love

The cheapest way to get an all-wheel-drive Mazda3 is to opt for the Select-trim sedan. At $24,000, not including $895 for destination, it's $1,400 more expensive than a similarly equipped, front-wheel-drive sedan. Same goes for the Mazda3 hatchback, which starts at $25,000 with all-wheel drive, compared to $23,600 with front-wheel drive.

Adding all-wheel drive only improves the Mazda3 experience. If you live in a snow-belt state, AWD offers better prowess to handle winter's worst. And if you're just buying a Mazda3 because you're attracted to its other great attributes, all-wheel drive offers added confidence for cornering. Plus, aside from the Subaru Impreza, you can't get all-wheel drive on any other compact car -- and let's be honest, the Mazda is much better-looking than the Subie, with nicer interior appointments.

It's not an option every buyer will tick, but for those who do, all-wheel drive only enhances the new Mazda3's appeal.

All-wheel drive is a $1,400 option on the 2019 Mazda3.

Mazda

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.