The new Mazda3 shows that an economy car doesn't have to feel cheap, and can feature tech on par with luxury competition.
In recent years, luxury automakers such as Lexus and Mercedes-Benz launched compact cars at the low ends of their lineups, betting on the idea that urban-dwelling, well-heeled buyers would prefer a car with smaller dimensions. Mazda reaches up-market with the 2014 Mazda3, pushing the latest generation of this economy car to compete with the luxury compacts.
But where the luxury makers set a base of about $30,000 for their offerings, the Mazda3's price remains solidly amongst the economy set.
Mazda managed to make the Mazda3 look and drive as well as the new cars from the luxury competition. Even its tech features compare well with these new up-market compacts, although in practice some of those features proved buggy, and could have done with some refinement.
The Mazda3 I reviewed was the five-door hatchback, a form I prefer over the available sedan for its looks and practicality. In design, the Mazda3 has a delicious curviness in all its lines, and looks like no other car on the road. The nose is surprisingly long and the front fenders arch upward, creating a dramatic dip at the A pillars.
The low roofline at the rear gives it a little gangster swagger, but the back of the Mazda3 seems to cut off too abruptly. There seemed so little to the back end that I assumed the cargo area would be non-existent. Opening the hatch, I could see there was room for more than a couple grocery bags, at least. The official rating for the cargo area is 20.2 cubic feet, far from the largest in its set. Fold down the rear seats, though, and the rated space goes up to 47.1 cubic feet.
This particular Mazda3, with "s" and "Grand Touring" added to the name, sported the most expensive trim in the lineup. At this trim level every cabin tech and driver-assistance feature comes standard. Not only did this Mazda3 have a navigation system, but it also came with a head-up display, lane-departure warning, and a blind-spot monitor.
The new infotainment system, called Mazda Connect, consists of a 7-inch color screen perched on the dashboard, and a set of hard controls down on the console. From the configuration of these controls, it looks like Mazda is borrowing from the European automakers. Mazda Connect comes standard on the Mazda3 i Grand Touring, s Touring, and on the s Grand Touring.
With this system, a home screen shows large icons for cabin tech functions such as navigation, stereo, and phone, and lets the driver scroll through and select items using the console dial. The dial also works as a push button, and moves laterally and vertically. Similar to BMW's iDrive and Audi's MMI, navigating menus is quick and easy, but entering alphanumeric characters is tedious. However, the Mazda3's LCD is also a touch screen, so I could lean forward and tap letters in with the onscreen keyboard.
I found the interface intuitive to use, and I liked how Mazda put all the audio sources on one screen, rather than separating broadcast and local storage. However, one morning I started up the car and found that the buttons were not responsive, leaving me stuck on the navigation screen. It took a restart of the car, rebooting Mazda Connect, to restore its functionality.
Voice command allows hands-free control for some of the cabin tech, such as making phone calls by contact name and entering addresses for navigation in a single string. But it did not have the ability to recognize artist, album, or song names from media in the car.
The navigation system showed maps in good resolution, with perspective and plan views. I wasn't crazy about the gray color scheme, but it included rendered buildings in downtown areas; rich graphics for upcoming turns; lane guidance; and the current speed limit. Turn and lane guidance also projected on the head-up display.
But the navigation system suffered from a couple of problems. First, in areas with tall buildings or trees, it was prone to losing its GPS fix. That led to unnecessary route recalculating and voice prompts. Second, the live traffic implementation is kind of bizarre. Under an Apps menu, far removed from navigation in the menus, I found a map showing traffic ingested from the FM data broadcast. That live traffic was not integrated with navigation at all.
Mazda Connect has the ability to show traffic on its map screen, but the car needs to be tethered to a data source with Wi-Fi. Some Android phones allow data tethering, or you could keep a Wi-Fi hot spot in the car, but all that seems a little ridiculous. I would very much like to see Mazda integrate the FM-derived live traffic with the navigation system, so the car could actively calculate routes around traffic jams.
Tethering the car to a data source also enables fuel price information online location search through Google.
Mazda Connect includes Pandora, Stitcher, and Aha Radio in its list of audio sources, but those apps were integrated through my phone. The Mazda3 uses one of the most advanced implementations of Bluetooth I've seen for phone connectivity. It allowed phone calls, of course, but Mazda included a Bluetooth standard called Host Controller Interface. The standard let me browse and select music from my iPhone through the car's interface without the phone having to be cabled to the car. Android 4.2 devices should also support the Host Controller Interface standard.
So far, the only other car I've seen supporting this standard is the Acura RLX Sport Hybrid.
Among the Mazda3's other audio sources were two USB ports in the console, HD Radio, and satellite radio. Traditionalists will be annoyed to find the volume knob sitting on the console next to the Mazda Connect controls, but Mazda has always found odd spots to place the volume knob.
The head-up display is a very interesting feature which is virtually unheard of in compact cars. But the implementation in the Mazda3 is a little weird. Instead of a projection on the windshield, there is clear plastic panel that pops up from the dashboard. Mazda should have fixed it in place, as the panel did not always deploy all the way when I started the car. I occasionally found myself having to flick the panel so I could see the display.
The monochrome projection showed speed, lane-departure warnings, and route guidance.
The lane-departure warning was a little too sensitive, sounding off whenever I brushed up against a lane line, but I could easily turn it off with a button push. I could also choose a beeping alert or a rumble strip sound, the latter very clearly coming from the side of the car that was running over the lane line. I definitely preferred the latter.
The blind spot monitor system, another rare feature in cars of this class, lit up icons in the side mirrors when cars were traveling in the lane to either side. A rearview camera took over the LCD when I put the Mazda3 into reverse.
Those tech features are, in many ways, excellent, but they are just the icing on the Mazda3's cake when you consider the superb driving character.
The Mazda3 s Grand Touring gets a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with direct injection, a little more displacement and power than the 2-liter engine of the "i" models. The 2.5-liter mill makes 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque, particularly good numbers when you consider the car weighs just 3,000 pounds when fully equipped.
It was certainly enough power for me to screech the front tires on take-off.
Where the Mazda3 really felt good was in the steering and suspension tuning. The car felt comfortably tight, ready to respond to all my driving inputs. The ride quality was generally excellent, a competent damping out of bumps and rough spots in the pavement. However, over successive bumps the car exhibited some float.
The steering, using electric power boost, was immediately responsive. More importantly, both steering and suspension felt like they were tuned to work together. Some automakers cheap out on their compact cars, using a torsion bar across the rear wheels, but Mazda fits the rear of the Mazda3 with an independent multi-link architecture, allowing for better response to the road and more flexibility in tuning.
Driving around town, the Mazda3 felt as good as cars costing $10,000 more. The six-speed automatic transmission, the only gearbox available on the s Grand Touring trim, lead to an easy driving character, making stop-and-go traffic painless. A couple more gears would have lead to less abrupt shifts and possibly greater fuel economy, really putting the Mazda3 on par with the luxury competition.
Rather than a low range, the transmission includes a manual mode, with paddles on the steering wheel to control the gears. The manual shifts exhibited some slushiness, and seemed more suitable for controlling engine braking on a descent then snapping off changes on a track.
However, as much as the Mazda3 seems like quality commuter for the urban and suburban environment, I couldn't resist the Sport button sitting on the console. Tapping it not only made the throttle more sensitive, it engaged a high-revving transmission program.
Standing on the brakes coming into a turn, I was pleased to see the tach needle jump to 5,000 as the transmission aggressively geared down. With peak power on tap, the Mazda3's front tires bit into the pavement, scrabbling to pull the car in the direction I was turning.
In this kind of driving, the suspension showed a little more sway than I would have liked, but that served to remind me that Mazda should be coming out with the Mazdaspeed version of this car soon. As it was, the Mazda3 let me have more fun than I would have expected from what, at the end of the day, is still an economy car.
Highlighting that economy are the EPA mileage estimates of 28 mpg city and 38 mpg highway. Despite having 30 more horsepower than the 2-liter Mazda3 i trim levels, fuel economy is down only 2 mpg. I turned in an average of 29.6 mpg over a driving course that included ample use of the Sport button.
Helping the Mazda3 s achieve its fuel economy is Mazda's i-Eloop regenerative braking system. Similar to hybrid vehicles, i-Eloop converts kinetic energy to electricity when the car is braking or coasting down. Rather than reuse that electricity as drive energy, though, the Mazda3 uses it to power all of the car's auxiliary systems, taking some of the generator load off the engine. BMW uses a similar system.
A cut above
The 2014 Mazda3 punches far above its weight, an extraordinary achievement and one that will make other automakers think twice when tooling up their economy car updates. In top trim, the Mazda3 brings in a good set of driver assistance features and cabin tech. The live traffic integration was a bit of a let-down, something I would like to see Mazda improve in a model refresh, but the Mazda Connect system offers a good amount of features. With the apps menu area, the system looks like a good base for additional features.
A couple of features I would like to see in the future would be adaptive cruise control and online location search in the navigation system.
The driving character shows excellent attention to detail on the part of Mazda. I was completely satisfied with the steering feel and engine response. I wasn't gentle with the car, but it still got decent fuel economy. And I like that one button engaged sport modes for both transmission and throttle. A sport program for the steering would be interesting, but the wheel is already so responsive I don't know where Mazda could take it.
And the idea of an upcoming Mazdaspeed version kept me from yearning for even more sporting behavior.
This fully equipped Mazda3 s Grand Touring hatchback ran over $27,000, pushing the price point of an economy car. However, the tech comes on strong in the Mazda3 i Grand Touring 5-Door with the Mazda Connect system, which begins at $23,245. That trim level may be the sweet spot for most buyers.
|Trim||s Grand Touring 5-Door|
|Powertrain||Direct injection 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||28 mpg city/38 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||29.6 mpg|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Internet streaming, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio, HD radio|
|Audio system||Bose nine-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Head-up display, lane-departure warnings, blind-spot monitor, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$27,590|