Model year 2017 changes:
Editors' note, August 20, 2017: This review was written based on an evaluation of the 2016 Mazda3. See the changes for the 2017 model year above. Alternatively, read our review on the 2017 Mazda3 five-door hatchback here.
In a stomping ground long owned by two major players, the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, other small sedans seem like they're just playing second fiddle. But the Mazda3 carves its own path, and it's doing so in the only way that Mazda knows how -- driving dynamics.
It would be tough to outclass the stalwarts in other ways. No economy car can truly be a technological runaway these days, not in the era of standard touchscreens and high-tech safety systems. The same goes for the interior -- nearly every automaker realizes the days of the hard-plastic penalty box are behind us.
But when it comes to making a car that's fun to drive without being a complete (and literal) pain in the tuchus for your average owner, boy howdy, that's where the Mazda3 shines. Aside from the new-for-2016 Honda Civic, the Mazda3 has the whole segment by its neck in this regard.
The Mazda3 keeps to some pretty classic proportions. It doesn't err on the side of gaudy, choosing thicker tire sidewalls even on higher trim levels. Although prominent, the character lines on the side refrain from giving the car a boy-racer aesthetic. It's a pretty car that's a little less futuristic than the new Civic, and it's likely to age better as a result.
The real visual gem of this car lies inside. The 3's interior is one of, if not the best in its class. Sure, there's a bit of hard plastic here and there, but bear in mind this car starts below $20,000. Just like the exterior, the interior manages to avoid being boring without looking like it's trying too hard.
The leather on the steering wheel and seats feels soft and pleasant to touch. The sensibly laid-out gauges include a perhaps-too-small digital tachometer to the left, and an information display to the right. The infotainment controls, including those mounted on the steering wheel, are easy to figure out and easy to use without distraction.
The biggest point of consternation is the standalone LCD display atop the dashboard. Not everyone likes the look, but I do. It's certainly better than trying to build a dash bulky enough to swallow the whole screen, and it makes for good sight lines.
Sadly, the rear seat lacks much legroom. It's smaller than both the Civic and Corolla, which is quite apparent with longer-legged front-seat occupants. Headroom can also be a bit cramped for passengers taller than 6 feet.
Mazda caters to both early adopters and Luddites with its Mazda Connect system, which features both a touchscreen and redundant controls just aft of the shifter. In fact, I found the physical controls so easy to figure out, that I almost never touched the screen itself.
Mazda Connect is one of my favorite infotainment systems because it's straightforward. Every page gets its own little dock of icons with descriptions. The navigation map is easy to use, even if not every street name pops up as I approach it. I can stream audio via Bluetooth while the phone is plugged in, which is not a possibility on every model, so my battery won't die just because I want to listen to music not stored on my phone.
Connectivity options are limited, though. The car lacks both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, or an onboard data connection for destination searches. I found its Aha integration a convenient way to find new points of interest while also expanding my listening options, even though it requires downloading and signing up for Aha's service.
Mazda offers two different four-cylinder engines in the 3. Our tester came with the lesser engine, a 2.0-liter, 155-horsepower four-banger, mated to a six-speed manual. The stick isn't as notchy and precise as Honda's (arguably one of the best in the industry, nevertheless its segment), but it doesn't quite fall into the categories of rubbery or vague. The clutch pedal itself has decent pedal travel and a bite point that's easy for newbies to suss out.
You're not going to win any drag races with this engine. In fact, if I was not near the top of the rev range, and I needed to give 'er the beans, it's not even going to feel like a race -- I'd feel like I'm in one of those dreams when I try to run and nothing happens. It out-torques the competition's base engines, but in this car, it still feels on the lacking side.
Even revving it out on highway on-ramps, I found fuel economy easy to come by. A light foot and early shifting put my fuel economy at or above the EPA's estimate of 29 mpg city and 41 mpg highway. I averaged between 34 and 36 mpg over a couple hundred miles of mixed driving, and I wasn't exactly trying to win a trophy.
Once up to speed, the Mazda3 really shines. I feel this car sets the segment benchmark for electric power steering, as it gives some decent feedback and feels damn precise.
The car is set up on the stiffer side, but that little bit of tire sidewall prevents the whole affair from being a tooth-chattering mess. The tight body makes for enjoyable and capable higher corner-entry speeds. Mash the brakes and the chin won't scrape the ground. It's one of the best drivers in its segment.
Of course, there are some downsides. Wind noise is a factor, as I had a fair bit of it coming from around the A-pillar. Turning up the radio helped, but it shouldn't need to be mandatory at higher speeds. I have coworkers that feel the steering is almost too immediate for many buyers, who might see the system as twitchy. You'd be a fool to a buy a car without a test-drive, anyhow, but it's definitely something to keep in mind.
If driving is what you care about, then the Mazda3 should appear at or near the top of your compact-car shortlist. If you take other factors into consideration, the Mazda3 becomes more of a mid-pack contender.
Fuel economy hits the high end of the segment, without the need for a CVT. But the Civic's base engine does a better job getting up to speed, and its six-speed manual is a bit more precise. The Mazda3 is OK on interior space, but it's outclassed in the back by both Civic and Corolla, the latter of which dominates with more than 40 inches of rear legroom.
Furthermore, the Mazda3 loses another point for having its safety suite available only with the more expensive engine. Honda will slap its HondaSensing suite on every trim of Civic possible.
In terms of price, the car is right about in the middle. Our Mazda3 i Grand Touring retails for $23,435 out the door, with a base price of $22,545. A comparably equipped Civic EX-L is a bit more expensive, a Corolla LE Premium is a smidge cheaper and the Hyundai Elantra Limited is damn near the same price.
With competition this tightly packed, a car needs a defining characteristic to help it stand out. The Mazda3 achieves that by being a daily driver that doesn't skimp on fun. It's one of the most engaging cars in its class, yet it doesn't break the bank, it doesn't drain your gas budget and it's not lacking in features, either. If driving is more to you than just going from A to B, you'd be hard-pressed to find a compact car better than this.