A road trip from New Jersey's Newark Airport back to Detroit at the wheel of the updated 2017 Mazda3 Grand Touring 5-Door proves to to be not only fun, but also an educational endeavor. You can learn an awful lot about a car while covering 628 miles over the course of 8 hours and 53 minutes.
In past experiences with the third-generation Mazda3, I've always walked away impressed with its excellent handling capabilities, but the Mazda previously came up short in some other areas, including ride quality, cabin noise isolation and interior build quality.
However, for 2017 Mazda makes some revisions to address some of the 3's weak points and bolster its technology offerings. Oh, and this is Mazda we're talking about here, so of course they've also done some work to make the car even more fun to drive.
In typical Mazda3 fashion, my hatchback makes bombing through Pennsylvania's rolling mountainous terrain a grin-inducing affair. Around downhill bends, the 3 hangs on tight in both dry and damp conditions with minimal body roll. Steering response is immediate, providing quick turn-in, which is also helped with the addition of new standard G-Vectoring Control (GVC) software in certain situations.
Taking into account readings from throttle and steering sensors, GVC slightly reduces the engine's ignition spark to provide an unnoticeable amount of engine braking and shift weight to the front of the car. Loaded-up front tires provide a bigger contact patch and more front-end bite, enabling sharper turn-in.
Is this brief period of engine braking really not noticeable? Yes, I took back roads purposely trying to feel the technology at work, but the car's behavior seems perfectly natural.
Speaking of the engine, a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque powers my test car. The larger of two available naturally aspirated powerplants in the 3, it's a delightful four pot with stellar throttle response, linear power delivery and enough grunt to pull the hatchback up steep inclines with little trouble. Channeling power to the front wheels is a conventional six-speed automatic transmission featuring smooth, well-timed up- and downshifts.
Despite qualifying as something of a "big block" in an age of downsized, turbocharged engines, fuel efficiency isn't too shabby: EPA estimates call for 26 miles per gallon city and 35 mpg highway. With the two tanks of gas used to complete the road trip, the 3 averaged 31.2 mpg, while later tanks consisting of mostly city mileage produce roughly 27 mpg with my heavy right foot.
The Mazda's tight handling isn't a surprise, but a quieter and more comfortable cabin is. Thanks to 2017 changes that bring additional sound deadening, redesigned seats and upgraded materials, my hours on the road click by in relative comfort. Isolation from road and wind noise is much better than before, while the seats provide support in all the right places to keep me comfy and ward off fatigue.
A simple and welcoming cabin design remains, with revamped storage areas in the center console and door pockets that can hold more stuff. Major surfaces consist of soft touch materials, while a tasteful slathering of matte-silver trim throughout brings some needed contrast to the black interior.
Visual changes also extend outside with new front and rear fascias, and the availability of adaptive LED headlights and fog lights. The small styling revisions keep the 3 looking fresh even with new competitors coming onto the scene including the Chevrolet Cruze Hatchback and Honda Civic Hatchback.
Another area where Mazda still lags others is in the infotainment technology. While I find the Mazda Connect infotainment interface to be an intuitive and responsive interface using the center Commander knob or touchscreen, it still lacks Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capabilities. Mazda says both are coming for Mazda Connect, but hasn't given a timeframe for their arrival.
Thankfully, satellite radio offers a great selection of crisp-sounding tunes over the nine-speaker Bose audio system that play a big part in keeping me entertained during my solo long-distance drive.
For safety tech, top-flight Grand Touring models come standard with items like blind-spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert, and are available with lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, smart brake support and adaptive LED headlights. My favorite pieces of tech are the Mazda radar cruise control system that is excellent during the road trip, a head-up display that help keep my eyes on the road, and a new traffic sign recognition system that monitors speed limit and stop signs.
If I were to build my ideal Mazda3, it would be very close to my test vehicle, albeit with a manual transmission instead of an automatic for a more engaging driving experience. A 3 Grand Touring with a stick instead of an auto would also shave $1,050 from my test's car $29,080 price tag, which would be a nice bonus.
Without question, I would go with the 5-door hatchback model over the sedan body style, too, for the additional flexibility with 20.2 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats, which grows to 47.1 with the back seats down. All that room came in handy for bigger shopping trips, and to carry my mountain bike to the trail without needing to even take its front wheel off.
Even though this generation of Mazda3 has been around since the 2014 model year, its 2017 upgrades keep it at the top of the heap against the aforementioned new competitors from Chevrolet and Honda, as well as segment stalwarts like the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf.
Visually, it's still a looker, with just the right amount of styling flash that isn't overdone like the Civic or a bit too plain like the Cruze. Dynamically, it not only possesses the best reflexes in the class, but it also features ride and cabin comfort that will be appreciated for regular commuting and the occasional road trip.
If faced with another 628 mile drive tomorrow, I would gladly saddle up in a 2017 Mazda3 again without hesitation.