2019 Mazda3 first drive review: More style, more substance

Before throwing me the keys to a 2019 Mazda3, company engineers spent a lot of time talking about the "human-centric" driving nature of their new compact sedan. Many detailed charts and graphs were presented, and I even got to learn all about how the human bone structure -- specifically, the pelvis -- is integral to understanding vehicle dynamics. Osteology at a new car launch. What a world!

The truth is, none of this intricate detail means a thing until you actually get out and drive the car. And an hour later, along the familiar Angeles Crest Highway just north of LA, Mazda's deep dive into human kinematics really starts to make sense. The Mazda3 has always been the driver's car of the compact class. This new one is, too, but in a different way.

Natural reaction

If you've ever driven a new, ND-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata, you know the car tends to lean slightly in turns. It's an intentional bit of softness baked into the Miata's handling characteristics -- the thought is, this natural movement gives you a better sense of speed while cornering, and the car feels like it's rotating around you. It's a sensation that's sort of hard to explain, but the result is a car that really just feels like an extension of the driver. This is a key reason why I, and other enthusiasts, adore the Miata.

A number of things help bring this same sort of personality to the Mazda3. For starters, Mazda jettisoned the old 3's sophisticated, multi-link rear suspension and put a simpler, torsion beam setup in its place. On top of that, the 2019 Mazda3 rides on tires that are 18 percent softer than before. You might think both of these would be backward steps in terms of handling, but they're mitigated by a new, stiffer chassis and body structure. What's more, the torsion bean uses a new, pinched-center design that makes it a lot stronger, and helps to return a 75-percent overall improvement in lateral stiffness.

On the road, the new Mazda3 is a sweetheart. The 18-inch, 215/45-series Toyo tires of my Premium-trim test car offer adequate grip, and even with the torsion-beam setup, there's no rear end sloppiness in turns. Enter a right-hander and the car will lean to its left, a natural bit of roll that mimics the way your body shifts slightly while turning the wheel. Mazda says the new rear suspension also reduces overall levels of noise, vibration and harshness (NVH), and indeed, the 3 is a smooth, quiet operator, whether on pristine stretches of California canyons, or on a pockmarked stretch of the 101 Freeway up the Cahuenga Pass.

The 2019 Mazda3 is still the driver's car of the compact class.

Mazda

These sort of natural handling traits are complemented by great steering feel, a longtime hallmark of Mazda cars. There's a lot more weight in the Mazda3's wheel this time around, with loads of feedback as you turn. Some folks might find this heavier steering tune off-putting, especially around town -- it'll be more difficult to one-hand the wheel in parking lots, for example. But at speed, the Mazda3 delivers a superb steering experience, satisfying in its action with solid on-center feel.

This sort of linear "the car moves as you do" nature extends to the throttle and braking, as well. Mazda officials say they even studied leg movements and worked to tie throttle response to muscle effort, all for the sake of more progressive power delivery. It works as advertised, with no sudden jolts of thrust at different points of throttle application. Same goes for the brakes, just in the opposite direction. There's no obvious bite point to the action of the brake pedal -- rather, just a secure feeling of increased stopping power the deeper you dig into its travel.

All of this works to make the 2019 Mazda3 an altogether better car to drive: Smoother and more refined in its actions, but in no way diluted.

The Skyactiv-G gas engine produces 186 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque.

Mazda

Familiar power, now with all-wheel drive

Though Mazda says its new Skyactiv-X powertrain tech will eventually make its way into the 3, only one engine will be available in the US at launch. We'll get the naturally aspirated, 2.5-liter Skyactiv-G I4 engine found in other Mazda products, though it's been massaged slightly to deliver 186 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque, increases of two and one, respectively, over the 2018 Mazda3. That's an appropriate amount power for a car in this class, though it's a bit slow to start. The engine's full punch arrives a bit later now than it did in the previous car, and with no turbocharged assist, low-end grunt is lacking.

The biggest change to this engine is the addition of cylinder deactivation technology, but it's not available on every trim. Even so, a Mazda engineer says this tech will only result in one additional mile per gallon on the highway and combined fuel economy cycles. Official EPA ratings aren't available just yet, but expect them to be similar to, if not the same as, the 2018 model's ratings of 27 mpg city, 36 mpg highway and 30 mpg combined.

The 2.5-liter engine mates to a 6-speed automatic transmission on the majority of Mazda3 models; you can opt for a 6-speed manual on the hatchback's Premium trim only. The automatic gearbox is largely unobtrusive in its action, smoothly swapping cogs while commuting. A sport setting will hold gears for longer periods of time, and steering wheel-mounted shift paddles will let you manually change gears at your leisure. That said, neither experience is particularly rewarding. Seeing as how the transmission is more than happy to drop a gear or two while braking for a corner, I recommend just letting it do its own thing.

I'm very eager to test the Mazda3's new all-wheel-drive system, but unfortunately, no cars with this setup were available at this early press launch. Both four-door sedan and five-door hatchback body styles will be available with Mazda's i-Activ all-wheel drive when the car goes on sale in March, though if you want the aforementioned manual transmission, you're locked into front-wheel drive.

The 2019 Mazda3 is 3.2 inches longer than the outgoing model, with a 1-inch longer wheelbase.

Mazda

Easy on the eyes

No matter if you choose the sedan or hatch, you're going to get a great-looking Mazda3. The new car's profile is free of strong character lines or creases, and the result is a shape that's really quite elegant. I know a lot of folks are still warming up to the hatchback, especially with that thick C-pillar, but the more I see it in person, the more I like it. I have a feeling that, 20 years from now, it'll be the hatchback we remember most through rose-tinted glasses.

That said, the sedan is perfectly pretty on its own, though I'll admit it's not as visually interesting from some angles, particularly in some colors. A front three-quarter view of a Soul Red sedan looks great, but check out a white car from the dead rear, and it's a less-appealing experience. From the rear three-quarter, it actually looks a little Buick Verano-ish, albeit without a gross smattering of GM-essential chrome.

All Mazda3s come standard with LED head- and taillights, and the cars roll on either 16- or 18-inch wheels, depending on trim. The sedan comes with the bright metal grille surround you see here, but I totally dig the dark fascia treatment that's available on the hatchback.

With super-nice leather and a minimalist design, the Mazda3's interior is truly premium.

Mazda

A plush interior, but short on space

The 3's interior shows a similar restraint by avoiding unnecessary overstyling, with a minimalist dashboard and as few buttons as possible along the thin center stack. My Premium test car comes with cushy, soft-touch leather surfaces everywhere, and some really nice surfacing along the doors. Remember the cheap plastics of Mazda interiors from a decade ago? This 2019 Mazda3 represents a huge step forward. In fact, this Mazda3 might offer the most plush cabin at this price point, full stop.

Front passengers are treated to exceptionally comfortable seats, with lots of thigh and love-handle support. Headroom is admittedly in short supply, even for drivers of average height, but shoulder- and legroom up front is more than adequate. Mazda says the telescopic steering wheel has almost an extra inch of travel, so should you taller folks need to recline the seat slightly, you shouldn't have trouble finding a comfortable nine-and-three position on the wheel.

The 2019 Mazda3 is 3.2 inches longer than the outgoing model, 1 inch of which is found in the wheelbase. Sadly, that doesn't go a long way toward making the car wildly more spacious -- rear-seat accommodations are as tight as ever. Without official product specs to use for comparison, I can't say for sure if the Mazda's cabin is definitively smaller than other compact cars, but just like the previous 3, it feels pretty cramped in back.

All Mazda3 models except the base sedan get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity -- finally!

Mazda

Big tech improvements

All 2019 Mazda3s come with an 8.8-inch infotainment screen, positioned further back on the dash, but still low enough that it doesn't obstruct the view out the windshield. Because of its placement away from the driver and passenger, the screen no longer supports touch inputs, so it's only operable via the large rotary dial and shortcut buttons on the center console. The screen is also canted slightly towards the driver, though when viewed from the passenger seat, you should have no trouble reading any part of the display.

Mazda's latest Connect software features new colors and fonts, as well as a better-organized menu structure. It also now offers support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which are standard on all models except for the most basic Mazda3 sedan. (I don't really understand why Mazda would exclude these features from just one trim level, especially when all models get the same screen, but whatever.)

There's new safety tech on tap, too, including adaptive cruise control, steering assist and lane-departure warning, all three of which combine for Mazda's traffic-jam assist feature. Under 40 miles per hour, all three systems work simultaneously to allow hands-on-the-wheel, partially automated driving -- sort of like Nissan's ProPilot tech. Above 40 mph, lane-departure warning and adaptive cruise control are still active, but you're on your own for steering. Mazda also says that its adaptive cruise works at all speeds in cars equipped with an automatic transmission. If you buy the manual model, ACC shuts off below 18 mph.

This is one of the better-looking compact sedans around.

Mazda

Pricier, yet easier to love

The 2019 Mazda3 costs quite a bit more than its predecessor, with the front-wheel-drive sedan coming in at $21,000, not including $895 for destination. That's a $2,905 price hike, year over year, but it's not quite as bad as the Mazda3 hatchback. At $23,600, the five-door variant is $4,225 more expensive than a 2018 model.

All-wheel-drive 3s start at $24,000 and a fully loaded Premium hatchback with AWD will set you back close to $30,000. That's not really absurd considering the Mazda's competitive set; a Honda Civic Sport Touring Hatchback tops out at $29,670. And given how seriously premium the 3's interior is in its most-loaded spec, it feels every bit worth the price, even if it's not quite as spacious as its rivals.

That the Mazda3 is the best-driving car in its class isn't really anything new -- Mazda has long topped that podium in the compact segment. The 2019 model's more refined on-road verve makes it even better to drive, and in a way that I think a greater swath of drivers will appreciate. It's a feeling that's hard to explain in text. But drive one, and you'll understand.


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.

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