Historically, the Mazda3 has always been one of, if not the, driver's choice in the compact car segment. That isn't shocking, given the company's well-known practice of sprinkling great-driving dynamics into every car it makes. However, in the past, the tradeoff for the 3's great on-road chops have been underwhelming interioris, cramped quarters and poor cabin tech.
With the introduction of the new 2019 3, Mazda is hoping to make up for past sins with fresh sheet metal, plush interior surroundings and a well-populated feature list. For the most part, happily, Mazda succeeded.
The previous-generation Mazda3 was a sharp-looking car, but this new model strikes an even cleaner and more elegant appearance. There are no hard character lines or wild creases. Instead, there are just subtle strokes that, together with the big grille and skinny headlights, make for a sedan that's particularly attractive from the front three-quarters view. If there are downsides to the exterior wrapper, it's the staid back end and plain Jane 10-spoke wheels.
Mazda keeps things simple inside the cabin, too, with an attractive, flowing dash. The front cabin is mostly clutter-free, too, with the exception of climate controls in the middle. The Mazda's cabin is done up in an attractive two-tone black and beige color scheme, accented with a tasteful helping of metallic trim. Not only does it look nice, but feels nice, too. All materials, from the rubbery panels to the stitched, soft-touch leather surfaces covering large parts of the dash, center console and door panels are top notch. There's not a cheap-looking piece to be found inside, which definitely wasn't the case with previous Mazda3 models.
Front accommodations are comfortable, with an excellent seating position and supportive seats. The Mazda3 offers satisfactory legroom and enough cubby spots to stash belongings. What may be a red flag for some customers, however, is that the Mazda3 is one of the smaller compact cars out there today. As competitors like the Honda Civic have gone through a growth spurt, the Mazda3 sticks to its tidier sizing. The tale of the tape does show the Mazda growing three inches in length over its predecessor, with one inch located in the wheelbase. But even with that, the Mazda's cabin is still tighter than most of its competitors -- especially for back-seat riders.
Disappointing technology offerings are a thing of the past in the new 3. No matter the trim, the Mazda3 gets an 8.8-inch infotainment system running the latest Mazda Connect software, which finally gets a much-needed visual makeover. Since the screen is placed further back on the dash, it's no longer responds to touch, meaning controls now mainly rely on the center console dial and shortcut buttons. Unfortunately, the lack of a touchscreen does make some things like entering addresses into navigation more time consuming, but overall, this setup works well. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capabilities are finally on board, too. Mazda took its sweet time to bring these two to market, but hey, better late than never.
Where the 3 falls short is in its options to charge phones and tablets. A single USB port resides on the center stack, while another USB and 12-volt socket are in the armrest compartment. Mazda does offer an optional $275 wireless charge pad, but it still won't help people in back who don't have any outlets within easy reach, which is a bummer.
For safety, all Mazda3 sedans (except for the base model) pack adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and a crystal-clear, high-definition backup camera. The Premium Package tester pictured here also adds a head-up display and adaptive headlights to the mix. Everything works as advertised, and the Mazda3 offers a great list of tech at this price point.
Under the Mazda3's hood lies a massaged version of the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine from the previous-generation car. This naturally aspirated I4 lays down 186 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque. In the sedan your sole transmission option is a six-speed automatic, helping to return an EPA-estimated 27 miles per gallon in the city and 36 mpg on the highway. Those looking for a manual gearbox will have to opt for the Premium Package hatchback, that returns an estimated 25 mpg city and 35 mpg highway.
Off-the-line grunt isn't anything to write home about, but the Mazda3's engine wakes up in the middle of its rev range and pulls steady to the 6,500-rpm redline. Up- and downshifts are always swift and well-timed, eliminating the need to use the paddle shifters (that aren't very responsive, anyway). For hard driving, a Sport mode offers different transmission programming that holds gears for longer periods of time.
All-wheel drive is a new trick up the 3's sleeve for 2019 (read all about it in reviews editor Manuel Carrillo's first drive), my tester uses front-wheel drive. In typical Mazda fashion, the 3 is involving and playful -- even more so this year thanks to its stiffer chassis and, oddly, a new torsion beam rear suspension, which replaces the old multilink setup. This might seem like a step backward in terms of driving refinement, but I promise, it's an improvement. Plus, Mazda says the 3's overall lateral stiffness is up thanks to the new setup in back, and noise, vibration and harshness levels improve, to boot.
Enter a corner and there's a hint of initial body roll, but then the Mazda3 claws through turns, with lots of grip from the 18-inch Toyo Proxes A40 tires. Michigan's bumpy roads normally don't mix well with torsion beam rear suspension setups, but it's not an issue in the Mazda3, which is a pleasant surprise. Steering weight and feedback are also superb, which adds to the overall fun factor.
When driven normally, the 3's ride is compliant, with the suspension soaking up impacts from small bumps and potholes without a hitch. Bigger road hazards will be felt inside, but even then, there's enough give in the chassis to prevent it from being jarring.
The only thing that takes getting used to is the brake pedal: it doesn't possess the strong initial bite that I normally like. In the 3 it's more progressive in behavior to help brake smoother, with more pedal pressure summoning more grab, which makes sense. It takes some getting used to, and I'm not sure I love it.
My ideal Mazda3 sedan would be a Preferred Package model with a Deep Crystal Blue Mica paint job. Important features like blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, Bose sound system, satellite radio and heated seats are all included, to help make commuting a bit more bearable. To charge my Samsung Galaxy smartphone, I'd add the $275 wireless charge pad and be done. That brings the price tag of my car to $25,395, which includes $920 for destination.
The Premium Package car pictured here with fancy things like adaptive LED headlights, leather seats, head-up display and moonroof punches in at $27,720. Those are all niceties I'm willing to live without in order to save a few bucks.
The 2019 Mazda3's $21,920 base price means it starts quite a bit higher than competitors like the Honda Civic ($20,370), Kia Forte ($18,715) and Toyota Corolla ($20,430). However, when you look at higher trim levels, the price gap does close up. Either way, the premium just may be worth it to some in order to have the best driving car in the segment. Plus, with bang-up styling, a great cabin and fantastic tech, I'd have no problem ponying up a few more bucks for this really excellent package.