You can buy the 2021 Mazda3 as a sedan or hatchback, in base S, Select, Preferred or Premium trims. Front-wheel drive is standard, but all-wheel drive is available for an extra $1,400.
No matter how you slice it, the Mazda3 looks great. I prefer the swoopy lines and bulbous butt of the hatchback to the sedan's more staid shape, but even in base form, this car looks 100% better than a Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra or Toyota Corolla. Of course, the sloping roofline and thick C-pillars mean the hatchback doesn't have the best rear sightlines, and cargo space falls behind the Mazda's competitors, too. The 2021 Mazda3 hatch has just over 20 cubic feet of space with its rear seats up, but the Honda Civic goes big with 25.7 cubic feet.
Inside, the design is sparse and clean. My tester comes with a black interior -- kind of drab, not my favorite -- but "greige" or dark red color schemes are also available. The materials are all of fine quality and the driver's seat cradles my hindquarters in lumbar-supported plushness. Overall, the Mazda3 definitely feels more upscale than its competitors.
Unfortunately, the Mazda Connect infotainment system is a bit of a drag. There is an 8.8-inch screen, but it doesn't respond to touch. All inputs must be made using a dial on the center stack or by voice. To input an address in the embedded navigation system I have to click the wheel to each individual number and letter or say out loud where I want to go. Sounds easy enough, but if I use my voice, the system spits out a few options, and I have to wait for the Mazda lady to read the whole address back before I accept or reject. I can't just use the dial to say yes and get on with my life. In other words, once I'm in voice command, I'm in voice command for the entire process, which makes using the system extra-slow. The good news is that Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard so you aren't forced into using the native system. Besides, Google Maps and Waze are usually better than an automaker's embedded system.
The 2021 Mazda3 sedan has a new 2.0-liter base engine with 155 horsepower, but hatchback models only come with the upgraded 2.5-liter I4. This engine produces 186 hp and 186 pound-feet of torque, and while most Mazda3s use a six-speed automatic transmission, a six-speed manual is available, but only on the top trim and only with front-wheel drive. Mazda's i-Activesense suite of driving aids is standard on the hatchback, which includes adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring and automatic high beams.
Mazda always prioritizes driver engagement above a lot of other things, and the Mazda3 definitely holds its own on a twisty road. This isn't a quick car, but it's one you can safely push on public roads without hitting crazy speeds. The throttle provides a rapid response to inputs and the transmission is happy to hang out in the higher part of the rev range to make the most of the naturally aspirated engine's power. Mazda does a great job at setting up its electric power steering, too. The weight is perfect, the response immediate and it offers up more feedback than any other car at this price.
G-Vectoring Control Plus is standard on all Mazda3 hatchbacks and it's a subtle bit of engineering that makes a big difference in how the car handles. The Mazda3's engine cuts power just a bit at turn-in, shifting the weight forward and increasing traction on the turning wheels up front. In all-wheel drive models, the rear axle is disconnected at the same time. Then on exit, the Mazda3 will brake the outside front wheel and push power back to the rear for a tidier line. It sounds complicated, but it all happens in the background. All I feel is the car carving backroads with serious poise and I can really keep my momentum up on winding roads.
The Mazda3 hatch with all-wheel drive returns an EPA-estimated combined fuel rating of 27 miles per gallon, which puts it near the bottom of the class -- though it's worth noting most other compact hatches don't have all-wheel drive. The Toyota Corolla hatchback with an automatic transmission returns 35 mpg combined and the Honda Civic hatch can get as high as 34 mpg combined depending on engine and transmission choices. But again, those cars are FWD-only.
For my money, I'd splurge on the loaded front-wheel-drive Premium because this car is so, so good with a manual transmission, even if it costs $32,000. If I didn't care so much about a third pedal the Preferred trim seems like the best deal, with its heated front seats and 12-speaker Bose sound system. I'd leave all-wheel drive on the table, personally, but this is a really nice feature for folks who live in snowy climates. Add the lovely paint called soul red and that puts me out the door at $26,890, including $945 for destination.
Yes, the 2021 Mazda3 is more expensive than a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla, but it's way better to look at and nicer to drive, too. Plus, you don't have to spend the big bucks on turbo power to get a great-driving Mazda3. The turbocharged version might be a sophisticated little performer, but even the standard Mazda3 is super fun.