The turbocharged Mazda3 returns for 2021, but it's not the Mazdaspeed3 revival you were hoping for. That's OK, though. With its refined on-road manners, premium cabin and sophisticated styling, there's plenty to like about this punchy compact. Unfortunately, it doesn't come cheap.
You can get the Mazda3 Turbo as a hatchback, which is definitely the way I'd go, but for this review, I have the sedan. Turbo models come with a gloss black trim on the grille and front bumper, as well as 18-inch wheels. My car also has the Premium Plus package, which adds a gloss black rear spoiler. Machine Gray Metallic is kind of dull as far as body colors go, but paint this in Mazda's Soul Red and even this otherwise staid sedan would look hot.
The standard Mazda3 is already pretty fun to drive, with great steering and a balanced chassis. The Turbo just kicks it all up a notch. Mazda's 2.5-liter turbocharged I4 makes a healthy 250 horsepower and 320 pound-feet -- if you run premium fuel, anyway. Stick with 87-octane gas and the power drops to 227 hp and 310 lb-ft. There's obviously a cost savings that would entice drivers to skip premium and go for regular unleaded, but it's not as expensive as you think. In California, based on current gas prices, it's only $3.77 per tank to get max power.
The Mazda3 Turbo is perfectly pleasant in its Normal drive mode, if a bit unexciting. The throttle response is relatively muted and the steering is pretty light. Even so, turn-in is crisp and clean and the taut suspension keeps body roll in check.
Switch over to Sport mode, however, and the whole thing livens up. Here, you get more aggressive throttle response and different transmission shift logic, allowing you to hang onto gears for longer periods of time. Sport mode also instructs the transmission to downshift under braking so you've got lots of power when coming out of a corner. And since the Turbo is only available with all-wheel drive, you don't have to worry about all that power resulting in front-end torque steer. Slap a set of winter tires on this thing and I bet it'd be great in the snow, too.
Still, this is not a sports car. Even with the extra power, the Mazda3 Turbo isn't exactly quick, and the brakes aren't up to the task of a long day of spirited driving. There's also a fair amount of road noise inside the cabin.
The turbo engine doesn't really help with fuel economy, either. The EPA says the 2021 Mazda3 Turbo sedan has a combined rating of 27 miles per gallon, which puts it behind the Hyundai Elantra N Line and Volkswagen Jetta GLI. Granted, neither of those competitors offer all-wheel drive, so you win some, you lose some.
Where the Mazda3 Turbo really has a leg up on the competition is with its interior quality. The whole cabin is full of upscale materials and excellent fit and finish. The front seats are comfortable, though they could use a bit more bolstering. There's plenty of head- and legroom for both front and rear passengers -- more than enough for my 5-foot, 9-inch frame.
Cargo space is on the small side, sadly, with just 13.2 cubic feet of capacity in the trunk. If you're going to haul groceries and gear on the regular, consider getting the better-looking Mazda3 Turbo hatchback, which has 20.1 cubic feet of space behind its flat-folding rear seats.
As for infotainment, I continue to be flummoxed by Mazda's non-touchscreen interface. Using the dial and hard buttons on the center console, the system is often laggy and takes a sec to recognize inputs. There's a pretty steep initial learning curve, too. Thankfully, the 8.8-inch screen can run Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, if you prefer. A wireless charging pad is available for $275, and you might want it, since there are only two USB-A ports and one 12-volt outlet in the car.
However, there's plenty of great tech to talk about, with a number of advanced driving' aids standard across all trims. Full-speed adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assist are standard on all turbocharged Mazda3s. My tester gets a few other niceties like rear cross-traffic alert and a crisp 360-degree camera.
The Mazda3 Turbo also comes with the automaker's Traffic Jam Assist, which is meant to help out with the steering at speeds below 40 mph. However, sitting in Bay Area traffic on a sunny day, the system won't stay engaged for a meaningful period of time, even though I'm only doing 15 mph. It's a great technology in theory, but is hesitant to actually kick on.
If I were buying the Mazda3 Turbo sedan I'd start with the standard trim, which costs $31,045 including $995 for destination. The Premium Plus adds such things as embedded navigation and the Traffic Jam Assist feature, but neither of those are very useful and jacks the starting price up over $33,000. There aren't any other big options available, so all-in, I'd be looking at $31,640 for a sedan finished in Soul Red paint.
All-wheel drive is nice to have, but I've got to say, many of Mazda's less-expensive, front-drive competitors are more compelling. A fully loaded Elantra N Line won't crest $28,000, the VW Jetta GLI starts right around $28K, and both of those cars are more entertaining to drive. Sure, the Mazda3 Turbo is nice, and pushes the company into a premium space. But if it's smiles per mile you're after, maybe trade some of that beautiful craftsmanship for a less expensive, more entertaining alternative.