2020 Mazda3 — One of the best compacts moves the brand upscale

By Jim Prueter

(February 17, 2020) Mazda is intent to move the brand upmarket — not unlike Acura and Infiniti. With the Mazda3, redesigned last year, it certainly does that. It has engaging driving performance, upscale interior, sharp exterior styling features, and new innovative technology. Mazda3 is noticeably more upscale than competitive rivals like Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Volkswagen GTI and Nissan Sentra, and aligns closer to a European sports sedan than a Japanese econo box.

For 2020 little has changed, but there are a few are noteworthy upgrades, including now standard forward collision warning, adaptive cruise control, and a driver condition monitor. These features were optional for 2019.

The Mazda3 is available as a four-door sedan and a hatchback, the version we drove for this review. Both trim levels share the same platform, suspension, 2.5-liter 186-horsepower four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission, with an available six-speed manual shifter. But each model has a completely different shape to the exterior sheetmetal. And, it’s worth noting that the manual transmission is only available on models equipped with the more expensive Premium Package.

The most noticeable differences between the Mazda3 and its competitors is its spirited engine performance, superb handling, responsive steering and braking, and impressive overall driving agility. The Volkswagen Golf GTi and Honda Civic R are the only competitors in the class on par with the Mazda3, but they — and their more potent engines — cost several thousand more.

If you’re looking to save money, the base Civic is a bit less than the Mazda3 but you give up the sharp handling and fun to drive benefits. Plus, Mazda3 offers available all-wheel drive, which the Civic does not. Subaru Impreza is the only other model in the class to offer it.

On the road, power delivery is even and measured. While it doesn’t have the punch of a turbocharged engine, still, you’ll get from zero to 60 mph in about seven seconds. Not blistering fast, but it feels eager and much quicker than it actually is.

Inside, the Mazda3 has room for five but only four adults will be able to find comfort; the rear seat is very small with limited head, floor and legroom. Rear cargo space in our hatchback tester is a typical size for the class. The interior quality is a noticeable step up from class competitors, with a rich cabin feel and generously padded surfaces, high-quality materials, and excellent fit and finish build quality. For buyers who opt out of the Premium Package, seats are noticeably basic, ordinary looking and lacking support. Further, heated seats are only available via the Preferred trim package.

The extra wide D pillar and angular styling of our hatchback impaired reward visibility, but thankfully it comes with standard blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic warning alert. The sloping rear roofline also makes it difficult for passengers to get in and out of the rear seat.

Operating controls — including steering wheel mounted controls, the dual stalks on the steering column and easy to use buttons and knobs for audio, HVAC and other vehicle controls – are intuitive and work well. The center dash-mounted infotainment screen isn’t a touch screen, requiring audio adjustment via the steering wheel controls or the rotary controller and buttons on the center console. We weren’t pleased with the rotary knob, whose icons were too small and hard to read at a glance, taking the driver’s eyes off the road for too long a period of time.

We did like that a Bose audio system is part of the Preferred Package that also added Sirius SM satellite radio. There are two USB ports and one AUX port, and the audio system supports Pandora internet radio, as well as other Bluetooth sources, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

Overall, the Mazda3 stands out as one of the best and most enjoyable small cars we’ve driven. Many auto journalists overuse the “fun-to-drive” catchphrase when reviewing a vehicle. But in this instance, the outstanding driving dynamic of the Mazda3 is worthy of that praise.

The hatchback style is, in our opinion, considerably more attractive and stylish and looks much more expensive than it is. Ditto for the cabin, that’s functional yet stylish but with a noticeably small rear seat.

All in, our loaded all-wheel-drive Mazda3 had a sticker price of $31,470. That’s less than an Acura TLX, Audi A3, Infiniti Q50, Lexus UX, Mercedes A Class or Volvo S60. Those are all front-wheel drive, and the Mazda3 is nearly as refined. It just doesn’t have the premium badge like those vehicles. It may take a while, but the Mazda3 is definitely moving the brand upscale.

Vital Stats
Base Price: $29,820
Price as Tested: $31,470
Powertrain: 2.5-liter 186-hp four cylinder connected to a six-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel-drive
Fuel Economy: 24/32/27 mpg – City/Highway/Combined
Seating: 5

Where Built: Hiroshima, Japan

Crash Test Results: the 2020 Mazda3 has not yet been crash test rated by either the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

Competes With:
Honda Civic
Hyundai Elantra
Kia Forte
Nissan Sentra
Subaru Impreza
Toyota Corolla
Volkswagen Golf
Volkswagen Jetta

Fab Features
Immensely enjoyable to drive
Upscale interior with superb build quality
Loaded with standard features