Mazda hops up the 3 — Lots to like, but falls short of 'Feel Alive' slogan

By Jim Prueter

(April 7, 2021) Perhaps my pre-testing expectations of the new Mazda3 I-4 2.5 Turbo were too high given its 250 horsepower and 320 lb.-ft torque and all-wheel drive (Subaru Impreza is the only other model in in this class to offer it) powerplant bringing more power to the popular hatchback and sedan model. It’s paired with a six-speed automatic transmission, the same that’s used in Mazda’s bigger SUVs and larger 6 sedan and proved to be a major disappointment with its dawdling slow-to-shift languidly.

We’d wish for a dual-clutch automatic or 6-speed manual shifter to completely realize and deliver the car’s underlying potential. Instead of serving up Mazda’s slogan “Feel Alive,” it falls short of that promise.

Mazda says the 2.5 turbo engine is specifically calibrated so as to deliver a unique driving dynamic expected by their most passionate drivers. That is if you fill the tank with premium, 93 octane, however full it with 87 octane and horsepower drops to 227 and 310 lb.-ft of torque.

Our test Mazda3 2.5 Turbo was the Premium Plus sedan version with a starting price of $32,600. It’s also offered in as a Hatchback with a starting price of $33,900. The Premium Plus package over the standard 2.5 Turbo adds a gloss black rear lip spoiler, leather upholstery, navigation, and HomeLink support. It also includes a 360-degree camera and rear smart city braking with rear cross-traffic alert braking. Mazda Traffic Jam Assist will be added to the adaptive cruise, too, adding steering inputs at speeds under 40 mph.

Inside, the cabin of the Mazda3 is small but extremely attractive, best in its class by a wide margin when compared to competitors like Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Subaru WRX and others. Switchgear — operating knobs, audio controls, HVAC controls and indicator stalks are high-quality with a tacit feel like you would find in an entry-level luxury sedan.

The dashboard is attractive, curvy with an 8.8-inch touchpad like screen neatly placed atop that’s intuitive and easy to use for most operating controls and presents information informatively and neatly to the driver. The screen displays sharp graphics and information that’s easily found manipulating a center console mounted twist knob. We liked the color head-up display with street-sign recognition but didn’t like that it disappears when wearing sunglasses.  

Other likes were the 12-speaker Bose audio system, and leather-wrapped steering wheel with paddle shifters and leather-wrapped shift knob. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support, WIFI hotspot, and three years of service for Mazda Connected Service and keyless entry all included. There is a standard power moonroof, and dual-zone climate control, plus heated front seats.

Front seats are comfortable with plenty of power adjustment for most drivers to find a good position. The rear-seat is small and not very generous – but that’s typical for compact cars.

Standard safety features include forward collision warning, advanced emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning and lane keeping assistance, blind spot warning and rear cross traffic warning and, Mazda radar cruise control with stop and go.

On the road, the Mazda 3’s ride was sports-car firm in sport drive mode using coil springs for the front strut and rear torsion beam suspension on 18-inch black alloy wheels that add to the vehicle’s distinctive and basically unchanged award-winning looks. For the record, the Mazda3 is the world’s best-selling Mazda and won the 2020 World Car Design of the Year.

Handling is rock-solid responsive and confident around twisty road curves and ramps. It took 5.9 seconds to reach 60 mph from a standing stop but as mentioned fell short of our expectations and not enough to satisfy my driver enthusiast disposition standards especially for a turbo enhanced small sedan. Other testing has the car sprinting through the quarter mile in 14.5 seconds. True, its consistent with the best-in-class performers but not in the way suspected.

Again, we place most of the disappointment and lack of raw performance acceleration on the anemic transmission. We also found the brake pedal to feel too soft and mushy with more pedal travel than expected before we felt the calipers biting. It just doesn’t deliver the overall driving dynamics we expected and was missing the “fun to drive” factor we’d hoped for.

Still, none of these shortfalls make the Mazda3 Turbo a bad car and overall, there’s plenty of power. However, this car’s strength seems more compatible for those with a daily commute to work than track day fun and exciting driving experience.

Vial Stats
Base Price: $33,990
Price as Tested: $33,990
Engine/Transmission: Turbocharged 2.5-liter 250-horsepower I-4 paired with a 6-speed automatic transmission.
Fuel Economy: 23/32/27 – mpg, - City/Highway/Combined
Seating; 5

Crash Test Safety Rating: Highest possible 2021 Top Safety Pick+ by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Where Built: Hofu, Japan

Competes With:
Honda Civic R
Hyundai Elantra N