Mazda3 Grand Touring — A very competitive entry in compact segment

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(July 10, 2016) The first thing that comes to mind after sitting down to write this is that, if you’ve driven one Mazda, you’ve pretty much driven them all. The same could be said of any modern BMW, Audi, Mercedes or, for that matter, VW or Ford. All come from companies that have a pretty good idea of what they stand for, and how that translates into ride, handling, steering feel, etc.

In the case of the Mazda3, this familial heritage — DNA if you must call it that — manifests itself as a stiff but light structure, accurate steering that is relatively free of friction but not of feel, solid brakes, a frugal (but sometimes noisy) engine with good power, a stylish interior with high-end materials and features, and an aura of quality.

Based on that alone, Mazda should be nipping at the heels of Toyota and Honda, pushing aside Nissan, and looking on with disdain at Hyundai and Kia. Unfortunately, it’s not. Mazda sells fewer cars than each one of those Asian automakers.

Why? It’s not because the cars aren’t any good. The Mazda3 Grand Touring shown here is a very competitive entry in the C-Class (compact) segment, even with the arrival of newer offerings like the Hyundai Elantra, Chevy Cruze and Honda Civic. The car handles well whether you’re clipping apexes on your favorite road or making the school run, returns very good mileage (30 mpg combined in the real world), has a comfortable ride, looks spectacular inside and out, and is price competitive at $30,270 as-tested.

The cargo area is regularly shaped and large, and the six-speed automatic slips through shifts around town like a thief. The Mazda3 also offers equipment like a 7.0-in. touch screen and a head-up display that pops up from atop the instrument binnacle when you start the car, adaptive high-intensity headlights, blind spot detection, and more. The nav system is a no-charge option on the Grand Touring trim level, and the Appearance package (front air dam, door mirror caps, hatch spoiler, rear bumper skirt and side sill extensions) is a reasonab
le $1,750. What gives?

Well, Mazda’s image has gone in many different directions over the past 40 years. It went all-in on the rotary engine, building cars that were as smooth as silk, powerful, but fuel thirsty in the years just before and during the first Arab oil embargo. It also sold a cheap and cheerful workhorse truck it shared with Ford (who sold it as the Courier), that would rust right before your eyes based solely on the increase in humidity when a dog urinated on its tire.

The styling of its vehicles was atrocious (except for the RX-7 sports car that, it could be claimed, saved both the rotary engine and Mazda), often resulting in quirky but dull transportation modules like the original GLC. (Ironically, these letters stood for “Great Little Car”.) That changed with the front-drive GLC, a handsome ‘80s crisply folded front-drive hatchback, but didn’t spread to the rest of the line.

Somewhere in all of this Ford stepped in, buying a share that — eventually — gave it effective control over Mazda, but that didn’t help. Mazda kept its engineering bravery and obsession with weight, but lost its direction and soul.

Both were resurrected with the Miata, a car that reignited American drivers’ love for small, light, nimble sports car, and led to the “Zoom Zoom” advertising that set Mazda apart as a maker of fun-to-drive cars. The only problem with that was the average buyer with his gnat-like attention span equated “sporty” with “harsh” and often wrote Mazda off. And if he did venture into a dealership, he was treated like a leper at a dinner party by a dealer body where many members should have been flying the Jolly Roger over their store.

All that has changed, for the most part. Ford set Mazda free when it hit the wall financially, leaving many to speculate that Mazda could not survive without the help of the large, financially troubled American automaker. But Mazda was up to the challenge, creating a new set of platforms and powertrains for it handsome expanded lineup.

The dealer body improved significantly, but yesteryear’s tales of dread still cling tight. There’s more work to do in order to gain customer trust. A new ad campaign and image refresh was created around the latest Miata, ditching the hackneyed “Zoom Zoom” for a slightly more well-rounded campaign that still promotes the brand’s fun-to-drive roots. Yet more people might think of Ahura Mazda, the supreme god of Zoroastrianism, when you mention the name than a Japanese car maker.

The one advantage for the average buyer is that no one else in the cul-de-sac is likely to drive a Mazda. The brand is unique and its products not only meet your needs, they put a smile on your face. So dig deep. Make the plunge. Be the early adopter in your circle that people whisper about as you drive by. And when one of them musters up enough courage and feebly asks if it’s a Buick, give them a slightly condescending smirk and grunt of derision before replying, “Buicks are for pussies.”

Then pop open the doors, hood and hatch (or trunk if you buy the sedan) and show them what puts you ahead of the curve. They’ll thank you for it.

The Virtual Driver