Mazda3 hatchback — A smart buy

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Mazda has developed a knack for building stylish fun-to-drive small cars such as the compact Mazda3 sedan and hatchback that can pamper its owner with an upmarket feel belying its price that undercuts many mainstream vehicles. The fact that it is outsold by much of the competition is a head-scratcher, making the Mazda3 one of the best kept secrets in the industry.

It features head-turning styling; a sporty and modern interior with quality materials; two performance-oriented and fuel-efficient engine choices; a fun-to-drive nature that makes you look forward to the next time behind-the-wheel; comfortable and supportive front seating with a commanding view of the road; and a wide range of advanced safety features not available in many of the family compact competition. And perhaps best of all — the Mazda3 can be purchased in both sedan and hatchback formats. Note — we prefer the hatchback design because of its 47.1 cubic feet of cargo-carrying capability. And as a big bonus, we think the hatch design has more eye-appeal than the sedan.

The Mazda3 is fun to drive, it has a connected-to-the road feel with a comfortable ride and a performance-oriented base 155-horsepower 2.0-liter engine that compares well in the segment. And it's one of the few remaining compact cars that can be purchased with a slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission.

The shift-it-yourself six-speed proved one of the easiest we've recently encountered with short, precise throws and excellent clutch action. We found handling and cornering on our usual stretches of winding road remarkable for a family compact. The steering is direct with good on-center feel.

But to get the most forward momentum from the Mazda3 — which comes in three trim levels: Sport, Touring and Grand Touring — opt for the 2.5-liter four-cylinder that develops 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque mated to a six-speed automatic. While it isn't the fastest in the crowded segment, it feels better behind the wheel than its statistics suggest. Performance is aided by standard across the lineup G-Vectoring Control — a Mazda-exclusive technology that uses engine timing to control chassis dynamics, helping lead to smoother, more accurate steering inputs that can result in greater confidence and control behind the wheel.

For comparison purposes the 2.5-liter hatchback can click off a 0-to-60 run in a respectable 7.9 seconds and complete a quarter mile time in 16.2 seconds at 88 mph. And the bigger engine is now standard equipment in the Touring and Grand Touring trim levels.

Gas mileage for the 2.5-liter is good, EPA-rated at 27 mpg city, 36 highway and 30 overall on regular-grade gas. That's almost identical to the smaller 2.0-liter, which is rated at 28 city, 37 highway and 31 overall in hatchback format.

The Mazda3 interior features an uncomplicated dash that puts all the controls within easy reach. The instrument cluster in the manual-equipped cars features a large center speedometer with a tachometer off to the side. Screens on either side feature a gas gauge, outside temperature, trip information, etc. The navigation, information and backup camera screen is large and easy to read perched up high in the center of the dash. It's run by a highly intuitive infotainment controller between the front seats. Cupholders and cubbies are adequate and neatly arranged. Notably missing are a power-adjustable front passenger’s seat, rear air vents, and heated rear seats.

While we like the looks of the hatchback and the extra cargo space it provides, the severely sloping roofline cuts into useable storage. But we don't mind this type of form over function, which results in such curvaceous head-turning styling.

Mazda is generous with its equipment, and that includes standard and optional safety equipment. Mazda’s i-ACTIVSENSE safety suite complements the driving experience with tools such as Smart City Brake Support autonomous low-speed emergency braking, Blind Spot Monitoring with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, and a backup camera. Opt for the Grand Touring trim and additional standard safety includes adaptive headlights, lane departure warning and intervention, and adaptive cruise control.

Additional standard equipment across the hatchback lineup includes keyless entry and ignition, Mazda Connect infotainment system with 7-inch touchscreen, a six-speaker stereo with USB ports, alloy wheels and rear spoiler starting at $20,235 including destination charge.

The Touring trim begins at $21,730 and the Grand Touring starts at $24,785. For under 25 grand, Mazda includes a sunroof, nine-speaker Bose surround sound with satellite radio, 18-inch alloy wheels, and leather upholstery. Our Grand Touring test car came in at $27,920 with the addition of a few options, the most expensive being a navigation system.

Base price: $20,235; as driven, $27,920
Engine: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 184 @ 5,700 rpm
Torque: 185 foot-pounds @ 3,250 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Length: 175.6 inches
Curb weight: 3,098 pounds
Turning circle: 34.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 20.2 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 47.1 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 26 city, 35 highway, 30 combined
0-60: 7.9 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cruise

The Good
• Great combination of handling, performance
• Long list of safety features
• Top-notch interior quality

The Bad
• Only average gas mileage

The Ugly
• Sloping roofline cuts into cargo capacity