The Cure For The Common Corolla

2014 Mazda3

I hate the Toyota Corolla. I'm not talking about the new 2014 model; I can't yet judge a car I haven't driven. I'm referring to the current, old-as-dirt sedan. As an appliance, I get why people buy it, but it represents everything that I, as a car enthusiast, dislike. I don't like looking at it, I don't like sitting in it, and I really don't like driving it. There is absolutely no amount of emotion dialed into any part of the Corolla experience and every other vehicle in the segment is a far better choice. But still, somehow, Toyota sells 'em like hotcakes.

Thankfully, there are a lot of people who agree with me. And for folks like us, companies like Mazda exist. This small Japanese automaker places emotion and driver involvement as its top priorities when creating new products, and mostly – especially in recent years – the end results have been great. The new CX-5 crossover is a doll, to say nothing of the rakish and lovely new Mazda6 that launched earlier this year. And let's not forget the Miata...

It's a shame, then, that Mazda's sales numbers have never correlated with how we enthusiasts feel about the products, though a lot of that simply has to do with the company's weaker advertising efforts, not to mention a less robust dealer network. Mazda continues to build cars that are great to drive above all, and the automaker is slowly but surely getting its refinement issues and infotainment technologies in order. This new 2014 Mazda3 aims to offer the best of the brand's new Skyactiv powertrain DNA, housed in a package with features and technologies that stand up to every other car in the highly competitive C segment.

It is everything the Corolla is not. And it's fantastic.
Related Gallery2014 Mazda3: First Drive

2014 Mazda3 side view2014 Mazda3 front view2014 Mazda3 rear view

Because the 2014 Mazda3 shares many of its Skyactiv bits with the CX-5 and Mazda6, the new compact feels, as well as looks, decidedly familiar. That's not a bad thing. Mazda's Kodo design language has once again resulted in a fantastic shape here, and all of the specific styling elements have made for a seriously attractive body. A lot of design comparisons to the Mazda6 are fair, especially when you see the Mazda3 sedan, but subtle tweaks for the more compact form are easily noticeable and appreciated.

A lot of design comparisons to the Mazda6 are fair, especially when you see the Mazda3 sedan.

For starters, the front fascia uses a larger, more vertical grille that adds a bit more assertiveness to an otherwise aggressive styling approach. Kodo-standard elements like a strong character line that outlines the lower grille and works up into the slim headlamps are present on the Mazda3, combined with LED daytime running lamp accents on uplevel models. At the sides, there are pronounced wheel arches with heavily sculpted lines that flow into the center of the car's profile, intersecting just aft of the vehicle's mid-point and then tapering off.

Oddly, despite my tendency to normally prefer the styling of a hatchback to a sedan, there are a few elements of the new 3 that are weird here on the five-door. For starters, because the Kodo language dictates this sort of cab-rearward design, most of the vehicle's visual weight is put over the rear wheels. That's fine, and gives the car a sort of shooting brake look, but it really highlights the large front overhang. Furthermore, while things look a-okay on the 18-inch alloy wheels fitted to the Mazda3 s Grand Touring test car pictured here, that rump looks bulgy on cars fitted with the smaller 16-inch wheels. I have this same problem with the CX-5 and its 17/19-inch wheel split, and in the case of the 3, there's no mid-grade 17-inch wheel option available.

2014 Mazda3 grille2014 Mazda3 headlight2014 Mazda3 wheel2014 Mazda3 taillight

The new hatchback is nearly two inches shorter in overall length versus the 2013 model, though the wheelbase has been stretched by 2.4 inches. Vehicle width has increased by 1.6 inches, and just over half an inch has been shaved off the hatch's height. All in, the new dimensions and upgraded styling are big wins here. I never fully warmed up to the goofy-smily looks of the prior Mazda3, but this new package is taut, athletic and really pretty.

Pricing hasn't been announced just yet, but Mazda says it will start at less than $17,000.

Mazda will offer the 3 as both a four-door sedan and five-door hatchback, both of which can be had with 2.0-liter and 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engines. There's a base level i-SV trim for the sedan only (the value model, really) but the other trims can be had in either four- or five-door configurations. Pricing hasn't been announced just yet, but Mazda says it will start at less than $17,000.

Yes, a diesel engine is being considered (the Mazda3 will be available with the 2.2-liter Skyactiv-D engine in other markets), but the company is closely watching the acceptance of the diesel Mazda6 here in the US before it makes a decision about bringing an oil-burning 3 Stateside. There's never been a better time to put up or shut up, message-board-shouting diesel-lovers. Mazda also hasn't officially confirmed the existence of a next-generation Mazdaspeed3, but we have no doubt that one is in the works. It'd be a hot little number, after all.

2014 Mazda3 engine

For now, the US market will have to make due with the two Skyactiv-G gasoline engines. The base engine, available on all "i" trim levels, is the 2.0-liter naturally aspirated inline four-cylinder that first launched in the 2012 Mazda3 and later arrived in the CX-5 crossover. This engine is good for 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque – a gain of two pound-feet versus the outgoing model – and can be had with either a six-speed automatic or manual transmission. Fuel economy is the big story here, as the EPA recently confirmed that the 2.0-liter hatchback will achieve 30 miles per gallon in the city and 40 mpg highway (models with the six-speed manual transmission will see that city number reduced to 29).

Mazda will optionally offer its i-Eloop regenerative braking system on models equipped with the 2.5-liter engine.

I briefly drove an i-GT model with the 2.0-liter engine and it was exactly what you'd expect. The gutless attributes of the 2.0 have carried over to the new Mazda3 as there isn't a whole lot going on in the low end of the rev range, but otherwise, the car is perfectly nice to steer. You get some handling tradeoffs with the 16-inch wheels, as the 3 feels softer in corners and is more prone to understeer with this setup, but it's still a more enjoyable car to drive than any of its classmates.

The bulk of my time with the new Mazda3 was spent with a fully loaded s-GT model, complete with the Skyactiv-G 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine that all "s" trims will get. Despite having the same displacement, this new engine is a huge improvement over the outgoing MZR 2.5. Horsepower is up from 167 to 184, torque is up from 168 to 185, and with the six-speed automatic transmission, fuel economy is up from 22/29 mpg city/highway to a Mazda-estimated 28/37 mpg. That's all thanks to the more efficient engine construction of the new 2.5 Skyactiv and its 13.0:1 compression ratio. The fact that the new hatch is some 100 pounds lighter helps a bit, too.

Mazda will optionally offer its i-Eloop regenerative braking system on models equipped with the 2.5-liter engine. It's a seamless technology that you can't feel from behind the wheel, and there are incremental fuel economy gains to be had with this tech. The 28/37 mpg numbers of the 2.5 6AT car should improve to 29/39 mpg with i-Eloop, according to Mazda's estimates.

2014 Mazda3 engine

While the smaller 2.0-liter four-cylinder will no doubt be the volume engine, folks who buy the 2.5 are in for a real treat. You have to get it above 2,500 rpm to really feel the power, but when you're on, it's on. What's more, the Mazda will happily rev all day long in the 4,000 to 6,000 rpm range, and while there isn't a whole lot of sound coming from the tailpipes, there's audible engine noise in the cabin that's a bit more robust than many of the other wheezy four-cylinders in the segment.

You really have to give credit where credit's due: Mazda knows how to make a killer manual transmission.

Mazda will eventually offer a six-speed manual transmission with the 2.5, and if it's anything like the row-your-own units mated to this engine in the CX-5 and Mazda6, it'll be sweet. I tried the manual transmission with the 2.0-liter car, and it's slick to shift. You really have to give credit where credit's due: Mazda knows how to make a killer manual transmission.

But the automatic is in no way a Debbie Downer. It uses a traditional torque converter to get things moving at crawl speeds, but beyond that, the action is far closer to a dual-clutch than a conventional slushbox. The Skyactiv-Drive six-speed automatic comes with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, and this is one case where I highly encourage use of them during spirited driving. That whole line about being dual-clutch-quick is the honest truth, and the action is really enjoyable. But I also found a lot to like about the automatic's Sport mode, which is programmed to prevent shifts in either direction. On one long stretch of twists during my drive, the Mazda willingly held onto third gear, even in many instances where I fully expected it to upshift. And it'll hold a gear all the way to the 6,500-rpm redline if that's what the driver demands. The Sport mode of the transmission doesn't feel as engaging on less-involving sets of switchbacks – you're better off just using the paddles here – but really, this automatic transmission is well-tuned for folks who give a flip about driving.

2014 Mazda3 interior2014 Mazda3 infotainment system display2014 Mazda3 shifter2014 Mazda3 infotainment system controls

No one will confuse the steering for anything than an electronically assisted rack, but again, Mazda knows what it's doing here. Every compliment we've ever given to the Mazda6 or CX-5 about its fantastic helm can be carried over here, with a rack that weights up nicely as you carry more speed and turn the wheels harder to the left or right, while still feeling effortless and light during slow-speed maneuvering.

The 3 is, without question, the best-driving car in the segment.

There's a great amount of feedback through the suspension, but it's not jarring over broken pavement, even with the upgraded 18-inch wheels wrapped in 215/45-series Dunlop SP Sport 5000 tires. In fact, I actually found the 16-inch alloy setup to be more unpleasant overall, though a proper test over the cracked roads of Detroit is in order before officially praising the 18-inch package as wholly fantastic.

The big takeaway here is just how confident the Mazda3 feels when you're driving for pleasure. A lot of the cars in this segment give you that hilarious drive-the-doors-off sensation when you're caning them, but it doesn't mean they're good. The Mazda, however, is good for plenty of smiles from behind the wheel, simply because of how willing it is to be driven hard. The 3 is, without question, the best-driving car in the segment.

Complaints? There's a good deal of wind noise in the cabin, despite the hatchback's slick 0.275 drag coefficient. That number gets even smoother for the sedan, which boasts a 0.255 cd. It's fair to point out that the cars Mazda provided were early pre-production units, so not every detail was up to production spec. That wind noise issue might be worked out before the car actually goes on sale. Even so, if the company's other products are an indication, this thing won't exactly be Cruze-quiet.

2014 Mazda3 front seats2014 Mazda3 rear seats2014 Mazda3 rear cargo area2014 Mazda3 rear cargo area

Unfortunately, that whole pre-production thing carried over into a couple aspects of the Mazda3's interior during this test. There's a new infotainment system housed in the seven-inch screen you see on the dash, but it wasn't functioning in this prototype. And there's also that class-exclusive Active Driving Display heads-up unit that's projected onto a small, clear plastic panel between the steering wheel and the windshield, but because I couldn't access the adjustment function in the infotainment screen, I couldn't see the digital readout without slouching down into an absolutely uncomfortable position. From what I can tell, it all looks like it works just fine, but you'll have to wait a few more months before we can pass judgment on the whole system.

The new interior is a solid improvement over the outgoing car.

To that end, I won't fault the Mazda3 for a couple of fit-and-finish issues found in this test car, namely some awkward panel gaps. But on the whole, the new interior is a solid improvement over the outgoing car. The clean, stylish dash that's free of buttons and clutter is appreciated, and the free-floating-look of the touchscreen display is pretty slick. That said, Mazda is still using smudge-friendly piano black plastic on a lot of surfaces, though this specific test car was fitted with a cool carbon-look trim that actually feels premium. The other materials are better, including the leather found on the supportive, nicely bolstered seats of this Grand Touring tester, and the two-tone leather approach is nice, too.

However, that sleek exterior doesn't really make for a totally spacious cabin, and cargo capacity suffers. With only a maximum of 47.1 cubic feet of cargo space on offer, the 2014 Mazda3's hauling abilities are worse than the outgoing model, not to mention several of its C-segment rivals (and a few B-segment cars, too). It is, however, better than the dismal 44.8 cubic feet found in a five-door Focus.



In typical Mazda fashion, a whole bunch of features will be packed into the 3, but it's nothing you can't find elsewhere in the compact class. Things like navigation, Bluetooth, xenon headlamps, heated leather seats, and a full suite of infotainment functionality will all be available, in addition to upscale safety features like forward collision warning, lane-keep assist, blind spot monitoring and even Mazda's new Smart City Brake system. It'll be interesting to see how pricy the 3 gets with every option boxed ticked.

The 2014 Mazda3 is a real winner, especially so for enthusiasts.

But that won't necessarily be the problem with convincing new buyers to step into a Mazda3. The whole of this segment is full of seriously good cars these days, and so many of them reward you with better comfort, a quieter ride and more functionality – things that so many shoppers in this class really want. That's why people buy the Corolla, after all (along with a robust reputation for reliability). And it's what makes vehicles like the Honda Civic, Ford Focus and Chevy Cruze so successful.

It's a downright shame that so many people shopping in this segment go into the new car buying experience and cut off any sort of emotional tie. The 2014 Mazda3 is a real winner, especially so for enthusiasts. I hope more people take notice.