Almost by definition, affordable compact cars aren't supposed to be fun. Sure, hot hatches get our blood pumping, but not long ago, the terms "compact car" and "economy car" could safely be used interchangeably. A key exception for the last decade has been the Mazda3, a car that has consistently delivered more dynamic thrills and tactile feedback than its contemporaries. Competitors have picked up their game significantly in recent years, however, leaving the Mazda3 wanting in several areas, including overall refinement, in-car technology and cabin appointments, so Mazda went back to the drawing board to create this all-new third-gen model for 2014.
Including this redesigned 2014 model, Mazda's recent crop of new products have targeted North America's hottest non-truck segments – compact car, midsize sedan and compact crossover/SUV. Yet it might be fair to call this launch the most important of them all, as the 3 remains the Japanese marque's best-selling vehicle. While America's pool of compact hatchbacks isn't exactly deep, the 2014 Mazda3 still has a challenging road ahead of it competing against two-box compacts that include the popular Ford Focus and recent additions like the all-new Kia Forte and the still-new Hyundai Elantra GT.
The 2014 Mazda3 may have made its big debut last summer and gone on sale in August, but it still catches our eye every time we see it. As much as we like the styling of the new Mazda6 sedan, the company's Kodo design language arguably looks even better on this smaller scale. Gone is the former Mazda3's awkward, smiling front end, replaced by a sterner, scowling expression that sets the tone for the rest of the car. An upright shield-shaped grille is flanked by dark, narrow headlights that help form the sweeping front fender lines, and a similar treatment can be found at the rear, which is marked out by wide rear haunches and horizontal taillights.
Overall, the Mazda3 five-door looks a lot like a shrunken CX-5 – a strong compliment – but the best part of its styling might be that it doesn't resemble a typical front-drive econobox. With its stretched dash-to-axle ratio and long, flowing lines, the 2014 Mazda3 manages to look a bit like a rear-drive vehicle from BMW or Infiniti.
It manages to look a bit like a rear-drive vehicle from BMW or Infiniti.
If we had any major complaints about the outgoing Mazda3, they usually centered on its generally lackluster interior. After plopping down behind the wheel of this particular Mazda3 i Grand Touring, though, we're happy to report there is nothing lackluster about its new cabin. It's vastly improved in every area, and we particularly appreciate that the chunky two-tier instrument panel of the outgoing 3 has been supplanted by one with a smoother, more cohesive look (although some of us could have done without the piano black trim and obviously fake carbon-fiber accents). Mazda still refuses to bring much color into the cabin, so aside from the top-of-the-line Mazda3 Grand Touring models, the palette (aside from small trim pieces and seat stitching) is limited to black or... black.
One of the coolest features about the 3 is its new navigation system, which the Grand Touring gets as standard equipment. We're not crazy about the tacked-on look of the center-mounted display, but this iPad-like screen-mount strategy seems to be picking up steam with the Mazda3 and cars like the Mercedes-Benz CLA. Either way, the Mazda3's sizeable touchscreen allows users to drag through the various screens like a smart phone, and there's also an iDrive-like, all-in-one rotary control knob aft of the shifter that works for both basic functions and higher-level tasks like inputting addresses and accessing downloaded apps or dialing phone numbers. Another small-yet-appreciated feature of the nav system is a prompt that displays text on the screen for approaching streets as you're driving.
On paper, the 2014 Mazda3 has somehow managed to get bigger, yet it offers marginally less legroom and headroom than its predecessor. However, it's still on par with competitors like the Elantra GT and Focus five-door in terms of both passenger space and cargo volume. Although the Mazda3 occasionally reminded us of its shapely roofline when we inadvertently bumped our heads on the door opening, once inside, it provided a decent amount of space considering its footprint.
It offers marginally less legroom and headroom than its predecessor.
In particular, the front seats offer everyday driving comfort while still being supportive enough for mountain roads. However, you might want to reserve the backseat for smaller or tag-along passengers. The true advantage of a hatchback is its cargo capacity, and the Mazda3 doesn't disappoint in this regard, with plenty of space with the rear seats up or down. Unfortunately, the new cabin is let down by a weirdly shaped center armrest designed to accommodate a pair of cupholders, but the leading edge of the cover (where it's most convenient for the driver to rest his or her arm) is barely more than an inch wide. And speaking of small, a good portion of real estate in the gauge cluster is dominated by the speedometer – by comparison, the flanking tachometer and multifunction display are disappointingly tiny.
Even with its improved in-car tech and materials, Mazda has limited price increases on most Mazda3 models, even going so far as to lower MSRPs on some higher-end models like our i Grand Touring five-door tester. When it comes time to choose a trim level, prospective buyers will notice that the 3 comes in 11 build combinations just factoring in the engine choices, bodystyles and trim levels. That's a staggering number of combinations, but the biggest choice might be deciding between the sedan and five-door.
The sedan has the lowest price starting at $16,945, while the five-door starts at $18,945, in part because it comes with more content. In our estimation, the hatchback's added kit, cargo space and Infiniti-esque shape is easily worth the extra $2,000. Equipped with the Grand Touring trim level and various options, this tester with the smaller 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine rang in at $24,635, which is less than you'll pay for a Focus Titanium. Of course, if you load up a 2.5 S model with all the options (including some novel-for-the-class features like turning headlamps and head-up display), pricing creeps into the low-$30k range, which is at the top end for this class of car.
The manual Mazda3 now offers 29 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway.
We had a chance to get behind the wheel of the 2014 Mazda3 twice before it went on sale, but both of those drives were focused on models equipped with six-speed Skyactiv automatic transmissions. For now, Mazda3 buyers looking to shift their own gears will be limited to the base Mazda3 i with the 2.0-liter four-cylinder seen here, although at some point, Mazda says the peppier 2.5-liter four will also be available with the manual gearbox. As for the base engine, we first got a taste of this Skyactiv mill on the previous-gen 3, and it returns almost untouched except for a slight bump in torque from 148 pound-feet up to 150 to go with its 155 horsepower. The biggest improvement year-over-year is in terms of fuel economy, with the manual Mazda3 now offering 29 miles per gallon in the city and 40 mpg on the highway – 2-mpg increases in both cycles. In a healthy mix of highway and city driving, we averaged a very impressive 37.7 mpg, and our time included a good amount of hard acceleration and cornering maneuvers.
Since it first hit the scene in 2003, the Mazda3 has been a standout offering thanks to its nimble handling and predictable manners. Thankfully, the major changes made to the chassis have made it an even better driver's car. For starters, it now rides on a longer wheelbase and has a wider track, helping to make it more stable while cornering. Better still, in this configuration, the Mazda3 has also shaved about 100 pounds from its curb weight. Enhanced stability and lowered weight is a great way to make an entertaining car even more so.
Enhanced stability and lowered weight is a great way to make an entertaining car even more so.
Knowing how much fun the 3 can be when pushed hard made us appreciate its everyday driveability even more. Without making any groundbreaking chassis changes, Mazda says that it has retuned the suspension and brakes on this car, further contributing to its Jekyll and Hyde driving persona. Chief among the changes is an all-new steering system. The 2013 Mazda3 had an electro-hydraulic setup, while the new car switches to full electric. The tuning is spot-on, with effortless low-speed steering to go with great responsiveness and impressive amounts of feedback in sportier driving situations. Our only qualm with the Mazda3's performance out on the road was the amount of tire and road noise that makes its way into the cabin at just about any speed.
Mazda knows how to formulate a manual transmission, and the 3's self-stirrer is no exception. Even though this car will likely end up in the hands of first-time buyers just looking for good, affordable transportation, the six-speed manual gearbox provides plenty of enjoyment for driving enthusiasts, as well. Those looking for a sportier experience – without stepping up to the Mazdaspeed variant – might want to opt for the larger 2.5-liter Skyactiv four-cylinder found in the Mazda3 S. Not because of the 2.5's extra 29 horses and 35 lb-ft, but rather for the automatic transmission's Sport mode. Only offered on this engine, the Sport mode uses a g-sensor to tell if the car is being driven in a spirited manner, and, if it is, reduces unnecessary momentum-killing shifts while keeping the engine in the meat of its powerband.
The 2014 model makes us fall in love all over again for being fun, fuel efficient and drop-dead gorgeous.
In our First Drive of the Mazda3 hatchback, we specifically called out the previous-generation Toyota Corolla as the bane of this segment, but the truth is, buyers who opt for cars like the Corolla and Honda Civic seem to desire simplicity and ease-of-use over sportiness and aesthetics. Somehow, Mazda has managed to make the inside of the 2014 Mazda3 look and feel more mainstream while keeping the sporty and fun driving dynamics we've grown to love, wrapping it all up in an amazingly sleek and stylish form. The Mazda3 has always tugged at our heartstrings as the ultimate budget compact, but the 2014 model makes us fall in love all over again for being fun, fuel efficient and drop-dead gorgeous – all factors that should further cement it as Mazda's top-selling model while hopefully finding many new friends. Of course, with baseline talents like these, we can't help but daydream even more about the next-generation Mazdaspeed3... it can't get here soon enough.
New Car Test Drive
All-new version raises bar in compact class.
Redesigned for 2014, Mazda3 is Mazda's entry in the overflowing compact class, offered in four-door sedan and five-door hatchback body styles. The Mazda 3 is the company's perennial bestseller, and the 2014 Mazda3 is the first to incorporate the full suite of Mazda's Skyactiv Technology, a strange marketing name for a holistic approach to design aimed at reducing mass and optimizing powertrain efficiency to maximize fuel economy.
While that fundamental objective dominated every element of the new Mazda3's development, the design and engineering team was also challenged to give the car contemporary good looks that would stand out from the herd, and also imbue it with a high fun-to-drive index, sustaining Mazda's zoom-zoom image ethos.
Based on substantial drive time with several models in more than one venue, we'd say Mazda has achieved most of its goals. But perhaps not all.
Basics: New from floor pan to roof, the 2014 Mazda3 is roomier than the previous generation. Overall length (180.3 inches for the formal sedan, 175.6 for the hatchback) has actually shrunk slightly, and height is down just over a half inch, to 57.3 inches. But at 70.7 inches, the new car is 1.6 inches wider and that, plus a 2.4-inch wheelbase stretch, adds up to increased interior volume, particularly in the rear seat. For contrast, the Mazda3 sedan is bigger in every dimension than the Honda Civic four-door.
Bigger is only part of the story. Mazda claims a 30 percent increase in torsional rigidity for the unibody, an impressive improvement since the previous generation was noteworthy in terms of its chassis stiffness (and consequent agile handling). Even more impressive, Mazda also claims reduced curb weights, 60 to 100 pounds, depending on body style and trim levels.
The styling that surrounds these roomy interiors echoes the new Mazda6, crisp and eye-catching, with distinctive character creases in the body side sheetmetal, and, mercifully, a new grille, replacing the ugly plastic smile that afflicted the previous generation. The hatchback is the more appealing of the two body styles, to our eye, but the designers have managed to make the sedan stand out, too, which isn't always true in the compact class.
Inside, the Mazda3's redesign is readily visible in new instrument clusters (they vary, becoming fancier in higher trim levels), a new dashboard with improved secondary controls in the center stack, and upgraded materials, even in the basic i SV model. Forward sightlines are better than average, the front seats are sporty and supportive, and of course there's an array of available infotainment features.
As with the 2013 version, the 2014 Mazda3 has two engine options, both four-cylinders, both naturally aspirated, both with direct fuel injection: a 2.0-liter (standard) and 2.5-liter. The 2.0-liter's output is essentially unchanged, although the torque peak occurs much earlier in the rpm range, whereas power from the 2.5-liter is increased in the 2014 Mazda3 by 17 horsepower and 17 pound-feet of torque.
The 2.0-liter engine is the line's fuel economy champ when paired with the optional 6-speed automatic in the sedan's basic Mazda 3i trim level: 30/41 mpg City/Highway, according to the EPA. The standard 6-speed manual gearbox loses only one mpg on the EPA's City cycle and substantially increases the fun-to-drive factor, so the manual is our preference. A Mazda 3s sedan with the 2.5-liter engine and automatic transmission is rated at 28/39 mpg. A 6-speed manual is not available with the 2.5-liter at launch, but will be offered later.
Like the previous generation, the new Mazda3 is exceptionally agile, and a pleasure to guide down a twisty two-lane highway. It's smooth, quiet, and refined in most operating situations.
There isn't much to criticize. Power is on the tepid side, especially with the 2.0-liter engine and automatic transmission, and the lack of a manual transmission option for the 2.5-liter engine, although temporary, is disappointing. There is no hybrid version, nor is one on the visible horizon. This also goes for a diesel variant. Similarly, the bad boy Mazdaspeed3, one of the hot rods of the compact car world, may not be renewed in the latest generation.
Nevertheless, the new Mazda3 raises the ante in its class on several fronts: fuel efficiency, dynamics, quality, and style.
The 2014 Mazda3 comes in two body styles: four-door sedan and five-door hatchback. Mazda 3i models come with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, Mazda 3s models come with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Each offers a choice of 6-speed automatic or 6-speed manual. Trim levels range from basic SV to Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring.
Mazda 3i SV 4-door sedan ($16,945) comes with air conditioning; cloth upholstery, power windows, mirrors, and door locks; tilt/telescope steering column; 3-spoke steering wheel; 4-speaker AM/FM audio; USB ports; 2 12-volt outlets; 16-inch steel wheels. A 6-speed manual transmission is standard; it's also available with a 6-speed automatic ($17,995).
Mazda 3i Sport upgrades with pushbutton start; CD player; illuminated steering wheel controls; split-folding rear seatbacks; cruise control; tachometer; map lights; body-color side mirrors; Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity; USB ports. Mazda 3i Sport 4-door sedan comes with manual transmission ($18,445) or automatic ($19,495). Mazda 3i Sport 5-door hatchback also comes with manual ($18,945) or automatic ($19,995).
Mazda 3i Touring adds 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels; heated side mirrors with turn signal repeaters; rear decklid spoiler; keyless entry; rear seat armrest. As with other models, Mazda 3i Touring 4-door sedan is available with manual ($19,595) or automatic ($20,645).
Mazda 3i Grand Touring upgrades with leatherette upholstery; heated front seats; three-way power driver's seat; dual zone auto climate control; MAZDA CONNECT infotainment system; satellite radio; Pandora and Stitcher internet radio; navigation; Bose premium audio; power moonroof; rearview camera. Mazda 3i Grand Touring comes with manual ($22,745) or automatic ($23,795).
Mazda 3s Touring 4-door sedan ($24,595), in addition to the 2.5-liter engine with paddle shifter 6-speed automatic transmission, upgrades to 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels; bi-xenon headlights; halogen foglights; LED daytime running lights; Active Driving Display.
Mazda 3s Grand Touring 4-door sedan ($25,995) upgrades further with perforated leather-trim seats; 7-inch touch-screen control; multi-function Command control system; rain-sensing windshield wipers; adaptive auto on/off bi-xenon headlights with auto leveling.
Mazda 3i Sport 5-door hatchback is equipped same as Sport sedan plus center-mounted high stop light; rear spoiler; rear wiper; intermittent wipers. Mazda 3i Sport 5-door hatchback is available with manual ($18,945) or automatic ($19,995).
Mazda 3i Touring 5-door hatchback is equipped same as Touring sedan plus leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift lever, and hand brake handle; sport seats; blind spot warning; rear cross traffic alert. Mazda 3i Touring 5-door hatchback is available with manual ($20,995) or automatic ($21,145).
Mazda 3i Grand Touring 5-door hatchback ($23,245), Mazda 3s Touring 5-door hatchback ($25,095), and Mazda 3s Grand Touring 5-door hatchback ($26,495) are equipped similarly to the comparable sedans.
Although they're roomier than the previous models, both versions of the new 2014 Mazda3 are shorter than the previous generation, the sedan by just over a half inch, the five-door hatchback by 1.8 inches. Reduced overall length and a longer (by 2.4 inches) wheelbase reduce front and rear overhangs, giving the new car a more athletic appearance, enhanced by the raked windshield.
The new fascia on the 2014 Mazda3 discards the ugly plastic smile of the previous version, and the slanted headlamps emphasize the wings of the new grille. The body side panels are prominently sculpted, and the net achievement of the design is exemplary aerodynamic efficiency: a coefficient of drag of 0.26 Cd for the sedan, 0.28 Cd for the five-door. Mazda's optional i-ELOOP system, employing capacitor-based regenerative engine braking and active grille shutters, reduces those numbers to 0.255 and 0.275, respectively, according to the carmaker, and these gains improve EPA fuel economy ratings in the 2.5 hatchback by 1 mpg.
The bottom line: hatchback or sedan, the new Mazda3 continues to be one of the most eye-catching designs in the compact realm.
The Mazda 3 interior is simple and verges on elegance, especially in the higher trim levels.
Our Mazda 3s Grand Touring five-door, the highest trim level, came with a sporty black interior (almond is also available), tastefully picked out with piano black and a little satin chrome. The leather-trimmed bucket seats were supportive, with generous thigh and torso bolsters, and the additional elbow room of the widened body is appreciated.
Rear-seat legroom makes for comfortable seating for a pair of adult-size people. This can't be said of the center seat, though that's true for all compacts. The hatchback's rear seats fold flat to expand cargo space exponentially.
Mazda3 offers an extensive array of infotainment and connectivity features, via its new MAZDA CONNECT system. Noteworthy under this heading is the new nav system option, whose 7-inch touch screen pops up from the center of the dash, a big improvement over the previous generation. There's also a small pop-up (Active Driving Display) in front of the driver with vital info like vehicle speed, a new approach to head-up displays that works well an undoubtedly costs less to manufacture.
Overall, the new interior exudes quality, versatility and comfort.
Mazda emphasizes nimble dynamic responses in all its vehicles, the essence of the corporate zoom-zoom image-building, and the new Mazda3 is another excellent example of that ethos, building on the agility of the previous generation.
The steering is quick, 2.6 turns lock-to-lock, and accurate, although it suffers from the too-common problem of marginal feedback. High chassis rigidity allows suspension tuning that keeps body roll to a minimum and delivers eager responses in quick transitions. And the combination of stiff chassis and lengthened wheelbase keeps ride quality firm with enough compliance to soften the hard edges of warty pavement.
Power isn't a particularly strong suit. Acceleration is sluggish with the 2.0-liter engine and automatic transmission, the best combo for fuel economy, a little better with a manual transmission, which is a pleasure to operate with its short throws and positive engagements.
The 2.5-liter engine is a better bet for sorting out the daily drag races of commuting: 0-to-60 mph in the low seven-second category. The optional paddle shifters, available only with the 2.5, help make the most of this engine's power. It should be more fun with a manual gearbox.
Braking performance, with vented rotors up front, solid at the rear and standard ABS, matches the Mazda 3's generally sporty persona. We were unable to provoke fade in our drives, and pedal feel was firm in every episode. Operating on the theory that there is no such thing as too much brakes, we'd opt for the Mazda3 s model, which has bigger front rotors.
In addition to its agility and Euro firm ride quality, the new car is also distinguished by reduced interior noise levels, an improvement on the previous Mazda3.
The all-new 2014 Mazda3 stands out in several areas that count: fuel economy, refinement, styling, and responsive handling. For most, that will cover the important bases.
Tony Swan filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the Mazda3 in Michigan.
Mazda 3i SV 4-door sedan MT ($16,945); Mazda 3i Sport MT ($18,445); Mazda 3i Touring MT ($19,595); Mazda 3i Grand Touring MT ($22,745); Mazda 3s Touring AT ($24,595); Mazda 3s 2.5 Grand Touring AT ($25,995).
Options As Tested
GT Technology Package (i-ELOOP regenerative engine braking system, active grille shutters, $1600); scuff and door sill trim plates, $125; rear bumper guard, $100; cargo mat, $70.
Mazda 3s 5-door Grand Touring ($26,495).
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