The strangest thing about being an Automotive Journalist is that driving exotic cars and the top-models of every vehicle often does not lead to owning purely performance-oriented cars. Many of my colleagues gravitate towards vehicles with good performance and some utility, such as more practical sedans, wagons, and hatchbacks. So when an affordable hatch or wagon carries all the extra adventuring equipment like bikes, kayaks, etc. and drives with great handling, everyone takes notice. When such a vehicle is not a top-heavy crossover or SUV, I take extra notice.
Introduced to the US market in 2004, the 3-series has sold more than 5 million units worldwide. The 2018 Mazda3 hatchback returns with 5-doors, a low-profile, and room for friends and a dog or two. The Mazda3 does not work as well for young children due to the tighter backseat and the requirements for children’s car seats. Infant’s and toddler’s rear-facing seat positions require more space than the average adult. Families with shorter drivers and front-seat passengers could make this work on a budget, but most would benefit from a lifted loading height (CX-3) for buckling those complicated straps.
My friend who is single and an avid cyclist would find the Mazda3 a great all-around hatchback. Living in an urban area within Southern California where parking spaces are small, he could park with ease, and get all of the 26 city/35 highway/30 combined mpg [2.5 liters]. There is room for him and his gear, including the bike inside the rear hatch with the second row folded flat. With sporty handling and plenty of power to merge onto LA freeway on-ramps, the Mazda3 is perfect for city living and long weekend trips.
Mazda continues to tune the suspensions of their cars with a balanced approach between agile performance and smooth expressway cruising.
After hundreds of miles, my test Mazda3 Grand Touring remained composed at high speeds, scooting by tractor/trailers, and sliding through high winds, without any drama. I was not tired from trying to keep the car centered in a lane or vibrating over rough pavement, even with the included 18” wheels and tires.
More pleasant was the solid cornering and responsive steering when tracking through the foothills above the urban sprawl. The Mazda3 uses the “G-Vectoring Control” to keep all four tires rolling along the desired path with excellent control. Mazda continues to excel at sporty handling but never forgets that most of the miles will be over commuter asphalt.
Like most manufacturers, Mazda has included a safety suite of driver-assist software and sensors. New to Mazda is their i-ACTIVSENSE which includes Smart City Brake Support (SCBS) to anticipate collisions in intersections by using cameras and radars. Their Advanced Blind Spot Monitoring (ABSM) with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert warned me of a speed-demon who passed me at over 100 miles-per-hour a moment before I tried to change lanes.
Our 2018 Mazda3 optioned up with an automatic braking assist. There is also a “sign recognition program which displays the traffic signs in the heads-up display (HUD). This is a little distracting because it diverts eyes away from the road and signs when if duplicates the sign already on the side of the road. This feature is over-compensating for what should already be conscientious driving. The automatic cruise control did work well in heavy traffic.
Power is supplied from either a 2.0-liter SKYACTIV-G (gas) or 2.5 SKACTIV-G engine and a 6-speed manual or automatic transmission. Our Grand Touring came with the 184 horsepower PZEV emission 2.5-liter and automatic transmission drivetrain which performed flawlessly. Noise and vibration were minimal, even under hard acceleration, thanks to Mazda’s effort to isolate the cabin from extra noises in front of the firewall. The optional paddle shifters and standard sport-mode were entertaining for a moment, but most will never use these in everyday driving.
The interior is well designed and attractive for a car in this price range- typical of modern Mazda’s. The center console multi-function controller is simple enough for an owner, but I still prefer a touchscreen interface mounted high on the dash to keep eyes looking ahead. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are currently not included in Mazda’s infotainment package. However, their connectivity software worked well enough, and the vocal commands for the Mazda Navigation System were efficient in getting us to our destination.
Overall, the Jinba Ittai styling and the few outside tweaks for 2018 have not messed with the flowing lines of the KODO (Soul of Motion) exterior. The Mazda3 is still the most intriguing sub-compact on the road with unique styling, appealing interior design, and balanced handling.
The upgraded packages include nice amenities such as a Bose® sound system with nine speakers and Sirius XM radio with 4-months paid subscription. The only real let-down for me was the amount of road noise being generated from the tires over the grooved pavement. Mazda has dampened the wind and traffic noise with extra seals and glass treatments but left off the floor/wheel well insulation found on the Mazda6 due to the extra weight.
Our Grand Touring model with the Premium EQ Package with adaptive headlights and all safety equipment listed above, and the Appearance Package with front air dam, auto-dim mirrors, and heated steering wheel, came to $29,785. If buyers want to purchase the Grand Touring Mazda3 without these packages, they get a lot of car for just under $25,000. Dollar for dollar, the 2018 Mazda3 is just a pleasure to drive, and this cannot be said for all sub-compacts on the market.