Every time I drive a new version of the Mazda3, I think that the car can’t get any better, but it does, and in every respect. The 2014 model exceeds the 2012 car’s 40 mile-per-gallon fuel economy, with evolved styling, safety and infotainment features to boot.
Best of all, it’s a hoot to drive, with ride and handling so good that it’s hard to believe base MSRP is less than $17,000. Buyers can opt for either four or five-door configurations. There is also a choice of engines, including the base two-liter four-cylinder block rated at 155 horsepower and a 2.5-liter 184-horsepower powerplant. Both are available with six-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmissions.
The test car is the upscale Grand Touring model with the two-liter engine and automatic transmission, priced from $23,795. With the exception of a $70 cargo mat, the car is fully loaded, including 16-inch alloy rims, power driver’s seat, keyless entry and start, dual-zone climate control, satellite radio, touch screen display with navigation, Bluetooth phone and audio, Bose sound system and high-definition radio. Final MSRP including the $795 destination charge is $24,785.
Regenerative braking boosts efficiency
Skyactiv technology isn’t a magic bullet, but rather a variety of aerodynamic and powertrain enhancements that translate to better fuel economy. This includes reduced internal pumping losses inside the engine, better coefficient of drag figures for both the sedan and hatchback, active grille shutters, revised exhaust and for the first time, regenerative braking.
Average fuel economy on the test car is 34 miles-per-gallon for city and highway driving combined: on par with my own averages during a 100-mile test drive through the foothills of the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix.
The exterior of the outgoing model is known for its ‘smiling grille,’ which was also its most polarizing element. I thought it was clever, but I’m not sure it will age well.
The grille on the new car is less exaggerated. Together with the 2014 model’s wider, lower stance, it makes the sedan look sportier and more upscale.
The profile is coupe-like, in the tradition of European sport sedans, with a long hood and snub rear deck. Wrap-around tail lamps make the back end of the car look wider and more planted.
Test drive in Phoenix
I drove the Mazda3 around the Phoenix and Scottsdale metropolitan areas, as well as on a stretch of the Bush Highway east of town. One of the reasons the small engine works so well in the Mazda3 is the sedan’s positive power-to-weight ratio. Engineers kept curb weight under 3000 pounds: well within the capability of the two-liter engine.
The engine develops peak torque at half throttle, so the driver doesn’t have to dig too far when accelerating.
Product planners didn’t skip on key components either, such as four-wheel disc brakes and a four-wheel independent suspension with stabilizer bars on both axles. The electric power steering system is well tuned to the car, offering ample assist at low speeds and a pleasantly heavy feel on the highway. I felt well in control passing a slower vehicle on the two-lane Bush Highway.
Visibility around the perimeter is excellent. The rearview camera on the test car projects a wide-angle view to the back on the center stack screen when the driver shifts into reverse. Not only does it eliminate blind spots in the back corners and beneath the rear glass, but the camera makes it easier to monitor cross traffic in crowded parking lots.
I had no problems monitoring traffic in the adjacent lanes when driving on the highway. A blind spot monitoring system on the test car projects LED warning signals in the side mirrors when vehicles in adjacent lanes pass through the driver’s blind spots.
The MacPherson front and multi-link rear suspension is firm without feeling overly harsh. It did an excellent job of keeping the chassis flat in the corners, and controlling rebound on short pitchy hills.
Disc brakes stop the sedan in firm, linear fashion.
Pushing the wheels to the corners increased interior space on the newest model as compared to the car it replaces. Designers maximized second-row legroom by utilizing thinner front seatbacks. Four adults should feel comfortable riding in the Mazda3 on longer road trips.
Because of its compact dimensions, the second-row middle seat doesn’t have a ton of space, but can function in a pinch on short trips around town.
Keyless entry and start saves the driver from having to fumble for the keys. I found the power driver’s seat easy to adjust and comfortable on my two-hour test drive. Seat bottoms are firm, but not uncomfortably so, and there is plenty of lower lumbar support.
The driver’s wheel is a nice, small diameter: something women buyers will appreciate. Redundant controls minimize driver distraction. A new center touch screen at the top of the center stack is intuitive to operate, using a mouse-type control on the center console. The screen is large enough to read easily, yet it doesn’t interfere with the driver’s forward view.
The sedan has a surprisingly spacious trunk considering its compact dimensions. Second-row seats fold flat to extend the cargo floor for longer items. Seatback releases near the lip of the trunk make the operation easier.
The Mazda3 Grand Touring comes with front, side and side curtain airbags, antilock brakes, traction control, stability control, blind spot monitoring, rearview camera with cross traffic alert, hill start assist and tire pressure monitoring.
The 36-month bumper-to-bumper factory warranty includes 24-hour roadside assistance.
Mazda builds the Mazda3 at its Hofu, Japan assembly plant.
Like: Mazda has once again delivered on all its promises- power, performance, style, fuel economy and value- in an outstanding product.
Base price: $23,765
As tested: $24,785
Horsepower: 155 Hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 150 lbs.-ft. @ 4000 rpm
Antilock brakes: Standard
Side curtain airbags: Standard
First aid kit: N/A
Bicycle friendly: No
Fuel economy: 30/41 mpg city/highway