2014 Mazda 3 5-Door Hatch: Something Just Clicked
You know that moment, with a car that's been around for a few years, when the automaker finally works out all the kinks and puts out a car that is perfectly dialed? Like what Dodge did with the 392 Challenger for 2011: suddenly, with the right amount of power and the right amount of handling, everything just falls into place, and you can finally say that they got that car right. That seems to be what's happened with the all-new Mazda 3, the bread-and-butter compact that's been paying Mazda's bills since 2004. Now on the cusp of its third generation, the Mazda 3 is indeed dialed—it hits all the right notes in power, handling, and appearance. Let's take it for a spin...
There was a lot of backlash over Mazda's previous-generation "happy face" front end. I thought the big grin worn by the whole Mazda family during that generation was cute, but cute is admittedly a serious purchasing hurdle for certain demographics. Mazda appeased those critics, not by dumbing down the design, melting their family face into something more palatable like Acura did with its debeaking of certain models—but with a complete aesthetic overhaul that transformed the overjoyed-Pokemon visage and bubbly profile of the outgoing model into something lower, meaner, and altogether more sinewy and sinister. It's got a comparatviely long nose that almost looks like it could be hiding a straight six instead of a transverse-mounted four, contrasting the snub face of nearly all other modern compacts: it's like Mazda was going in the opposite direction from cuteness. The 2014 model is just over half an inch lower and shorter than its predecessor, though it's gained 2.4" in the wheelbase and 1.6" in width for a stable, planted platform. In the aerodynamic sculpting and sharky nose, I saw a bit of the automaker's "Nagare" design language that Mazda rolled out way back in 2006 as the long-term future direction of its styling. It's interesting, and lovely, to see that aesthetic finally put into practice in what appears to be the most unabashed form yet.
In any case, I couldn't find a single angle the car didn't look good from. Can you? On any great looking car, there's inevitably some bulge, some cheap piece of gingerbread, or just a blah angle you point to and say, "this car would look perfect if it weren't for that x." But on the Mazda 3, I found nothing.
Enough about looks. How does the thing drive? Pretty well. Even with only 2 lb-ft of total torque more than the outgoing model, it gets out of its own way a lot better than the previous Mazda 3 did. The 3 is not only 60-100lbs lighter overall than the previous model (depending on trim level), but it makes the most of its 155 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque, hitting peak torque ealier and delivering solid power across the RPM range. I will qualify by emphasizing that our tester came with a 6-speed manual, which will make just about anything more fun, especially a gas-sipping four-banger where every horse counts. But in a lot of those cases, the manual shift feels like the only thing between the car and flabby perdition, whereas on the 3 it was a lot more like a well-chosen accompanyment to a very respectable powerplant. Clutch feel is intuitive and throws were nice and short and tight. A steep first and second gear lets you really feel it when you give it the beans, and I found the car's power was plenty for all the spirited driving you can get away with in a city, as well as getting up to merging speed in a hurry when entering Seattle's aggro highways.
Mazda's Skyactiv technology, which refers to a suite of performance and efficiency enhancements from the engine to the chassis and which the company introduced in 2011 and has been refining ever since, keeps the 2.0 pretty fuel efficient despite all the hootenanny you're going to put it through. I averaged a solid 29.5 real-world mpg in combined city and highway driving: definitely more thirsty than the 29/40 advertised, but just a touch more economical than my 30-year-old Weber-carbed Ford Escort.
As for the famous Mazda handling, the new 3 gots it: there really isn't anything bad you can say about this car's agility, and things go only slightly pear-shaped if you drive it into a turn really hard. For normal everyday driving, it just feels perfectly nimble, balanced, and both effortless and connected at the same time. The electronic-assist steering is just a little springy with a tendancy to snap back, so you're going to want to hang on. This isn't a car you'll want to drive with one finger anyway.
The ride is very firm. It's not a kidney-killer, but it will spill your coffee for you (which it did for me frequently, a few times on my nice winter coat, and once during a profoundly jarring pothole encounter that somehow produced a geyser from a lidded Starbucks cup that hit the roof). But in day-to-day life it's not as bad as I'm making it sound. And despite the tight ride, Mazda has managed to give the new 3 much more refined highway manners, with reduced road noise and none of that cheap, harsh Mazda feel that we used to just accept as the tradeoff for having a fun inexpensive tightly sprung econo. I'd have to do a lot more investigating to figure out what magic combination of longer wheelbase, better tires, and improved sound deadening Mazda worked to get the car to where it is. But suffice it to say, you no longer have to compromise on ride quality with the 3.
Interior appointments is where things start to unravel a little. We've always been able to count on Mazda for a clean dash interface and a relative absence of gizmological frou frou—they were probably the last manufacturer who relied primarily on analog knobs, which I loved and am going to miss. Now, unfortunately, the center stack is a confused jumble of dials and buttons, touchscreen commands for some functions and a center-console nubstick for others, and a tablet-like nav unit that sits awkwardly in the middle of the dash like an oversized Tom-Tom.
The console nub is in a weirdly anti-ergonomic position too far rearward of the shifter, and the audio volume control is a tiny knob that sits inexplicably on the outboard side of the console, at a lonely remove from the incoherent riot of action that is the rest of the Mazda 3's stuff. It feels a bit like Mazda is in over its head, that this is its first exuberant stage-dive into the whole interior-gadgetry thing, and they're drawing from an ambitious mishmash of other brands but haven't quite figured out their own way yet. The only saving grace is that most of its tech is very unintrusive. It stays quiet, maintaining its Mazda minimalist vibe: the only thing that consistently squawks at you is an over-aggressive blind-spot monitor, and I'm sure there's a way to turn that off. Moreover, they made the cockpit as a whole quite beautiful, with particular attention to the gauge cluster: that stunning metallic floating speedo is a work of art, even if it heavily borrows from Acura's TSX. Come to think of it, its contrast to the sad little inset digital tach at its side, which I consistently forgot to look at, really drives home the fact that some things just need to be actual gauges.
Despite these shortcomings, the 3's interior was otherwise fine. I would have opted for the cloth, which just seems right for a Mazda, but the seating was otherwise comfortable, and well-bolstered for spirited driving. Even the backseat felt roomy, though it was somewhat at the expense of rear cargo space in the hatch.
I'm guessing Mazda will have driver ergonomics and tech and figured out in time for the third-gen 3's first refresh. Tell you what I'd do in the meantime: get the base model, with the stick shift and the cloth seats, and forego the incoherent tech package for an aftermarket backup cam—of all those bells and whistles, this is the only one you really need for this car. Then skip the two fanciest paint colors (some really nice pearl white or the "Soul Red Metallic" pictured here), and you can get a legitimately fun and sprightly commuter for just a smidge under the $20K threshhold (that's right: they even made it cheaper than the last iteration). I can't say I've driven the new Focus yet (Ford is pretty stingy with press cars) but for a high-performing compact whose only drawback is a somewhat incoherent tech experience, I can't imagine you could do much better than the Mazda 3.
2014 Mazda 3 i 5-Door Grand Touring
What's New: For its 3rd generation, the Mazda 3 has had a complete redesign for the body and chassis, with refinements to the drivetrain as well.
What's Hot: ballsy power, great manual trans, stylish looks, impeccable handling.
What's Not: driver tech interface is trying to do too many things at once.
Get this car if: you want a fun cheap commuter that's not too tiny for a Costco run.