Mazda's compact Mazda3 hatchback has always been a rewarding driver's car, and the completely redesigned fourth-generation model builds on that strength with attractive, Italianate styling and numerous technology options not typically found in entry-level vehicles. Factor in segment-leading fuel efficiency and a refined interior, and the new Mazda3 hatchback makes a compelling case for best-in-class honors.
Those seeking a more traditional bodystyle can also opt for the Mazda3 sedan.
After being stuck in the styling doldrums for decades, the compact segment has finally started to produce some lookers over the last few years - witness the tasteful Kia Forte and the curvaceous Hyundai Elantra. Even as the competition steps up its game, however, the Mazda3 hatchback stands out with a look all its own.
Appearing more like a product of Modena than Hiroshima, the Mazda3 hatchback blends a long hood with sinewy surface details, narrowed headlights and Mazda's bold five-point grille. As with the larger Mazda6, its A-pillar touchdown point - where the base of the windshield meets the hood - is farther rearward than the norm, creating balanced, rear-wheel-drive-like proportions.
Things are more businesslike but still stylish inside, where upmarket materials and optional high-tech extras foster the feeling of a more expensive vehicle. Passenger room is ample up front, while rear seat space is decent but not enormous by class standards. There's plenty of real estate for cargo, however, with 20.2 cubic feet with the rear seats up and a sizable 47.1 cubes with them folded flat.
Reflecting the hatchback's driver-focused mission, the instrument cluster consists of a single analog gauge - a speedometer in base models in a tachometer in more overtly-sporty trims - flanked by a pair of small displays that provide supplemental information.
To help the driver to better keep his or her eyes on the road, the Mazda3 hatchback can be optioned with an Active Driving Display system. A variation of the head-up systems typically found in luxury vehicles, it projects vehicle speed, navigation directions and other important info onto a pop-up screen behind the instrument cluster.
The optional navigation system features a tablet-style seven-inch screen that looks slightly aftermarket, but the display does integrate useful features such as the ability to read out emails and text messages along with Facebook and Twitter updates through a Bluetooth-connected smartphone. The setup also allows the driver to send reply text messages using short fixed phrases, and compatibility with internet apps like Aha radio are part of the package as well. All navigation and infotainment functions are controlled an iDrive-like rotary knob positioned on the center console, though redundant buttons on the steering wheel and dashboard give users alternate means of controlling the electronics.
Along with expected options like leather upholstery and a premium Bose stereo, buyers can also spec upscale goodies like radar-based cruise control, a forward-collision warning and prevention system, and adaptive headlights.
Powertrains and Handling
The Mazda3 hatchback was designed around Mazda's SKYACTIV engineering philosophy, which seeks to improve performance and efficiency - without adding significant cost - by optimizing existing technologies to decrease weight and improve aerodynamics.
As a result, the car knifes through the air with a drag coefficient as low as 0.255 Cd for certain models. Despite higher levels of safety and convenience equipment, curb weight is also down slightly compared to the previous model.
Entry-level 3i models are powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that produces 155 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 150 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm, while the better-equipped 3s gets a more spirited 2.5-liter four with 184 horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 185 lb-ft of torque at 3,250 rpm.
A buttery-smooth six-speed manual is standard on the 3i and optional on the 3s, while a novel six-speed automatic is optional on the 3i and standard on the 3s. Uniquely, the auto utilizes a torque converter for smooth launches and low-speed maneuvers along with a multi-plate clutch for speedy shifts at higher velocities while also providing perfectly rev-matched downshifts.
No matter what engine or transmission it's equipped with, the Mazda3 is a highly efficient hatchback. The 3i is rated at 30/40 city/highway mpg with the automatic, while the manual model does a single mpg worse in the city. Contrary to what one might expect given its larger displacement and extra power, the 3s nearly matches the 3i with a 28/37 mpg rating.
Even better mileage can be achieved by opting for Mazda's i-ELOOP technology, which uses a capacitor to gather electricity generated during deceleration and send it off to power all of the electrical systems. Available on 3s models only, it increases economy to 29/39 mpg.
With sporty suspension tuning and precise, informative steering, the Mazda3 hatchback is one of the best-handling rides in its competitive set. It also delivers an accommodating ride over potholed, maintenance-neglected roads.
Trim Level Breakdown
The Mazda3 hatchback is offered in six separate trim levels.
The 3i Sport comes standard with the 2.0-liter engine and a six-speed manual in addition to A/C, power windows and locks, Bluetooth connectivity, a four-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system with an AUX input, push-button start, keyless entry, cruise control, a trip computer and 16-inch steel wheels with hubcaps.
The 3i Touring brings a proximity key, front sports seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a rear-seat center armrest, heated side mirrors, a rear spoiler, a blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alerts and 16-inch alloy wheels.
Optional on the 3i Touring is a Touring Technology Package that adds a navigation with a seven-inch display screen, a rearview camera, a nine-speaker Bose audio system, HD Radio, SiriusXM satellite radio, Aha radio integration, Pandora and Stitcher radio compatibility, SMS text message receipt and delivery, two USB ports, voice command functionality, an overhead console with sunglasses holder, illuminated vanity mirrors and a shark fin antenna.
The 3i Grand Touring features all the goodies from the Touring Technology Package in addition to a six-way power-adjustable driver's seat, leatherette upholstery, heated front seats and a moonroof.
Stepping up to the 3s Touring brings the more powerful 2.5-liter engine, a six-speed automatic, bi-xenon headlights, LED running lights, LED taillights, foglights, a piano black-finish grille and 18-inch alloy wheels.
The range-topping 3s Grand Touring includes rain-sensing windshield wipers, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror with Homelink integration, auto on-off headlights, auto-leveling adaptive bi-xenon headlights and perforated leather upholstery.
The 3s Grand Touring can be upgraded with its own unique Touring Technology Package, which adds the i-ELOOP system, active grille shutters, High Beam Control, a Lane Departure Warning System and Smart City Brake Support.
All Mazda3 hatchback models come standard with dual front, front side and full-length side curtain airbags in addition to traction and stability control systems.
Available safety extras include a Blind Spot Monitoring System and Rear Cross Traffic Alert, the latter of which monitors for perpendicular traffic during backup maneuvers. Also optional is a Lane Departure Warning system that alerts the driver if the Mazda3 begins to drift into an adjacent, and a Smart City Brake Support system that, at speeds below 19 mph, uses laser sensors to watch for potential front collisions. If an imminent crash is detected, the system warns the driver and, if necessary, autonomously applies the brakes to mitigate the severity of the impact.
The Mazda3 hatchback is aimed at the best the compact segment has to offer, namely the fine-handling Ford Focus Hatchback and the foul-weather-friendly Subaru Impreza hatchback, which boasts standard all-wheel-drive.