Like San Diego a few decades ago, Mazda is operating in recovery mode.
It's not that things ever got that bad; it's that they just weren't as good as they should have been. No, as rough around the edges as San Diego was in the 1970s, there was always an undeniable appeal to America's Finest City.
And it's the same case with Mazda. Japan's zoom-zoom brand lost its way recently, but, as the stellar Mazda6 midsize sedan and CX-5 compact crossover have proven, things are on their way up.
After sampling the automaker's third-generation Mazda3 compact lineup in, you guessed it, San Diego, we're increasingly confident that Mazda's rehab has paid off.
Mazda's Skyactiv philosophy introduced in the CX-5 and Mazda6 remains here. What's Skyactiv? It's Mazda-speak for a full-scale effort at developing a vehicle from the ground up to be fuel efficient and
fun to drive. In short, it means that Mazda has discarded the last of its connections to former part-owner Ford Motor Company.
The 2014 Mazda3 rides on an architecture shared with the CX-5 and 6, but that doesn't mean it's a plumper. Checking it at around 3,000 lbs., it's actually a few burritos lighter than last year's happy-to-see-you 3. That smile that Mazda's designers wiped off of the old car was apparently heavy.
In the engine room, the 3 is available with either 2.0-liter (designated Mazda3 i) or 2.5-liter (Mazda3 s) gas-powered four-cylinders, mated to either six-speed manual or six-speed automatic gearboxes. For now, the 2.5 is automatic-only, but Mazda says that a stick shift isn't too far behind.
The 2.0, essentially carried over from the old 3's mid-cycle update, receives a new and more intricate exhaust header that not only adds more torque, it spreads what's there further across the rev range. The 2.0 is rated at 155 horsepower and 150 lb-ft. of torque. The larger 2.5, meanwhile, boasts 184 horsepower and 185 lb-ft. of torque, making it among the segment's most powerful options.
The 2.5 is available with a costly but intriguing energy regeneration system Mazda dubs i-ELOOP (seriously, Mazda needs to hire someone to come up with better names). Essentially derived from competition cars, the system imperceptibly charges the alternator in about 9 seconds of coasting to provide around 40 seconds of electronics accessory charge. In real world use, Mazda says that fuel economy is up between 5 and 10 percent with the system.
Speaking of mpgs, the 3 paints a somewhat confusing but highly-competitive picture. We'll simplify by stating that the highest-volume model, the automatic Mazda3 i sedan, is rated at 30/41 mpg (34 mpg combined), while the lowest mpg model, the Mazda3 s hatchback, checks in at 27/37 mpg (31 mpg combined). I-ELOOP, offered on the s models only, boosts things 1 mpg all around on the hatchback.
Any way you slice it, those are strong figures; no rival offers anything approaching 41 mpg on its cheapest model.
Looking for all intents and purposes like a scaled-down Mazda6, the new 3 maturest compact in the segment. Instead of relying on overwrought slats and strakes, it trades on a cohesive, positively Italian flair. We kept looking for the signature of a noted Italian designer, but this work was done in-house.
In profile, the sedan balances the "cab rearward" design's long snout a little better, but the hatchback is prettier from the rear. Regardless of bodystyle, the 3 is actually a little shorter and a little wider than before.
Things only get better inside, where the Mazda3's cabin nearly gives luxury brand compact cars a run for their money. Well-bolstered seats and a meaty three-spoke steering wheel mean business. Entry-level 3s employ cloth upholstery. The range moves up to convincing leatherette and, on the range-topping model only, real cow hide.
We usually like cloth, but the 3's material felt a little cheap in contrast to what is otherwise a standard-setting interior. Soft-touch materials cover the front door panels, the dashboard and the center console, with everything generally feeling well screwed together. Each engine gets its own gauge cluster.
Of particular praise is the optional Mazda Connect infotainment system. Utilizing a tablet-esque 7-inch touchscreen festooned to the dashboard and a console-mounted control knob, it is an absolute breeze to use. Navigation, audio and vehicle settings are all logically arrayed, the screen itself is bright and not overloaded with information, and we found the system to be mercifully lag-free. Moreover, Mazda restricts the touchscreen so that it can only be used while the car is at a stop, a move we find perfectly acceptable.
Our only qualm - and it's one we urge Mazda to rectify - is that the system lacks a redundant tuning knob and preset buttons. There's plenty of dashboard real estate for both.
Without Mazda Connect, the 3 uses a more conventional audio head unit - but the infotainment system is available as an option relatively low on the 3's equipment ladder.
Range-topping Mazda3 s Grand Touring models can be ordered with a heads-up display that projects pertinent instrument information onto a Top Gun
-style screen. If we're honest, the system has a gimmicky feel. On the other hand, Grand Touring models can also be optioned up with useful (and rather unusual in the compact segment) safety functions like Forward Collision Warning, automatic high beams and a city braking system that will stop the vehicle automatically if an impending collision is detected.
That's nice tech, although at $29,190 built to the hilt, the 3 becomes rather expensive. More modestly-optioned 3s are in line with rivals, however.
You get what you pay for, at least in terms of the driving experience. In short, this is a commuter car that can keep up with genuine sports cars, and not just because the 2.5-liter variant is pretty peppy.
The 2014 Mazda3 is the full package, a car that thoroughly exceeds high expectations set by its predecessors. For one, there's not a more balanced chassis in the compact car segment. Working with one of the most communicative electric power steering setups in the business, the 3's fully independent suspension makes even the slightest bend in the road feel like one of Southern California's famous canyons. Strong brakes reign things in when needed, while the s model's 18-inch alloy wheels impact ride quality only slightly.
This is a car that talks to its driver, reminding him or her that, thankfully, autonomous driving is still a ways off. But the 3 doesn't punish drivers looking only for simple point A to point B transportation. The ride quality is supple over undulating terrain and road noise and wind noise is kept low on the highway.
We only had limited time with the stick-shifted Mazda3, but its snick-snick gear lever and "just right" clutch live up to MX-5 Miata expectations. So too the automatic transmission, which made the most of the 3's two powertrains. Refined and smooth, the two four-cylinders both provided plenty of power, with the 2.5 feeling noticeably more sprightly and easier to engage thanks to its paddle shift levers.
But even the paddle-free automatic-equipped 2.0 feels a notch or two faster than a typical compact car. Credit the wider torque band and the slick-shifting automatic. Even this mainstream model is a hoot to drive.
Mazda employs a kickdown switch in the skinny pedal; depress it to the floor and, assuming a gear is available, it will force a downshift. That's tech gleaned from Autobahn cruisers and it reveals that this isn't just a small car slapped together to meet sales targets.
Leftlane's bottom line
The anti-Corolla, the latest Mazda3 is a breath of fresh air in the compact segment that elevates this brand back to its stature.
Not only is the Mazda3 the most mature compact car you can buy, it is also the most fun.
base price range, $18,445 to $26,495.
Photos by Andrew Ganz.