Before the average economy car was stylish, comfortable and nice to drive, the Mazda3 was dominant. Mazda charged a premium for the car’s driving sophistication and solidly built interior.
The Mazda3 is still a leader for its ride and handling. Quick, sharp steering lets a driver fling the car into a curve, and the suspension is ready to handle it.
But it is only that strength that pushes the Mazda3 even this high in the rankings. Increasing standards have highlighted its noisy engine and made its interior feel more bare-bones. It was never a particularly roomy car, and its rear seat and trunk remain among the class’s smallest. Fuel economy lags an ever-growing number competitors. And nonetheless, Mazda still prices its small sedan like a premium compact rather than a budget one.
Even the driving enthusiasts – the most likely to give up quietness, roominess, fuel economy and interior plushness in exchange for class-leading handling – won’t necessarily be won over by this Mazda3. Although it’s nimble, the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and five-speed automatic transmission deliver less than zippy acceleration.
Mazda offers higher-performance versions of the 3, with two larger engines than the base 2.0-liter. Opting for the manual transmission over the automatic would also likely improve the driving experience.
But if you’re shopping for a reasonably priced compact sedan that shifts its own gears, you’d need to be really attached to the handling to pick the Mazda3.
Sounds downright crude
As soon as you fire up the Mazda3 i, it’s instantly clear that it’s not providing the refinement of most competitors; the engine shares a higher level of noise and vibration at idle. That impression only increases when you get moving, with the engine quickly booming under even modest acceleration.
And though the 2.0-liter’s 148 horsepower is still class-competitive on paper, and although it delivers adequate punch if you’re really pushing it, the engine’s drone and the resistance through the accelerator make it feel anemic in routine driving – it sounds and feels like it’s doing all it can early on. It doesn’t sound or feel any better when the accelerator is floored either, of course, but at least you have something to show for all that ruckus.
Today’s standards call for a decent economy car to at least stay pleasant in putter-around driving – even the last-place Toyota Corolla manages that – and the best sound nice however hard you’re driving. This Mazda3 feels crude from the get-go. Excess road noise at a steady cruise doesn’t help.
But underlying sophistication
Get past the noise, and the Mazda3’s underlying (so to speak) suspension sophistication shows through. The ride is firm but comfortable even as this sedan can comfortably tackle fast corners. Sharp, responsive steering helps it feel fun to drive. Though the steering is a little light and lacks response and feel right off center, it’s the best this class is offering.
Mazda3 s models, with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder shared with larger Mazdas, have the engine performance to offer a more complete version of the company’s “zoom-zoom” promise. But even the 2.0-liter i models offer mediocre gas mileage – an EPA-estimated 27 miles per gallon in mixed driving – and the s is downright wretched for a compact sedan. (read review of the 2010 Mazda3 s)
New engines are due this fall for the 2012 model year that Mazda promises will make a significant fuel economy improvement. If they also manage to turn around the Mazda3’s excess noise and middling 2.0-liter acceleration, the car will come far closer to its “premium compact” intentions.
The Mazda3’s interior is solidly constructed, with decent materials and a commendable lack of obvious assembly flaws. But it avoids an upscale look or feel; most trim is hard, some controls could operate more smoothly, and the center stack is dominated by large sections of flat gray plastic.
Ergonomics of the instrument layout is a mixed bag. The climate controls are a model of simplicity that far too many automakers have wandered away from: one knob controls the mode, the next the fan speed and the third the temperature, augmented by three buttons below them. Audio controls are a little messier, with the dash dominated by a large silver tuning knob, surrounded by smaller though arguably more useful functions and significant wasted space.
The unquestionable highlight of the Mazda3’s interior is its front seats, which offer lateral bolstering that’s in keeping with the car’s sporty mission. These seats are supportive without being confining, and for all but the widest drivers, they’re among the class’s best. Sparsely padded armrests put a damper on the experience, however.
See more photos of the 2011 Mazda3 i in today’s slideshow
Rear seating, however, is far less impressive. Though it offers three seatbelts, the cushion is shaped for two passengers rather than three; a center occupant would intrude into the most natural seating positions for the outboard passengers. For just two, the cushion itself is comfortable, but there’s little knee clearance unless the front seats are scooted well forward.
The trunk is another Mazda3 weak point. At 11.8 cubic feet, it’s smaller than all the others in this comparison, and even many subcompact sedans. The opening is also too small. On the plus side, the Mazda3 is a leader for cabin storage, thanks to a deep glovebox cubby.
What you pay
A nicely equipped Mazda3 i Touring with a sunroof and alloy wheels stickers above $21,000; Truecar.com estimates a buyer would pay about $19,690 out the door, so equipped.
And it does not feel like a $20,000 automobile. Excessive engine and road noise and middling cabin furnishings make it feel cheap, and a tight rear seat and trunk rob it of practicality.
For its many failings at a price that’s far short of a steal, it’s a poor choice for someone who isn’t prioritizing driving enjoyment. And even the car’s strongest selling point – the steering and handling – is offset in terms of overall fun-to-drive by the 2.0-liter engine’s lack of zip and groaning character.
Shop the Mazda3 if you want a fun car in this class, but be aware of what you’re giving up to get agile handling and a well-bolstered driver’s seat that supports it.
Overall grade: C+
See the Mazda3’s full “report card”
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Introduction to this comparison
Vehicle tested: 2011 Mazda3
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $15,800
Version tested: i Sport
Version base price (MSRP): $17,555
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $18,550
Vehicle price as comparable (MSRP)*: $21,140
Estimated transaction price as comparable**: $19,690
Test vehicle provided by: Koons Mazda of Silver Spring, Md.
Length: 180.7 inches
Width: 69.1 inches
Height: 57.9 inches
Wheelbase: 103.9 inches
Weight: 2,919 pounds
Trunk volume: 11.8 cubic feet
Turning circle: 34.2 feet
Engine (as tested): 2.0-liter I4 with 148 horsepower
Transmission (as tested): 5-speed automatic
EPA city mileage: 24 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 33 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 27 miles per gallon
Assembly location: Japan
For more information: Mazda website
*Prices as comparable refer to cars with an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; alloy wheels; cloth seats and a sunroof, or the nearest equivalent. The tested Mazda3 had plastic hubcaps and no sunroof.
**Estimated transaction prices are based on data fromTruecar.com and dealer quotes.