In the world of hatchbacks, few have had the underdog effect that the venerable Mazda3 has had during its long run in production. While the Volkswagen Golf has reigned supreme over the segment, the Mazda3 has been a persistent underdog, a potent disruptor that always aimed to try and snatch the top spot from the talented German. While the Golf always managed to ward off these challenges thanks to its superior, interior craftsmanship, and more polished engines, the 3 bided its time, and gradually improved some of its flaws. But with the departure of the recently axed Ford Focus from the U.S. market, a golden opportunity has emerged for the Mazda3 to claw its way to striking distance of its sworn enemy in the U.S. But has the Mazda3 improved enough to finally vanquish the Golf, and secure a very prominent place in the hatchback pecking order? We were eager to find out.
Delicious Styling, But The Flavor Is Not What We Remembered:
At first glance, the Mazda3 appears to have retained a lot of the things that we have come to love from past examples. It’s still a very handsome five-door, and it still exudes a high level of design focused styling traits. However, unlike its sedan counterpart, the new look does not quite suit the hatchback when viewed from certain angles. But before we get to that side of the story, we might as well focus on many of the things that Mazda designers managed to do so well. For example, the slick LED headlights swoop seamlessly into the large hexagonal grille, and the grille in turn channels this harmony by sending its lower smoked chrome work into the lower portion of the headlights. This along with the horizontal slats help unify the Mazda3’s face, and gives it a distinctively aggressive look that few of its competitors can match. The side profile is more basic, but it still manages to mix functionalism, with just enough subtle style to make it pop to trained eyes. Our tester’s no cost Polymetal Gray Metallic paint scheme and the black 10-spoke alloy wheels helps create some much needed balance by highlighting some of the smooth angles that are baked into the design.
However, as mentioned there is a flaw, and that is found in the rear of the Mazda3. While we did like the sloping rear window, and the equally attractive LED taillights, we felt that the rear also looks a bit too bulbous for our tastes, and that fact presented itself when the car was viewed from some angles. That said, we liked the subtle black roof mounted spoiler, and the way it matched the rear diffuser which helped give it more of an athletic look than some of its competitors. With some of the firm’s recent concept cars offering potent pillars of design inspiration, we are pleased to see that the Mazda3 is still a very stylish canvas, and with the Golf still preferring to play it safe, and the Honda Civic Hatchback looking like a badly drawn anime cartoon, look for the Mazda to stand out, with the hatchback waving its inviting flag of rebelliousness to draw in buyers that want a distinctly different flavor of hatchback.
An Interior That Punches Above Its Weight At The Cost Of Space:
Not to be outdone, our tester’s interior continues the Japanese auto giant’s recent trend towards adding a bit more flair and flash for occupants to enjoy. The flat vertical dash extends across the full width of the cabin, while Mazda designers should be applauded for the way they managed to add some much needed detail to the cabin by tastefully blending red leather accents, with contrasting soft black plastic. This combination helps give the interior an athletic appearance, that also manages to feel far more premium than it should be. Dare we say, it even reminded us of some recent BMW entries with just how much quality and prestige is baked into the design.
The fantastic red leather seats will not disappoint passengers, with the thrones offering a good balance of support and comfort. They also feel very upscale, and again, the similarities between the Mazda and some of the established club of German luxury brands are hard to ignore. However, amid the subtle splashes of metal trim, and eye catching leather accents, some prominent quirks do emerge when you spend more time inside and have a detailed look around. Head and legroom is sub-par, with our tester feeling very tight and cramped. The back seats in particular were tight for people over 6 feet tall (this author included). When compared to the last generation Mazda3, the 2019 version actually has less space with the front legroom for instance growing from 42.2 inches, to a barely noticed, and easily forgotten 42.3 inches.
The ratio of glass to sheet metal also plays a role in this feeling of tightness, with the limited greenhouse being a prominent offender. the unbalanced ratio not only helps make the cabin feel less airy, but it also limits visibility for the driver, with the big rear pillars creating big blind spots, while the rear window’s shape helps make backing into a parking spot somewhat difficult without the help of the rear backup camera. For comparison, the Mazda is down eight cubic feet (92.7 when compared to the Subaru Impreza hatchback (100.9 cubic feet), and five cubic feet shy of the 97.2 wielded by the Honda Civic Hatchback. Cargo space also takes a hit, with the new 3 actually boasting less cargo space than the old model, and falling well short of the Honda’s 25.7 cubic feet. Look for this to not be an issue when loading groceries, but larger items of cargo will arguably be the time where this deficit in space will be felt the most. We managed to fit in two bags, and even some folding lawn chairs in the back cargo area, but we suspect that going all out will require the rear seats to be folded down to help make things easier.
Thankfully the Mazda does make up for this by offering massive improvements for the infotainment system. The 8.8 inch screen is still controlled by a rotary knob, but the fore-mentioned screen is now angled more towards the driver, and the software has been massively overhauled for the new model year. Many of the menus in the simplified home screen are now much easier to find, and the graphics themselves have also been updated, though the predominantly red color scheme remains. The lack of formal touch capability does hamper the use of some functions such as the navigation and radio menus, but the four shortcut buttons that surround the fore-mentioned control dial help ease access to key menus including music, climate, navigation, and the home page. The instrument cluster also comes with a standard 7.0 inch TFT digital instrument cluster. It is flanked by two analog gauges, but it is not quite as intuitive, or as in depth of a piece as what we have seen on Toyota and Subaru products. The heads-up display ditches its cheap plastic flip up piece, and now projects its information onto the windshield. This is a welcome improvement, since the HUD system bears the brunt of the weight when it comes to projecting key info such as vehicle speed, as well as active safety information to the driver.
Stepping up to the really good stuff however, requires you to donate some money to the 3’s MSRP. For example, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, but wireless charging requires you to pay an extra $275, while the sleek Homelink equipped frameless rearview mirror and the navigation software are an extra $375 and $450 respectively. While the amount of standard equipment on hand is very impressive, we are a bit disappointed that going into some of the really good stuff requires you to shell out extra cash especially for navigation which is becoming more of a key feature than ever before.
Four Cylinder Power Wrapped In Six Speed Goodness:
On paper, the combination of a four cylinder engine and a six speed automatic may seem a bit outdated, but you better crumple up that stat sheet and throw it in the trash can, because out in the real world, our tester managed to wow us with its impressive driving behavior. All Mazda3’s come equipped with a 2.5 liter four cylinder engine that’s good for 186 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque. A GTI it isn’t, but unlike that spiced up VW, our tester came equipped with all-wheel drive (a $1,400 option), which is the first time we have seen all-wheel drive in the 3’s target segment. For comparison, Ford’s outgoing Focus made you climb all the way to the range topping RS to gain all-wheel drive, while all-wheel drive in the Golf lineup is an R model exclusive. Naturally, seeing all-wheel drive in a hatchback at a decidedly lower price point is a welcome breath of fresh air, and should put some pressure on the stalwart Impreza and its own all-wheel drive tech. When tasked with making the sprint to 60 mph, our tester managed to do it in a rather modest 7.0 seconds, and while this is a tick slower than the 6.8 second time posted by the Civic, the Mazda certainly felt livelier from behind the wheel. We suspect that part of this is due to the eager throttle tip in, though we would not be shocked if the engine has a few extra horsepower hidden away from prying eyes.
The newfound grip generated by the all-wheel drive system allows drivers to use virtually all the engines power when carving through dry corners, and this high degree of confidence also extends to wetter weather with plenty of grip still on hand to help keep things under control. In a curious move, Mazda engineers replaced the advanced multilink rear suspension with a cruder torsion beam setup. This helps stiffen the car a bit (especially over bumps), but its not to the point where the ride quality becomes broken and intolerable. Steering in our tester was perfectly weighted, but Sport mode adds a bit too much weight, and while this mode does allow the engine to showcase all of its power, the magic is brief, and the fun goes away very quickly.
Pricing for the Mazda3 is still very competitive for its segment, and while the most affordable model is the $21,000 front wheel drive sedan variant. The hatchback is not too far behind, with base models starting at $23,600 for front wheel drive and adding the Premium Package to the mix causes the price to go up slightly to $27,500 when equipped with the standard manual gearbox. Our tester on the other hand arrived with a price tag that made it a far more pricier piece of kit. When paired with optional extras as well as taxes and fees, our tester had a final sticker of $31,335 with options such as the $1,400 all-wheel drive system, the $275 wireless charging mat, and the $425 illuminated door sills all playing a role in helping the price tag surpass the $30,000 barrier. When looked at in a broader perspective, the Mazda3 is in this particular spec, is not cheap, but its not overpriced either. We like the way that Mazda simplifies its suite of available packages, and the fact that virtually all of the infotainment goodies and safety systems arrive standard is also a big plus.
This simplification also allows the Mazda to stand out better against the Golf and Impreza, though our tester was pricier than both the GTI S and its Rabbit Edition counterpart, as well as the Premium grade Impreza hatchback. Looking at the more bargain focused side of things, lower tier Mazda3s actually have a pricing advantage over the base Golf model, but fall just shy of the $19,095 offered by the base 2.0i hatchback. This should still resonate well with buyers that still want to experience the Mazda’s charms, but in a more budget focused package.
With its seductive lines, value focused pricing ladder, and a package setup that makes it simpler than its peers, look for the 2019 Mazda3 to still be a crowd favorite, especially among discerning hatchback buyers that are keenly familiar with some of the inner performance potential that lurks underneath the sheet metal. As for the question of whether it can be a solid contender to replace the Focus in the U.S. hatchback hierarchy? we think it has a fighting chance especially if it receives some of the revisions to its space and capacity issues that keep it from matching the top notch versatility offered by the Golf. And while the company has flat out denied plans for a revived MazdaSpeed3 (buyers looking for something close to it have to go all the way to the Philippines for an appearance package). We still hold out hope that perhaps one day, the stars will align and the model will make its long awaited return. In the meantime, the standard Mazda3 should still be a very compelling cup of tea for buyers, and its sublime balance of design and value should help make it a persistent alternative to the hatchback status quo.
Carl Malek has been an automotive journalist for over 10 years. First starting out as a freelance photographer before making the transition to writing during college, his work has appeared on numerous automotive forums as well as websites such as Autoshopper.com.
Carl is also a big fan of British vehicles with the bulk of his devotion going to the Morgan Motor Company as well as offerings from Lotus, MG, and Caterham. When he is not writing about automobiles, Carl enjoys spending time with his family and friends in the Metro Detroit area, as well as spending time with his adorable pets.