The Mazda3 is the spirited underdog in the compact car segment. When the current generation model first made its appearance back in 2019, it was perhaps the most comprehensive effort yet at making the budget focused 3 into a true contender in the segment. With expressive exterior design, a cabin that blurs the line between luxury and affordability, and a chassis to envy for. The Mazda3 certainly had a head start in its quest to dethrone the Volkswagen Golf from the top of the sales charts. With such a strong start for 2019, what could Mazda engineers do to help add more depth to the Mazda3 for 2020? We were eager to find out.
Subtlety Is The Name Of The Game:
When one looks at the exterior styling for 2020, they would be forgiven if they thought Mazda was playing its safe for the most part. The canvas is still a very expressive work of art, with some of the cues being derived from some of the firm’s concept cars. The front fascia is very aggressive with a tastefully sized grille working hand in hand with the sleek headlights. Like before, the sedan is arguably the more stylish of the two when it comes to rear end design, but hatchbacks like our example still have plenty going for it, especially the way that the roof line meshes with the rear hatch for a clean seamless look. Mazda claims that the only major change outside is a new finish for wheels on Premium models. But unless you really look at the wheels with a magnifying glass, the supposed difference is not that noticeable to casual observers. With the Volkswagen Golf just recently being redesigned for the 2020 model year, the pressure on the Mazda3 to stay fresh is more intense than ever before, and its current advantage in the design race might be lost if Mazda designers rest on their heels for too long.
Technology Leads The Charge For 2020:
While the exterior updates were kept to a minimum this time around, technology forms the bulk of the spearhead for 2020, with Mazda bringing some welcome updates in this particular arena, which should please all Mazda3 buyers. For instance all Mazda3 models (sedan and hatchback) now feature the company’s i-Activesense suite as standard equipment. Prior to this change, the base Mazda3 was not able to access some of the enhanced levels of safety that were once reserved for higher grade models. i-Activesense still continues to bring a diverse arsenal of driver assistance aides to the table with goodies such as adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, automated high beams, lane keep assist, and more. This move matches those of some of its rivals including the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla which also expanded the availability of similar systems to their buyers as a part of their respective updates.
But while the expansion of i-Activesense availability mixes well with some of the premium equipment that the Mazda3 already offers to buyers, the tunes from the excellent Bose audio system can only do so much to mask some of the flaws that Mazda designers chose to leave alone for 2020. In the case of our hatchback tester, this includes the horrible rear visibility that the rather bulbous shape creates. Like before it still makes passing situations difficult, and we hope that Mazda will eventually follow the lead of some others in the industry, and offer an optional rear camera mirror. We have had the chance to experience this feature in several other models, and the 3 could greatly benefit from such a feature. While we’re complaining, the infotainment system is starting to lag behind rivals in some key regards, and it would be nice to see Mazda engineers make some revisions to the software and the control layout to help improve usability and functionality.
Still Punching Above Its Weight Class But Where’s The Boost?
Performance hardware remains unchanged in the 2020 Mazda3 with all models (sedan and hatchback) still being powered by a 2.5 liter naturally aspirated four cylinder engine that is good for 186 horsepower. A six speed manual is available, but hatchback buyers will have to step up to the Premium trim in order to take full advantage of its charms. Our tester arrived with the six speed automatic, and while it did do a good job delivering smooth shifts especially when placed in Sport mode, the engine still lacks some of the immediate oomph that you expect in this segment. When paired with the all-wheel drive system, it helps make the 3 feel sluggish in certain driving situations. We wish that Mazda engineers will eventually bring some form of turbocharging to the 3 to help boost horsepower slightly. This would not only help the engine feel more on its game, but it would also be a far better pairing for the all-wheel drive system which does show flashes of promise when the 3 is pushed through spirited driving. The 3 does come with Mazda’s much talked about Skyactiv-X Compression Ignition engine in Europe, but Mazda has so far not revealed when it’s coming stateside. While the 178 horsepower it currently makes is just shy of the 2.5 liter, efficiency is its trump card, and Mazda has said in the past it is looking to expand the engine to other models.
Handling is also unchanged for 2020 too, and while the 3 certainly has plenty of chops when going through the daily grind, more spirited driving reveals that the torsion beam rear suspension simply cannot hold a candle to the ousted independent rear suspension in sharp corners and switchbacks. That’s not to say that the 3 has completely lost its athletic edge. It is still there, but we hope that Mazda will eventually bring back the IRS to further cement the 3’s sporty connection to the brand’s sport focused heritage. Thankfully, braking is still as strong as stable as we remembered it, with our tester doing a good job delivering smooth and stable stops from a wide variety of speeds.
With the subtle suite of updates that Mazda engineers have bestowed onto the Mazda3, it appears that they have certainly done a good job of keeping the model fresh for small car buyers. Prices have gone up slightly with the hatchback now starting at $23,700. Meanwhile, the sedan serves as the bargain of the bunch, with that variant now starting at $21,500. Premium grade models like our car have a base price of $27,500 with all-wheel drive system pushing the entry fee to $28,900. Our tester arrived with a light list of options which helped push the final price to just over $30,000. This pricing is still very competitive in the segment with the Mazda outdoing lesser Golfs in interior finish. However, the 3 in Premium guise does make less horsepower than a similarly priced Volkswagen GTI, and Korean car giant Hyundai is rapidly becoming a big hitter in the segment, with the Elantra GT N-Line and the Veloster Turbo outgunning the Mazda hatchback for noticeably less money.
Things get interesting however when you throw in the range topping Veloster N. While the N variant is a hardcore performance model (something that the Mazda does not have) we threw it into the mix because a base Veloster N can give you more power, a six speed manual gearbox, and the bulk of its performance essentials for less money than the flagship Mazda3. The N does require you to put up with a plastic fantastic interior, but the amount of fun on hand is certainly worth it in our eyes.
At the end of the day, the Mazda still plays the right notes when paired with the right kind of driver. It has a strong focus on design, an interior that would pass for being a BMW offering, and a chassis that still has alot of swagger left in it. But with the hatchback race rapidly becoming one where you have to be on top of your game to excel with buyers, the Mazda is facing an increasingly larger pool of rivals, and ultimately its inner charms might not be enough to sway customers away from segment mainstays.
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.