Everybody has the little things they like to be picky about. We have friends who are wine lovers who scoff at our choices of the crushed grape. We’re snobby about cars. Perfect example, we recently tested the Mazda CX-5, a non turbo model, and were delighted with the sportiness of it. You could pay a lot for the turbo version, but we didn’t think it warranted it.
So, when Mazda offered us our choice the sporty Mazda 3 hatchback, we did a 180, and send turbo please! Our gut told us, in this little guy, in thrust we trust. So, did we make the right choice? Let’s take a look.
Low and Bold
You actually have two choices in the Mazda 3, the handsome 4-door sedan, and the more aggressive 5-door hatchback. Usually when you go for the hatch model, you get more practicality at the expense or style, but in the Mazda, the sedan has a much more spacious rear seat, and is the more practical choice. It’s also quite handsome. But…. the hatchback is the one that makes our heartbeat faster.
From the front, you’d be hard pressed to tell which is which. Both models enjoying the large grille that flows into upswept LED headlights for a simple frowny design that gives off a serious vibe. One give away to those in the know, the blacked out front air dam is only offered on the Premium Plus hatchback model.
The profile is the big difference, while the sedan has tasteful lines that could easily be mistaken for an Audi A3or BMW 2-Series, the hatch has an aggressively angled C-pillar, giving the rear a hunkered down look that also seems to make the bulged fenders appear more pronounced.
Our tester’s Snowflake White Pearl offered a perfect contrast to the black 18-inch alloy wheels with meaty 215/45 tires that gave our 3 some real stance.
The rear view may be the 5-door’s best angle. From a sporty black spoiler at the top of the rear window, the lines drop and widen creating a muscular look. We love the “afterburner” style LED taillights, the concave rear hatch, and the black lower fascia with two large exhaust pipes poking out underneath.
All in all, the 3 hatch reminds us of the WRX hatchback that Subaru discontinued – there’s a feeling of serious sporting intent here, and we love it.
Inside, Mazda’s tradition of high-quality interiors continues, and frankly you open the door, and you think you’re in something much more expensive and European. Audi anyone?
It starts with the sweet smell of our Premium model’s perforated leather interior. The horizontal dash sweeps across the front, creating a feeling of spaciousness.
That spaciousness is true for those in front, but the rear seat is cozy at best, and we wouldn’t want to put an adult in back for any distance. If you need more space, the 3 sedan offers almost all the same goodness (you do lose the tough hatchback looks) and offers a much more livable rear seat. Nuff said.
You also sense special care is taken with every detail. The gauges look like clear analog items, but the speedometer in the center is actually a digital screen that changes depending on the driving mode. Little things catch your imagination – the speedo will give you a red hash mark when you hit the road’s speed limit – handy in such a quick vehicle while small side marking give added info, like range and mpg.
We also found the heads-up display a handy way to track our progress, and liked how it could read signs, warning you of speed limits and upcoming stop signs.
Sitting center stage on the dash is an 8.8-inch color display that’s activated by an Audi-like large control knob behind the shifter, with smaller buttons for home and select features. There’s also a dedicated small circular knob for volume control – you quickly adapt to how everything is at your fingertips – including the very BMW-like Sport Mode toggle switch. When Mazda borrows design from others, it borrows from the best!
Speaking of fingertips, we loved the feel of the leather-wrapped steering wheel, but some of the wheel’s chrome-tone switches are almost impossible to read in daylight. That’s really our only beef – the dual zone climate controls are quick and easily deciphered, and they always feel like your touching quality items.
You feel spoiled for choice as well. For a small vehicle, things like dual memory seats, 12-speaker Bose premium audio, power moonroof, 360-degree parking monitor, heated seats and steering wheel, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, double-stitched trim, even metal surrounds on the audio speakers prove you can have the big lux experience without needing a big luxo barge.
Driving the 3 brings the experience all together. We mentioned the resemblance to the Subaru WRX, and we noted that behind the wheel as well.
The good news starts for all Mazda 3 buyers, with the previous base 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine being dropped. Now all models get at least the larger 2.5-liter, four and as an added bonus, they’re throwing in 5 more horses to a strong 191 hp. This is the motor we loved in our recent CX-5 test, we found it responsive, frugal and fun.
That said, when you’re looking at this snarky little hatch, it’s hard to not go for the turbo model. Adding a turbo to the 2.5-liter brings you up to a rousing 250 hp, and 320 lb.-ft of torque when you’re running premium.
This is the enthusiast’s choice – you get a nice deep burble on startup and that mountain of torque gives a strong pull away from a standing start. 0-60 is easily in the mid 5’s – plenty quick! The engine also has a surprising warble as you drive off that reminds us of a Subaru – go figure.
The Turbo requires the 6-speed automatic – hey, we’d love the manual you can get in front wheel drive non-turbo models – but the auto is a good one, with quick shifts in Sport mode, while being comfortable and relaxed in the daily commute. Another mandatory with Turbo is All Wheel Drive, but we view that as a plus, since it helps you put down all that power, and is even set to help you corner with more grip and response. It’s a win-win. If you can stay out of the turbo zone, you should be able to get the EPA’s 26 combined mpg.
We had an unusual series of rainstorms when testing here in SoCal and we found the grip to be excellent – even in the wet you could really lay into the power and the 3 just gripped and gripped, and you hardly noticed the slick roads.
The company that makes the Miata made sure you also have a great chassis here – the steering is nicely weighted with loads of feel, the chassis is responsive and fun to point into the corners, and the ride, while firm is never harsh. Here it reminds us more of BMW than Subaru, but combining the engine and chassis dynamics and you have a great, great vehicle to drive.
The Cost of the Thrill
So, does the Mazda 3 Turbo make fiscal sense? We think so, but if you can’t or don’t want to drop the big bucks, you’re not left out in the cold. The front-drive 3S hatchback start at just $23,550 and for a stylish, quick and delightful hatchback that’s bargain territory. If you want the 6-speed manual you’ll have to get one of the higher trim levels, though.
Our 2.5 turbo AWD Premium Plus is at the opposite end of the spectrum, with a few options it rang the bell at $37,210, which it turns out is a bit of a performance bargain.
Finding competitive hot hatches is not so simple, but we’d shop the VW GTI, a great driver’s car, but comping out at $41,360 it is more expensive. The new 300-horsepower Corolla GR looks like another serious driver’s tool, but at $43,995 it’s also seriously more expensive.
We did mention the Audi before, and while it’s not a hatchback, the lovely A3 sedan comes in at $41,945 comparably equipped. A beauty, but with just 201 hp, it feels a little underpowered here.
Aggressive style, luxurious interior, loads of power and Mazda driving goodness – the Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo hatchback is a great choice for those who love to drive!
Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.