The Mazda3 offers something that’s become uncommon . . .
It does not come just one way – with just one engine. Or just one transmission (invariably an automatic) as many of its small-car rivals do.
It’s also like one other car – the Miata – with room for more than just two.
What It Is
The Mazda3 is an entry-level compact sedan and five-door hatchback. Both are essentially the same car wrapped differently – for buyers who have different needs and wants. The sedan is for people who prefer the more traditional layout – and would rather pay less for it.
This version of the 3 stickers for $24,170 to start.
If you prefer the hatchback layout – which is both sportier-looking and allows for more cargo-carrying capacity – you can get that for $25,690 to start.
Both 3s come standard with a 2.5 liter, four cylinder engine paired with a six speed automatic transmission.
But if you want a manual transmission, you can get that – in the hatchback.
If you’d like a more powerful turbocharged engine, it’s available in both versions of the 3. And it makes more – or less – horsepower depending on whether you want to pay for premium gas.
This engine is also paired with all-wheel-drive (optional with the non-turbo’d engine).
However, it comes only with the six speed automatic.
A top-of-the-line Turbo Premium sedan lists for $35,450.
What’s New For 2024
A new version of the Carbon package is available that comes with the more powerful turbo engine, the AWD system and most of the other upgrades that were included with the Carbon package last year except the leather seats, heated steering wheel and GPS navigation system.
A larger (10.25 inch) LCD touchscreen is also available.
Base engine is powerful enough to not almost force you to spend extra for the optional engine. And it’s much more fun with the available manual transmission.
Miata-like reflexes with extra seats.
Hatchback layout offers almost twice the cargo carrying capacity of the sedan.
What’s Not So Good
Manual transmission only available with the hatchback – and not with the least expensive base trim. You have to buy the $30,350 Premium trim to shift for yourself.
No 12V power point, regardless of trim.
Controls for the audio system are multi-step and awkward to use fluidly.
Both the sedan and the hatchback come standard with a 2.5 liter four cylinder engine that is remarkable for being larger than most four cylinder engines in most new cars – including a number of luxury cars, which have 2.0 liter fours. Because it is larger, it does not need a turbocharger to make 191 horsepower.
As a counterpoint, the Hyundai Elantra comes standard with a 2.0 liter four – without a turbo – that only makes 147 horsepower. To get more power, you have to buy the Elantra N Line – which comes with a 1.6 liter four, with a turbo. But its 201 horsepower is only slightly more power than comes standard in the Mazda.
And the Elantra comes only as a sedan, too.
Its standard 2.0 liter four also comes only with a CVT automatic. Similarly the Honda Civic, which also comes standard with a 2.0 liter four (158 horsepower) paired with a CVT automatic-only. But at least the Civic is available in sedan and hatchback bodystyles.
However, there is a catch – and it’s a costly one.
Mazda only offers the manual transmission in the hatchback version of the 3 – and you have to buy the Premium trim to get it. This one costs some $6k more than the base 2.5 S sedan. The odd thing about this being that – until recently – manual transmissions were generally the standard transmission in entry level small cars. The reason being that people who bought them generally wanted to save rather than spend money – and it used to cost less to get an entry level car with a manual. And to drive it – as it was generally true that a small car with a small engine would get better gas mileage with a stick than with an automatic.
In fact it is still true – provided you don’t believe what you read. If you do believe what you’ve read, you may believe automatics are more efficient. They’re not. They merely test better – because they can be programmed to do exactly that. But in the real world, a too-soon upshift from an automatic programmed to shift for maximum economy will result in sluggish acceleration, with the usual result being the driver pushes down harder on the accelerator pedal, forcing a downshift.
Even so, the differences – on paper – are trivially slight. The 2.5 S with the six speed automatic rates 28 city, 37 highway; with the manual, the rated mileage dips to a negligibly different 26 city, 36 highway. If you know how to drive stick, you will likely exceed those figures – and do better than you would with the automatic.
Besides which, it’s just more fun.
It’s just a shame it’s more expensive.
More fun is also available with the turbocharged version of the 2.5 liter engine, which makes a minimum of 227 horsepower – if you feed it regular unleaded – or 250, if you feed it premium. This is another thing about the 3 that’s interestingly different in that it’s usually the case that if an engine is designed to burn premium, it will recommend premium (and recommend not burning regular). Here you can choose either – because both are “recommended.” It’s just a matter of how much power you’d like to pay for.
The turbo’d engine is paired only with the six speed automatic and all-wheel-drive. Surprisingly, fuel economy is still 26 city, 33 highway – or nearly as good as what you’d get with the non-turbo’d 2.5 liter engine – plus a lot more horsepower.
On the Road
Mazda works hard to sell cars that aren’t like everyone else’s. A good example of this being the fact that Mazda does not (yet) sell any battery powered devices, like almost everyone else is.
The 3 is also not like almost everything else. The available manual transmission being just one example. Also the larger (and stronger) standard engine. Pair the two together and you have something really different. If only Mazda were able to offer them together – for less. But they cost more because Mazda is under pressure to sell fewer of them – to customers who want more of them. If that sounds incongruous, it is. The pressure to not sell more comes from the government; selling more of what buyers want that don’t get the most mileage hurts Mazda’s “fleet average” fuel economy score and that, in turn, hurts Mazda – via the fines for “noncompliance” that make Mazdas more expensive and so harder to sell.
At least the larger/stronger standard engine doesn’t cost extra. And it comes with a transmission that doesn’t transition through ranges (i.e.,a CVT) but shifts – snappily – through six gears. This alone is a difference you can feel – and will like.
The optional turbo engine would be so much more fun if all that power were routed through just the front wheels (as in the old MazdaSpeed3) but the standard AWD system does serve to keep the car straight when you floor it – and mitigates the understeering tendencies that would otherwise manifest sooner in the curves. And this brings us to the 3’s strongest suit.
If you really, badly want a Miata but have to have four (or five) doors and seats for more than just two, this is the best second-choice you’ll ever make. Forget the extra doors and seats behind you and it’s easy to believe you’re driving what you really wanted – because this four (or five) door Mazda channels the spirit of the two-door/two-seater it’s a cousin of.
There are just two things that detract from the package – and one of them is subjective. This car sits low to the ground, like a Miata – just 56.7 inches at the roofline for the hatch. And just 5.5 inches off the ground. This looks great – and helps the 3 handle like a Miata.
But it can make getting in and out like getting in and out of Miata.
It’s not an issue if you’re flexible and spry. But if you’re not, it might be. If you plan on carrying people in the rear regularly, see how they like getting in and out, too. For kids and teens it’s easy.
For people who are older, it may not be.
The other thing is the objectively clunky interface for the audio system. It is a multi-step system that requires scrolling, selecting and then controlling functions such as changing the channel. A simple knob that you could turn left – or right – would work much better and thankfully there is one of those for the volume control. This sort of thing is a problem with almost all new vehicles, because almost all of them (including the Miata) now come standard with LCD touchscreens smartphone-style controls. The problem isn’t just that they are harder to use than simpler/mechanical controls such as knobs and buttons. It is that they effectively require the driver to take his eyes (and mind) off his driving to deal with such things as changing the radio station that used to be doable by feel, without having to take one’s eyes (or attention) off the road.
Not everyone needs – or wants – a hatchback. That’s why Mazda offers the 3 as a sedan as well as a hatchback. The sedan is about eight inches longer than the hatch – 183.5 inches vs. 175.6 – but has less room in its trunk (13.2 cubic feet) than the smaller-looking hatchback has in its cargo area (20.1 cubic feet).
It’s an interesting juxtaposition because the sedan is ostensibly the more practical version of the three while the hatch is the sportier-looking model. Both versions have essentially the same interior space – for passengers – with one difference. Backseat headroom in the hatch is a little less – 37.2 inches vs. 37.3 inches – but it’s a difference without much distinction.
The biggest meaningful difference – aside from the looks – is that the hatch is available with the manual transmission (in the Premium trim) while all sedan trims come only with the six speed automatic. This is in keeping with the hatch’s sportier demeanor but it’s still kind of odd that the sedan – which is the least expensive version of the 3 – isn’t available with the standard transmission. The word is italicized to recall the fact that “standard” was once just that – and synonymous with manual transmission. The automatic was generally optional. And the reason for that was automatics increased the buy-in cost. Manuals cost less – and had the potential to save you money.
Now you have to spend more to get the manual.
One thing neither version of the 3 comes standard with is a 12V accessory power point. It’s a small but noteworthy nit in that its absence makes it difficult to plug in accessories such as radar detectors that have 12V pigtails.
On the other hand, even the base 2.5 S sedan comes standard with a very good six speaker stereo – and you don’t have to pay extra to get an engine with more horsepower than is available (at extra cost) in some of the other cars in this class. The fact that the standard engine isn’t turbocharged will also likely save you money over the long haul in that it will never need a new turbo or intercooler.
Carbon trims come painted a stealthy gray metallic color that helps you run under the radar – even if you can’t plug in your radar detector. These also come with black-anodized 18 inch wheels shod with thin-sidewall performance tires that sharpen up the already precise steering feel of the 3.
The Bottom Line
Everyone wants a Miata. Here’s one that almost everyone can justify buying.
. . .
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