Mazda has been on a bit of a roll lately. The CX-5 and 2014 Mazda6 are some of our favorite cars in their segment. And please don't get us started on the Miata. The 2014 Mazda3 has a lot to live up to. The smile might have been wiped off its face, but that's ok. It doesn't disappoint.
(Full Disclosure: Mazda wanted me to drive the 2014 3 so bad that they flew me to Los Angeles and put me up in the W Hotel before driving some prototype 2014 3s. Jeff Glucker from Hooniverse and Blake Rong from Autoweek picked me up at the airport, and, I kid you not, we saw Gary Busey flip off a motorcyclist on the PCH. He has a filthy Volvo C30 T5 and drives it like a maniac. I'd expect nothing less.)
Mazdas have typically been the most fun (funnest?) cars to drive in their class. They also bring a number of upmarket features and firsts to lower class cars, a subtle "screw you" to the bigger automakers that keep those for the glitterati that can afford a higher priced ride. But that driving and tech excellence didn't always compensate for the polarizing super smiley face and lackluster interior quality.
For 2014, the 3 has gone totally SkyActiv, which is a marketing term that actually means something in real life. It offers everything that was developed for the Mazda6, even in appearance. It's almost like the 3 is a Mazda6 that was put in a copier working at 70 percent.
The platform is a lightly modified version of the one on the 6 and CX-5. In fact, every front-drive Mazda from now on will be based on the 6 with slight changes. Look for the CX-9 to either be replaced or updated with a version of this platform in the near future.
The 6's automatic and manual transmissions make their way into the 3 as do the 2.0 liter I4 from the CX-5 and the 2.5 liter I4 from the Mazda6. That gives the 3 a number of trim levels to fill every possible niche in the segment, all with class leading tech and features (Pricing hasn't been announced yet, but expect it to be competitive in class). Features like radar cruise control, i-ELOOP capacitor, cross traffic warning, lane departure warning, blind spot warning, auto headlights, push-button start, auto wipers, and more.
That's all mated to an attractive interior, finally. The center stack isn't big and bulky, instead there is a nice seven-inch screen floating on top of the dash, like a Galaxy 7 was just kind of gently placed there. Materials are much higher quality than before, with soft touch plastics on the dash and all other touchpoints. There are some hard "carbon fiber-y" elements that I don't care for on top of the instrument cluster and on the doors, but this is a sporty-ish car and carbon fiber automatically means sporty.
Door storage is at a minimum, with just a cupholder in the doors. Guess you'll need to put your larger crap elsewhere.
I should also give a hat tip to the seats, which are truly great. I was told at the launch of the car that I'd want to bring these home and put them in my house. That's a slight exaggeration, but they are probably the best seats in the segment. I can't comment on how easy or hard the in-car infotainment was to use, since it wasn't operational in the prototypes I got a chance to drive. They did put a Jabra bluetooth speaker in there though, which worked in a pinch. It had genuine mono sound!
Mazda says the volume seller will be the 3i Touring, which means it has a good range of base equipment and the 2.0-liter 155 horsepower engine. I was able to snag a 3i Touring with the manual transmission for the first leg of our journey so I could pretend to be a man of the people, just like you.
How was it? Slow. Mule-towing-a-wagon slow. It was also geared a little too long for my taste, but it does get great fuel economy. The 2.0 is now rated by the EPA at 40 highway, 29 city (30 city in the auto), and 33 combined. Numbers for the 2.5 with i-ELOOP should be slightly lower, but still better than just about everything you'd actually want to drive.
So it was slow. But it was also pretty damn good. Our drive included some of the incredible canyon roads of the Angeles Crest Highway, which is where Mazda engineers actually tuned the car. In the 3i, it's a fun experience. The 3i Touring rides on 16-inch wheels with narrow little tires. The suspension was firm, although it did crash a little over some bumps and felt skittish, which I attribute to the speed we were doing. Normal Mazda3 drivers won't be going that fast, and at normal traffic speeds make for a comfortable ride.
The 3 also has the transmission out of the 6. That means it has a great shift action and a lackluster clutch. Like in the 6, it engages too low and feels more digital than analog. You get used to it, but it's not what I like. The automatic uses a small torque converter at low speeds and then switches to act like a dual clutch at high speeds. It's one of the best automatics on the market today.
What especially stood out was the steering. Yes, it's electric and yes, it's light. But remember, this is an economy car. Mazda worked to get a linear progression of steering effort. When you're in town getting donuts, it's light and easy. But when you're cranking on a canyon road, it actually gets heavier and gives a decent amount of feedback. Mazda couldn't give it the feel of the Miata, but for an economy car this is excellent.
And as you'd expect from Mazda, this car is legitimately fun to drive. Especially with the 2.5 liter engine. It only adds 30 horsepower, but in a car this size it is noticeable. At launch, you have to team the 2.5 with an automatic, but don't worry, a manual is coming. My time behind the wheel of a 3s Grand Touring with i-ELOOP was spent on a road called Tujunga Canyon outside of Santa Clarita. It's like God pooped out an amazing ribbon of tarmac on the California Canyon. One of the best roads I've ever been on.
It also gave me a chance to really flog the 3 and check out the handling. It's crisp on corner entry and has a nice tendency to rotate the rear quicker than you'd expect a front driver to; I almost think it was lifting an inside wheel on some turns. It feels alive.
What's great is that this is not the tuned performance model. It isn't the Mazdaspeed. It doesn't compete with the Focus ST. It's not a Golf GTI alternative. But in the corners it's just as good as these two highly lauded hot hatches.
The brakes are solid, too, with a firm pedal and good initial bite. They did start to fade a bit on that epic canyon road, so I stopped to let them cool. It was smart since I discovered they were giving off a copious amount of smoke. These aren't performance rotors or pads and this isn't a performance car, so I can't really knock the brakes for cooking themselves on a spirited drive. Thing is, the 3 is so fun to drive and handles so well that you forget it's not a performance version.
It also makes me really excited for the Mazdaspeed version, which should be hilariously fun whenever Mazda decides to release it. Hopefully it torquesteers less than last time.
But the best part about the 3 is that the driving experience and the looks FINALLY mesh. This is a car I'd own. In fact, this is a car you should own. And once the 2.5 comes with a manual transmission, there is really no reason to buy anything else in this class.