The 2019 Mazda 3 is already smoother and quieter than the previous generation, but, for the first time, it also comes with an all-wheel drive variant. Should you spend some extra cash to send power to all four wheels now? Yes, you absolutely should.
(Full Disclosure: Mazda put me up in a couple hotels over the course of three days and also gave me food and booze, if I wanted it, to get me to drive the Mazda 3 all-wheel drive. It was all very nice.)
First off, though, we should ask ourselves, will people even buy this car?
Some people will, surely, but Mazda’s sales numbers reflect some troubling realities in the U.S. market for small sedans and hatchbacks. Sales for the Mazda 3 were down 13.8 percent last year compared to the year before, while sales for the Mazda 6 and Miata were also down. Sales for the company’s line of SUVs, the CX-3, CX-5, and CX-9, however, were up.
These trends are hardly remarkable in an era when Ford has decided to give up on sedans and small altogether, but it’s impressive that, rather than take their toys and go home, Mazda has decided to lean into its image of making small-ish, sensible, fun, well-built cars. The new Mazda 3, in this regard, is no exception, and now it comes with optional AWD.
That option lifts the new Mazda 3 from Good Car to Something Better Than Good Car. Will it be enough? From Mazda’s perspective, it won’t matter; the company has long been all-in on sedans small cars. It has also, quite intentionally so, chosen to zig when everyone else in the industry is zagging. When other companies are investing billions in electric cars, Mazda developed its own “holy grail” gas engine. When others are invested in autonomous driving, Mazda has said, well, fuck that, let’s focus on driving dynamics.
Part of this is a function of being a small company, so what seem like choices may in fact be the limited options of a company bound by its own finite resources and need for strategic decisions. Part of it is its own historical legacy, since this is the company that brought us Miata. Mazda remains as small and interesting as ever.
The Mazda 3 AWD carries the same engine as the previous generation, a 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder that makes 186 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque, all pumped through either a six-speed automatic transmission or, yes, a six-speed manual, though you can only get the manual on a premium hatchback trim, and in front-wheel drive.
Aside from AWD and the new design, the biggest changes come in the interior, with a new 8.8-inch screen that offers navigation, music, and other controls, though the biggest difference here is that the screen is proudly NOT a touchscreen, instead sitting back quite a bit from the driver’s face and controlled by a knob easily accessed by the driver’s right hand.
The optional heads-up display is also projected a half-meter farther from the driver’s perception; both changes were made, Mazda said, to limit distraction and to limit the amount of refocussing your eyes must do to read each screen. In several hours of testing, I thought both changes, in this regard, worked brilliantly.
There were a number of changes to the sound system, as well, with the two front subwoofers moved to the front cowl versus being put in the front doors, which Mazda said would reduce rattle. Far bigger for me, though, was a quietening of exterior noise, meaning that people outside the car won’t be able to hear what you’re listening to on the inside.
This may not matter if you live in the country, but if you live in a city (as I presume a huge amount of Mazda 3 buyers do) it’s nice to know that people won’t be able to eavesdrop on phone conversations projected through the speakers, or, more likely, silently judge as you rock out to hair metal.
I’ve already mentioned the engine, but for a car like this power is hardly the most important thing, it’s, by my estimation, interior space and handling. So let’s start with space. The sedan is 183.5 inches long, while the hatchback is 175.6 inches long. Those numbers are squarely in the middle of the Mazda 3's competitors, like the Subaru Impreza or Toyota Corolla, but what I can say is that the Mazda 3 does not feel particularly small on the inside, and the idea that anyone would need more space never really crossed my mind.
Still, the specs are largely the same as the front-wheel-drive Mazda 3 that my colleague Justin Westbrook reviewed in late January.
We’re here, instead, to talk about the AWD system, which, like most every AWD system these days, isn’t all-wheels-driving-all-the-time. It chooses how much power to send to which wheels, based on road and steering inputs. The AWD Mazda 3’s, for example, is front-wheel drive biased, meaning that it will usually prefer sending more power to the front wheels, at least in the beginning of one’s acceleration, before evening things out to the back later. None of this is surprising given the car’s FWD origins.
But these systems keep getting better and better, to the point where I, a two-wheel drive purist—in the sense that I don’t think you need anything more than that—am beginning to challenge some of my own assumptions about AWD’s relative utility, since the AWD Mazda 3 was so good.
Which brings me to...
The AWD’s handling, which is what Mazda dragged me and dozens of other journalists to Squaw Valley, California, to see this week, was, to put it plainly, great—and ended up surprising me in ways that I wasn’t quite prepared for. (More on that in a minute.)
Mazda set us up a snow course and gave us four different versions of the Mazda 3 to drive, the front-wheel drive variant, the all-wheel drive variant with all-season tires, an all-wheel drive variant with snow tires, and an all-wheel drive variant with snow tires with its proprietary G-Vectoring Control Plus system turned off.
G-Vectoring what? Think of GVC Plus like traction control, but instead of adjusting power to the wheels to help stabilize the car, it adjusts braking. GVC Plus can’t be turned off and is standard on the new Mazda 3 and will eventually be in all new Mazdas; the company is particularly proud of it because it was developed in-house, by an engineer who sat next to me with a laptop as we drove, which allowed him to turn the system off so that I could see the difference.
I actually did notice a handling difference, and GVC Plus certainly helped, but more than anything the exercise laid bare the gulf between the front-wheel drive version of the car and the all-wheel drive version—even with the all-season tires. On a snowy and icy incline, for example, the front-wheel drive version spun and stuttered and failed to make any progress at all from a complete stop, while the all-wheel drive accelerated seamlessly, every time.
Another part of the course had us take a swift lane change at speed that felt pretty uncomfortable at first, a maneuver that I wouldn’t consider terribly safe in almost any condition, but especially in ice and snow. But the AWD Mazda 3 handled it with aplomb, and by the end of the exercise I started to wonder, in fact, if the AWD Mazda 3 had Too Much Grip.
That’s in part because for the longest time, we’ve given some pretty standard advice when it comes to the best way to improve handling in slippery conditions. It was less about AWD or FWD or RWD and more about what kind of rubber you had hitting the road, we said, and more about whether that rubber was designed for winter or not.
The AWD Mazda 3 with all-seasons handled nearly as well as the one equipped with snow tires, the lesson to me not being that you shouldn’t get snow tires if you live in wintry climes (you should and in many places they are required anyway) just that AWD systems have come a long way to become this potent.
(Please get snow tires.)
Mazda put together a slick presentation for journalists, as these automakers always do, but somewhat conspicuously unmentioned was that 2.5-liter inline four cylinder motor, known as SKYACTIV-G. That’s in part because it’s the same motor that’s in the outgoing car, but it’s also in part because Mazda wasn’t particularly eager to talk about the thing everyone is curious to know about. Which is, when is the “holy grail” SKYACTIV-X happening?!
SKYACTIV-X, if you’ll recall, is a motor that Mazda’s been working on for years, a four-cylinder that isn’t any more powerful, per se, over SKYACTIV-G, but it is much more efficient, thanks to its use of compression to ignite spontaneous combustion. There will still be spark plugs, but those spark plugs will set off a flame inside the cylinder that will compress the rest of the fuel and air mixture, setting that off as well.
That means it could have the efficiency of a diesel motor, powered by gasoline. The numbers for SKYACTIV-G on that score are already decent, or 28 mpg combined on the AWD sedan version, and 27 mpg combined on the hatchback version. For SKYACTIV-X, Mazda has said it wants those numbers to be boosted by 20 percent of more, which would be a huge jump indeed.
The fact that it’s not here yet probably just means, if nothing else, that Mazda can’t do everything. It’ll go to Europe first anywhere, where emissions laws are stricter; I’m guessing the American market won’t be much interested until gasoline prices jump up again, or a different presidential administration refocuses federal regulations on a path toward sustainability. In either situation, Mazda would be in pole position to take advantage, since one of the advantages of SKYACTIV-X is that it’s not a hybrid, but could nearly have the efficiency of one.
All of which is a long way of saying that SKYACTIV-X not being ready in time for the launch of the AWD Mazda 3 took some of the wind out of everything.
The 2019 AWD Mazda 3 is a Good, Possibly Even Great Car; had this year’s model shipped with SKYACTIV-X it might’ve have become a Great Car by default. Hell, it still might, whenever SKYACTIV-X gets here. As it is, it’s a safe, attractive, comfortable, grippy, already-efficient, even fun little beast. I’m not sure it’s the right car for this moment, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right car for you.
That’s because the new Mazda 3 is nearly $3,000 more than the base price of the 2018 version, but still well within the bounds of affordability for most people in the market. A base front-drive Mazda 3 sedan starts at $21,000; it’s $23,600 for the hatchback. Adding AWD jumps it to $24,000 for the sedan and $25,000 for the hatch. The most top-trim Mazda 3 you can buy is the Premium Package hatchback, which starts at $28,900.
Here are all the trims, excluding options.
As ever, that puts this car squarely in the same territory as the Honda Civic ($19,450 starting for the sedan) and Toyota Corolla ($19,500, also for the sedan) though it’s slightly more expensive than both. It’s also better looking, slightly more upscale and, with AWD now, offers something they do not.
AWD is part of Mazda’s slow push into the premium market and possibly even a presumed toe-to-toe matchup against cars like the Audi A3 or Mercedes A-Class. Mazda still has some ways to go, but this is a damn fine start.
Update, 11:35 a.m.: Clarified that you can only get the manual in a front-wheel drive configuration.