My Thoughts Exactly: 2021 Mazda3

When it comes to compact cars, enthusiasts will choose the Mazda3 over all comers. It is their preferred compact car for commuting, dating, window shopping, and just being cool. 

Two years ago, a new Mazda3 came out. This car came out swinging with a sharper look, updated technology, and a more luxurious interior…,

Yes, the Mazda3 is part of the move upmarket for the brand. They did not want to just sell a mere compact car with enthusiastic moves. Mazda was clear that they should compete against everyone from Buick and Acura to BMW and Mercedes-Benz. However, there are still customers who still think that the Mazda3 is better matched up against the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Volkswagen Jetta, and so forth. 

The first time I worked with the newest Mazda3, it arrived at the worst time in my life. I was going through my mystery health issue that ended up getting corrected after almost two months of frustration, tests, pain, and a wrong prescription. 

That was the car that was going to take me to the 2019 Midwest Automotive Media Association Spring Rally. After putting in only a few miles, it was picked up and sent to Elkhart Lake without me. 

Now, I get a second chance at the Mazda3. This time, I received almost the same vehicle as in 2019 with all-wheel-drive four-door sedan with the Premium package. There is one huge difference in what lurked underneath its hood – the 2.5-liter turbocharged Skyactiv-G engine. 

You read that right. This Mazda3 is now available in the 250-horsepower engine found across the Mazda lineup, except for the MX-5 Miata. This is an engine that always put down the power with ease. 

Before I go any further, let me acknowledge what you might be thinking. This is a Mazda3 with a turbocharger and all-wheel-drive. Shouldn’t this be called the Mazdaspeed3? 

If you have pondered this exact thought – get it out of your head. This is not a Mazdaspeed3. This is a completely different Mazda3 entirely. 

Where you might think this could be the return of the Mazdaspeed3 is that turbocharged engine. It is pretty damn quick and immediately takes command of the road. There is no lag from the Dynamic Pressure turbocharger, as evidenced by the quick on-ramp and passing maneuvers it exhibited. Perhaps you do feel the rated 320 pound-feet of torque down low on the revs. 

As with this engine on other Mazdas, it is suggested that you feed it with premium fuel. That way, you get the maximum benefit from this engine. Luckily, I’ve found premium fuel pricing down towards where regular was before the USA election. 

Of course, I have to mention fuel economy. With that said, I averaged 27.1 MPG. About what I expected, to be honest. 

The Skyactiv-G turbo is fed through a six-speed automatic transmission with the standard all-wheel drive. If you’re still looking for clues about its potential as a Mazdaspeed product, that transmission will throw you off the trail. In other words, a manual transmission is not available on 2.5 Turbo models. Sorry, enthusiasts. 

Without the third pedal, the automatic does a great job shifting in concert with this engine. Where you may find some issues is when you have in Sport mode and forget there are two paddles behind the steering wheel. You can also use the shifter to engage other gears if you do find yourself hung up on a gear. 

The weather turned out better than one thought. I was hoping to test out the i-ACTIV all-wheel-drive to see if it works as intended. Though I wished it had a set of winter rubber to truly work out this system. The Bridgestone Turanzas on my tester worked out just fine. 

Another reason to consider the Mazda3 is the complete driving dynamics package. This is where Mazda shines with its compact car, because it acts more like a premium sports sedan. It darts extremely well, quickly avoiding trouble when present. The cornering is superb, as it rides between the lines on challenging corners. 

This is where the Mazda3’s great steering system comes into play. It provided good feedback from the road as it exacts turns from the steering wheel. On-center feel is almost perfect, with the system’s weight was well balanced. 

The ride quality is on the firm side, as you can feel rougher road surfaces inside the cabin. Put it on a smoother surface, and it feels very nice. As for the brakes, they were very good with solid pedal feel. I experienced great stops in both normal and panic situations. 

In contrast to my medically-challenged short stint in the Mazda3, I can honestly say that I love the cockpit of this car. The seats were supportive, but firm. The bolstering was just right, as it read my body to fit me. I sat lower – like a sports coupe – because my taller torso needed to clear the lower roofline and the moonroof panel. Yet, I was comfortable and never felt fatigued behind the wheel. 

However, rear seat space was smaller than I would like. You can seat a so-called average-sized person behind me. In all, I can see four average-sized adults riding comfortably for miles on end. Rather, it could simply come down to me, a future ex-not-so-significant other, and a dog…or my drum. Of note, there is a driveshaft hump to navigate around in the middle of the rear seating area, however. 

Trunk space is actually decent with 12.7 cubic feet available. You can lower the rear seatbacks for longer items, or a very robust holiday shopping spree. 

The driver has a set of three "dials" in the analog-digital instrument cluster. The center screen is usually where the speedometer sits. You can customize that screen for the information you need. That screen is flanked by an analog tachometer on the left, fuel and temperature gauges on the right. It is easy to read and use. 

Every control is easy to use and good to the touch. The steering wheel is sort of a throwback with its angled spokes and small center cap. Luckily, it has a thick rim. 

As for infotainment, Mazda offers a wide screen only controlled by the big MazdaConnect knob and associated buttons. With similar systems, it takes some getting used to. Once you understand how it works, then it’s actually fine. The result is quick connectivity to your smartphones for integration into the system. Let’s not forget about Bose’s 12-speaker audio system. The sound quality is very good with great channel separation. 

Finally, we come to the design of the Mazda3. It is a nice looking vehicle, full of sculpted details and a fine silhouette. Being it is the sedan, I actually like the profile of it over the hatchback. It also helps to look at this three-dimensional grille up front with its LED headlamp units. The rear end is compelling with its complex taillight units and scalloped trunk lid. The blacked-out alloy wheels finish off the overall look of this tester – which you can take it or leave it. It is after all the fashion of the moment to black out your wheels. I think a more brushed alloy finish would elevate this tester towards fulfilling the model’s (and the brand’s) upward mobility. 

My tester came with a complete sticker price of $34,015. This model is at the top of the Mazda3 range, starting with the return of the 2.0-liter engine on its lowest priced sedan model to two turbocharged all-wheel-drive variants in both sedan and hatchback. In all, there are seven Mazda3 sedans and six hatchbacks to choose from. 

In all, this is a wonderful small sports sedan that should be looked at both ways. One, with one foot in the old club of mainstream compact cars as an elevated product that continues to stand apart from the competition. The other is to compete head on with similarly-sized entrants with more prestigious badges. 

The Mazda3 should not be seen as a bridge between these two different segments. Rather, as an excellent proposition for enthusiasts looking for a more exciting car to drive from their home workspaces to their actual ones when this pandemic is over. 

As for it being a modern Mazdaspeed3…it is not. The turbocharged Mazda3 has a different mission this time around. It is for drivers who rather not announce their arrival with a loud exhaust note, but a stylish presence among the enthusiast crowd. 

Above all, there is plenty of substance within that style. 

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Mazda North American Operations

All photos by Randy Stern

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