The Eponymous 2016 Mazda3: Fun, practical compact car
Known in most of the world as the Mazda Axela, the compact Mazda is an inexpensive way to get that “zoom zoom,” with a light feel, good handling, and an easily controllable engine that combines speed with mileage; but to get it, you also have to deal with an oddly arranged cabin.
The designers focused on light weight, eschewing acoustic glass and such, so the Japanese sedan is rather noisy inside on the highway; and since ours came with snow tires, admittedly Blizzaks, there was quite a bit of road noise especially on concrete, and a bit of traction loss on especially hard turns. The weight reduction allowed a relatively low-output 155 horse engine to beat heftier compacts in 0-60 times, and an optional 184 horse variant takes on mild-performance updates such as the Dart GT.
The Mazda3’s manual-transmission is easy to use, with a gentle clutch and well designed stick. Steering is tight but not overly so, and is reasonable on the highway to make long trips easier. There was good torque available from launch for easy sprints, while the wide clutch engagement range made smooth, easy driving easy as well. The engine has an odd sound when revving, high-pitched, with an exhaust clearly not tuned to emulate V8s.
While the engine is peppy around town, on the highway you can get either a smooth, gradual run up, or drop two gears for passing. You can get into sixth (top) gear at 40 mph, so by the time you’re at 65, the engine is revving over 2,000 rpm. There’s enough torque for relatively easy hill climbing. Still, while the Mazda3 is quick and usually able and willing, the star of the show is its gas mileage, with a realistic EPA estimate of 29 city, 41 highway (the city estimate is easier to achieve).
The Mazda was fine in highway cruising, with good gradability, partly a result of the low gearing that has you at 2,000 rpm around 65 mph. That gearing adds noise on the highway (that you won’t hear a lot of, due to the wind and road noise) and hurts economy at higher speeds, but there seems to be plenty to spare and we tended to get 38-42 on highway runs. In sprints, the Mazda3 is quicker than the Dart and holds up with the 1.8 Beetle, though you don’t get the highway torque of those cars. The automatic Mazda3 doesn’t feel quite as fast, but it’s theoretically just 0.1 seconds slower than the manual.
The Mazda3 has a light feel with good grip and a smooth but not dull ride. It was an enjoyable car during spirited driving and gentle commuting. What could go wrong?
Three words: the user interface.
The tiny LED-bar tachometer is sometimes drowned out by ambient light and is too small to really be useful (and why have it go up to 8,000 on an engine that redlines at 6,500?). The combination trip odometer and rheostat is awkwardly placed and unlit at night. Some controls are just oddly placed, though it was easy to get used to having the navigation system control (a knob with five buttons) in the center. But then, it turns out that the voice control, buried with a bunch of other buttons, only works if you’re already in the right section; so you have to operate the touch screen and then use voice. And what’s with the tiny radio volume knob/on-off-switch being put onto the console next to the big knob? The big knob did have a nice tactile feel, with an enter button in the middle, but still.
Instead of using satellite traffic, Mazda has HD radio traffic, a separate map outside of the navigation system, with no zooming and a frustrating useless scale with tiny highway markers. The navigation system, while very fast, was deviated from custom without gaining much advantage. Changing the scale with the knob was nice, as was having big letters for the streets so you can see it at a glance.
The stereo had fine sound with the digital signal processor (optional on lower models, and well worth it); inputs included two different USB ports, making it easier to share a car (or use smaller drives). Using a USB thumb drive worked very well, but every couple of trips it reset either to the first song on the drive or the first song on the album, for no discernible reason. This would be a serious annoyance over the course of years. The stereo goes off when you turn off the car; and when you go to the accessory mode, it takes a while for the stereo to find the USB drive place again. Once, the system locked up and was unresponsive.
Nice features include alerting the driver to speed cameras, setting a speed alert, and the nifty gas mileage display shown above, which makes it easy to figure out how to maximize economy. The Mazda3 had few preferences for owners to change, but did have things like light delays, power lock actions, and such. Some of the other buttons (e.g. traction control off) were oddly placed. The cruise control was almost dangerous in its use of a single button for cancel and resume; and who thought putting cancel in a less convenient spot than resume made sense?
The climate control followed in the footsteps of the rest of the controls; it’s small and placed low on the dash for minimum visibility, with no duplicate on the big screen. The mode (and fan) is awkwardly set by pushing buttons repeatedly, so you’re supposed to look down while adjusting it at length. That “fake button” in the middle takes some getting used to.
The backup camera was well designed for daytime views, combining wide coverage with a good view of what’s directly behind the car, but at night it was not sensitive enough to be useful all the time.
Fortunately, we can go back to good parts of the Mazda, one of which is space. The interior is nicely sized for the class, with more legroom than the larger Dodge Dart; it’s much narrower, and the width is taken out largely by having a fairly narrow center console. The trunk is generously sized for the class and well designed, other than having the “fold down” control for the seats inside but too far from the seat — so you unlock the seat, then walk around to lower it, then walk back.
Headrests push the driver’s (and passenger’s) head forward to reduce injury at low cost.
The rear seats are comfortable and both cars have a cupholder/armrest that folds down from the middle. If you don’t like black or gray interiors, incidentally, the Mazda seems to have a beige option all through the line.
As for the price, the Mazda3 starts out at a class-normal $17,845, close to the Jetta and around $850 above the Dart. Our well equipped Grand Touring test car listed at $22,545, with the manual transmission ($23,425 with destination). Pay $2,000 more for the top of the line and you get HID lights and some other features (the s series has the 2.5 engine; it’s not a simple option).
For that price, we had rain-sensing wipers, heated mirrors with turn signals, fog lights, four-wheel disks, sunroof, heated “leatherette” seats (with power for the driver), dual-zone auto climate control, pushbutton start, seven-inch center touch-screen display, rear camera, navigation, Bose eight-speaker audio with signal processor, various audio software (Pandora, etc), two USB inputs, text message delivery and reply, cruise and trip computer, and audio controls on the wheel.
For safety, the car includes blind spot monitoring, rear cross path alert, hill launch assistance, roadside assistance, front side-impact airbags, and front and rear curtain airbags. The car is rated at five stars from the government for everything but front-crash on the passenger side (four stars) and rollover (four stars). The IIHS gave the Mazda3 top marks in every single category (Dart is only missing in small-overlap front, where it gets the second best mark). It might be light, but it’s strong.
The Mazda3 has a fun, light feel, but is well suited to daily commuting as well. The engine is peppy around town, not so much on the highway (but it’s good enough there as well); interior space is generally good for four people and their baggage, and gas mileage is excellent. The controls and gauges are poorly designed, and there’s more noise than some are used to today. Overall, I enjoyed my time in the Mazda3, and wanted more.