Test Drive and Review: The 2014 Mazda 3 Elevates The Notion Of What A … – Forbes
There is a long bend at the crest of Alden Mountain in Northeastern Pennsylvania that can unsettle many cars—but not the Mazda 3.
The curve in the road starts on a steep upward slope and terminates heading downhill, making it easy to carry too much speed. Yet the 2014 Mazda 3 takes this particular pass with ease. The car is so stable and easy to drive that it wasn’t even necessary to slow down after cresting the mountain.
Most cars I drive along that route require concentration to maintain an appropriate speed, but in the Mazda, I didn’t even think about it.
And that is the Mazda 3 in a nutshell: so good at what it does, most drivers might not even realize it. They’ll just get in and enjoy the drive.
The Mazda 3 has been completely redone for 2014. It borrows the sophisticated looks of the larger Mazda 6, which is a good thing. (The Mazda 6 has the style of a luxury car, as discussed in more detail here.)
Mazda offers the 3 as a four-door hatchback or sedan. Both models are attractive in their own way, with an understated beauty lacking in most other compact cars.
Much like its quietly competent driving dynamics, the Mazda 3 also doesn’t shout with its styling. Rather, it is one of those cars that prompts a second and third glance back as you’re walking away from it. Something in its curves and creases pleases the eye.
The 3 accomplishes this with a combination of good proportions and subtle flourishes, like the thin, metallic colored trim piece that underscores the front grille and bleeds into the headlights. (See photos of the Mazda 3 here.)
Like the exterior, the interior of the Mazda 3 feels as if it was taken from a more expensive European car. Here again, the design principles introduced on the Mazda 6 are evident, such as the wide and low dashboard configuration and paired-down instrument cluster.
The shape and feel of the steering wheel and the contour and stitching on the seats exude a sophistication lacking in the Mazda 3’s competitors.
Perhaps the biggest flaw inside the Mazda 3 is how closed in it feels due to the car’s relatively small windows. This design concession creates a sleek, sports-car-like exterior, but impedes outward visibility. (The trend toward smaller windows is one we have complained about before.)
Space for passengers and cargo isn’t exactly generous, but it felt adequate, even with a weekend trip out of state.
On The Road
The Mazda 3 offers a choice of two all-new Skyactiv engines, both of which are designed for top efficiency.
The base four-cylinder puts out 155 horsepower and gets an estimated 33 miles per gallon. It doesn’t feel particularly powerful under full throttle, but neither is it anemic, like the smaller four-cylinder in the current Mazda 2.
The 184-horsepower four-cylinder engine introduced on the larger Mazda 6 is also available on the Mazda 3. It is noticeably more powerful than the base engine and makes a pleasing sound when revved hard. Considering its estimated fuel consumption is only 1 or 2 miles per gallon less in combined city/highway driving, it seems like the better choice for those who aren’t budget constrained.
Surprisingly, the six-speed automatic transmission was more enjoyable than the six-speed manual. That’s because Mazda did such a good job engineering the new automatic transmission, blending the smooth power delivery of a traditional automatic with the quick gear shifts of a so-called dual-clutch transmission. It was a blast to flick the paddles on the steering wheel and manually shift through the gears while driving with gusto on winding roads.
The manual transmission wasn’t as satisfying. It lacked the precise “click” when shifting into each gate that makes the six-speed on cars like the Mini Cooper S feel so enjoyable.
Mazda puts a lot of effort into tuning the chassis of its cars, and it shows. Engineers paid particular attention to the front suspension geometry and designed it to improve steering feel.
Whatever they did worked. The Mazda 3 feels more stable when driven vigorously than, say, the Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte and Toyota Corolla, all of which were on hand for comparison testing at the press launch of the 2014 Mazda 3 in California.
In terms of comfort, the Mazda 3 is in the middle of the pack. It isn’t as quiet at the Volkswagen Golf, for example, and the lower cushions on the front seats could be improved as they became uncomfortable after several hours of driving.
The controls for the air conditioner and stereo work great and are easy to use. The optional integrated TomTom navigation system, however, was frustrating at times as the car had to be completely stopped to do even basic functions. While we don’t recommend diving deep into menus and inputting things like addresses while driving, there are some things you want to do while crawling along in gridlock, like looking for alternative routes, which this system does not allow.
Is The Mazda 3 For You?
After driving virtually every vehicle in the compact car segment, many of them back-to-back with the Mazda 3, the Volkswagen Golf stands out as the only worthy rival in terms of styling and driving dynamics. There are other fine vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Cruze and Honda Civic, but they just aren’t quite as attractive or fun to drive.
The Golf has the edge in terms of interior comfort and quietness. But the Mazda is likely to be more reliable in the long run, based on how vehicles from both brands have performed in the past.
Mazda is limiting in terms of how it lets you order options on its vehicles, though. It has adopted a sort of all-or-nothing approach. This is likely in an effort to streamline production, which is essential for a small automaker like Mazda to keep costs down while being able to offer the best design, technology and materials on its vehicles.
Where this becomes a problem is if, for example, you want the more powerful engine, but prefer not to have the larger 18-inch wheels, which seriously degrade ride comfort on rough roads. Mazda doesn’t allow that combination. (The trend toward large wheels is another gripe of ours, as discussed in more detail here.)
The same is true if you want to pick and choose other features on the Mazda 3. Want the navigation or a sunroof? Well, they can be ordered together, but not individually.
As a result, you can end up with a car that costs nearly $25,000, because to get one particular feature requires paying for a whole bunch of others.
In the end, Mazda knows which features are the most popular and bundles things accordingly, so most buyers should find a combination that they like. But those who are particularly choosy when it comes equipping their car might get frustrated.
The sweet spot in terms of value seems to be in the middle of the trim levels. The Mazda 3 i Grand Touring offers a good mix of features for those who don’t mind the base engine, while the slightly more expensive S Touring model gives more power from the upgraded engine.
Click here to see photos of the newly redesigned Mazda 3.
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