Mazda3 Triple Threat: Runabout, Hauler, Cruiser

By Frank A. Aukofer, March 5th, 2016

The 2016 Mazda3 gets a high and mighty compliment from its peers. They consider it a benchmark. This title refers to a car that serves as a standard by which others are measured or judged, and it's why other manufacturers check out the Mazda3 when they're redesigning their own competing machines. It's a tribute to a small Japanese manufacturer that butts bumpers against such heavyweights as Toyota, Honda, and Nissan.

Mazda introduced the little 3 in 2004 as a successor to the Protege 5, a sturdy but unexceptional economy car. Over the years, either as a four-door sedan or a four-door hatchback, it has won recognition as a driver-oriented compact.

Even more, it qualified as what some enthusiasts call a "hot hatch," mainly in its Mazdaspeed3 configuration, which unfortunately has gone away -- at least for now. It is expected to be reintroduced as a concept car this year with maybe 300 horsepower and possibly all-wheel drive.

For the last couple of years, the Mazda3 has held the fort. It has been enhanced by the development of an automotive philosophy that Mazda calls SkyActiv. It's a sort of holistic way of viewing a car in all of its components, from redesigning manual and automatic transmissions to weighing the inside rear-view mirror with -- all an eye toward removing a couple of ounces to contribute to an overall weight reduction.

For 2016, the Mazda3 offers 10 choices: five sedans and five hatchbacks. Each configuration comes as a 3i in Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring models, and 3s as Touring and Grand Touring. The former is powered by a 155-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine; S models come with a 184-hp, 2.5-liter four-banger.

Tested for this review was the top-of-the-line Mazda3s with a full complement of standard and optional equipment that brought its bottom line price to $30,270. That amounts to sticker shock for compact economy buyers but it covers what most buyers would consider premium car territory.

Standard in the $27,315 base price are full safety equipment (including blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, and tire pressure monitoring), along with a six-speed automatic transmission, automatic climate control, leather upholstery, navigation system, Bose audio with satellite radio, remote keyless entry, pushbutton starting, power driver's seat, motorized sunroof, rain-sensing windshield wipers, 18-inch alloy wheels, and an exterior appearance package with a front air dam and rear spoiler.

Inside, the Grand Touring Mazda3 displays quality materials and careful workmanship that enhance the premium ambiance. Though pricey, the test Mazda3 qualified as a multi-threat car: Family hauler, urban and suburban runabout, semi-sports car in the twisties, and long-distance highway cruiser.

As a family hauler, the family should be fairly small, though there's ample space and comfort for four. Driver and front passenger seats deliver solid support and good comfort for hours behind the wheel, along with huggable lateral bolstering to hold the torso in hard cornering.

Outboard rear seats are nearly as accommodating. Unfortunately, as is usual in most cars these days, the center rear seat position is a hard and uncomfortable perch and there's no place to plant the feet because of a huge floor hump, despite the fact that the Mazda3 is a front-drive car.

Surprisingly, the Mazda3 offers 20 cubic feet of space for cargo -- more than you'd get in the trunk of any compact or midsize car. It's one of the charms of hatchbacks, despite the fact that American buyers mostly disdain station wagons and hatchbacks though they flock to crossover sport utility vehicles that are little more than jacked-up hatchbacks with optional all-wheel drive.

The 184-hp, four-cylinder engine is more than up to a full range of driving tasks, although it will win only a few stoplight drag races. Power off the line is strong and it exhibits only minimal so-called torque steer -- that fierce tug at the steering wheel that was a characteristic of the more powerful Mazdaspeed3.

Highway cruising at extra-legal speeds even in 70 mph zones is a breeze; the Mazda3 holds its own with plenty of power in reserve for passing. Given the performance, city/highway/combined fuel economy is exceptional at 27/37/31 mpg. More than 600 miles of mostly freeway driving at 75-mph-plus yielded an average of 33 mpg.

Though the $30,000-plus price tag of the test car could be daunting to some buyers, the Mazda3 is also available in less-expensive versions starting at $17,845. Forego some of the extras and it's still possible to enjoy its basic goodness.

Specifications

Base price $27,315 (as tested: $30,270)
Curb weight 3,028 lbs.
Displacement 2.5-liter
Engine type 16-valve SkyActiv-G 4-cyl. w/DI
Epa mileage rating 27 mpg city, 37 mpg highway
Fuel capacity 13.2 gal.
Horsepower (net) 184 at 5700 rpm
Overall length 180.3 in.
Torque (lb.-ft.) 185 at 3250 rpm
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Vehicle type 5-passenger FWD compact sedan
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