New & Used Mazda 3: In Depth
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The Mazda 3 is the Japanese automaker's compact car, offered today as either a sedan or as a hatchback. Over a few generations, the Mazda 3 has gained a reputation for above-average dynamics and driving fun. In that way, it's a rival for vehicles like the VW Golf, the Ford Focus, even the Hyundai Elantra GT.
The current Mazda 3 was new for the 2014 model year. Other rivals for its more prosaic versions include the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Chevrolet Cruze, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra, and even the Subaru Impreza.
MORE: Read our 2014 Mazda 3 reviewThe first-generation Mazda3 originally launched in 2004, and lasted through 2009. Its delightfully unconventional lines and tight handling put it head and shoulders above the Mazda Protege (and prior to that, the 323 and GLC) sedan it replaced, and it was an instant sales success. Base versions were fitted with a 150-horsepower, 2.0-liter four and a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, while “s” models upgraded to a 160-hp, 2.3-liter four with five-speed manual or automatic transmissions. For 2006, a Grand Touring model was added to the line as well.
The next Mazda 3 would bow in 2010, and would get significant updates for the 2012 model year. The 2010 Mazda3 sported more exaggerated styling than its trim, taut predecessor. For 2012, its 'grinning' expression of its front grille and air dam were given a new look with a softened grin and more flowing air dam, plus more body-color bodywork and a more refined interior. This version offered several advanced features not found on most of its competitors. They included rain-sensing wipers, bi-xenon adaptive lighting (on the Grand Touring model), and three-position memory seating on the power seats.Two models were offered in 2010, each with a different engine. The base Mazda3 'i' model that year sported a 148-hp, 2.0-liter four, paired with either a five-speed manual gearbox or a five-speed automatic transmission. The sportier Mazda3 's' had a 167-hp, 2.5-liter four with a six-speed manual as standard (the automatic was available too). Gas mileage ranked near the bottom of the compact class, with ratings as low as 22/29 mpg for the 's.'
For hard-core enthusiasts, the MazdaSpeed3 was offered, to face off against the Subaru WRX and Mitsubishi Evo models (but with front-wheel drive, not all-wheel drive). It offered 0-60 mph times of under six seconds. Power came from a direct-injected, turbocharged and intercooled 2.3-liter four that pumped out 263 horsepower and came only with a six-speed manual gearbox.
The most significant 2012 upgrades were under the hood and enabled new fuel economy ratings of up to 40 mpg. A new Sky-G 2.0-liter four-cylinder, combined with all-new six-speed manual and six-speed automatic transmissions, were completely re-engineered to bring performance approaching the 2.5-liter 's' models, with fuel economy about 20 percent better than that of the older 2.0-liter. Both of the previous engines remained available for 2012, though, with the 2.0-liter on the base 3 i SV and Sport and the 2.5-liter on 's' versions.
For 2012, a blind-spot monitoring system was added to the Tech Package, offered on the Grand Touring. The Mazda 3 had the usual raft of options: a Bose premium stereo, Bluetooth connectivity, an iPod dock, satellite radio, and keyless entry, for instance.
But more importantly, for 2013, Mazda gave the i Sport model new "SkyActiv" powertrains, making those highest-mileage models more affordable. It also made air conditioning standard on the base SV, and the i Sport got a USB port and the multi-information display. Upper trims earned some additional equipment as well.
An all-new Mazda3 arrived for 2014, bringing with it sleek new styling, a classy interior, even better driving dynamics, and greater fuel efficiency. It was an easy nomination for Best Car To Buy as a result. Our only real problem with the 3 is that the new profile cuts into rear-seat headroom a little too much for the sake of style, with even the hatchback now having a slanted look instead of the old upright appearance. Changes for 2015 are few, although Mazda will now offer the larger engine with a manual transmission.
A new MazdaSpeed3 is expected soon, based on the newest 3 hatchback. The lightweight architecture should help things, and there's hope that Mazda will choose an engine that won't muscle the steering out of the driver's hands with enormous amounts of torque. It may also employ steering and suspension designs to handle increased output, such as Ford does with its Focus ST.