New & Used Mazda 3: In Depth
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Over its three generations, the Mazda 3 has earned a reputation for having above-average dynamics and driving fun. In that way, it's a rival for vehicles like the Ford Focus, the Volkswagen Golf, and even the Hyundai Elantra GT. Thus far, however, there's no true performance version--that is, a MazdaSpeed 3--announced. So as it is today, the Mazda 3 comes in two flavors: sedan or five-door hatchback.
Last redesigned for the 2014 model year, the current Mazda 3 has received incremental updates in 2015 and again in 2016 to refine its model lineup and improve the perceived value for a compact car that can cross the $30,000 mark in top trim levels. At the lower end of the range, the highest-volume Mazda car also takes on the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Subaru Impreza, and Toyota Corolla, as well as the Chevy Cruze, Dodge Dart, Nissan Sentra, and Kia Forte.
MORE: Read our 2016 Mazda 3 review
The first-generation Mazda 3 launched in 2004 and lasted through 2009. Its delightfully unconventional lines and tight handling put it head and shoulders above the Mazda Protege sedan it replaced (and prior to that, the 323 and GLC), 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 bowed in 2010, and would get significant updates for the 2012 model year. This second-generation Mazda 3 sported more exaggerated styling than its trim, taut predecessor. For 2012, the 'smiling' 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, including rain-sensing wipers, bi-xenon adaptive lighting, and three-position memory for the available power seats.
Two models were offered in 2010, each with a different engine. The base Mazda 3 '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 Mazda 3 '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 all-wheel-drivers like the Subaru WRX and Mitsubishi Evo models as more similar front-drive turbo models like the Ford Focus ST. It was able to reach 60 mph in 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 2012 model year brought upgraded, the most significant of which 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, brought 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, 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 interface, satellite radio, and keyless entry, for instance.
The i Sport model was treated to the new 2.0-liter SkyActiv engine for 2013, bringing the efficient powertrain to a less-expensive model. The 2013 model year also brought standard air conditioning to the base SV model, while the i Sport received the multi-information display and a USB port. The more expensive trim levels also saw expanded equipment.
Today's Mazda 3
An all-new Mazda 3 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 our Best Car To Buy award as a result. Our only real problem with the latest 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 headroom-robbing look instead of the old upright appearance. The hatchback is also slightly less commodious as a result.
Power comes from a choice of four-cylinder engines, with 'i' models using the 2.0-liter SkyActiv engine and the sportier 's' versions getting a 2.5-liter version of that engine. A manual was initially only available with the 2.0-liter, while both engines can be had with Mazda's slick-shifting six-speed automatic. Changes for 2015 are few, although Mazda is now offering the larger engine with a manual transmission—it is easily the enthusiast's choice, although the 2.0-liter has plenty of grunt to move the 3 swiftly.
The current 3's interior also brings a slightly premium feel compared to many of its competitors. The materials are a step up from what's been offered in the past, the styling more cohesive yet usable, and build quality is up there as well. The 3 offers several advanced features, including a form of head-up display.
For 2015, Mazda improved the equipment list, and it's done the same again for 2016. The Mazda 3 now carries a lower price in base form, and offers more features as standard. The 2016 lineup spans the base SV, Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring models. All models now come with a rearview camera system, and two new packages allow you to add popular equipment to the Sport and Touring models, respectively. Luxury items like perforated leather upholstery, adaptive front lighting, and moonroof reserved for the top Grand Touring.
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 wheel out of the driver's hands with enormous amounts of torque. A new Speed3 is likely to employ different steering and suspension designs to handle increased output, such as Ford does with its Focus ST.