- Responsive powertrains
- Sporty profile, eye-catching sheetmetal
- Great handling
- Tight back seat
- Busy ride
- Road noise
The 2014 Mazda 3 stands out from the small-car crowd, with its sport-car-influenced proportions and sporty driving experience; but its tight, noisy cabin means that it’s not at all the best pick for pragmatists.
The 2014 Mazda 3 is one of the best, and perhaps one of the most often overlooked, small cars on the market. A redesign has brought it truly attractive styling, more features, and better gas mileage that should make it a mandatory add to more small-car shopping lists.
These improvements come without disturbing what's been Mazda's primary appeal, particularly with the 3: it's one of just a handful of driver's cars in the segment, along with the Ford Focus and the VW Golf.There's one asterisk we have to get to right off the bat: The svelte, almost sexy proportions of the new Mazda3 compromise its interior space. Provided you don't need a bigger car (like a Hyundai Elantra, which qualifies as a mid-size car) the Mazda 3 should stay on your list, as it's one of the best entries in the compact segment.
The 2014 Mazda 3 is a standout, in terms of styling and design, and its long hood and ‘cab-back’ design really cast it in a different light compared to most other compact cars. Adopting the automaker's Kodo "soul of motion" design language, first seen on the CX-5 crossover and Mazda6 mid-size sedan launched over the past two years, the Mazda 3 loses the creepy smile of the previous-generation car (or was that a smirk; we never quite knew) and takes on the brand's new blunt nose and five-point grille leading into thin, slanted, swept-back headlamps. A sweeping shoulder line slows gracefully along the body side and a more slanted, fastback roofline on the hatchback ends in what we see as a somewhat softer, less distinctive rear-end treatment.
At its best, this combination of the aggressive front grile, crisp edges, and gentle curves, and hunkered-back cabin altogether makes the car look taut and sports-car influenced. At its worst, the Mazda 3 looks a little long-hooded—as if the hoodline of the Mazda 6 sedan had been grafted to the front of what’s otherwise a smaller car.
The entire structure of the new Mazda 3 has been designed around the SkyActiv four-cylinder engine, which Mazda began launching in 2012 models. This highly efficient four-cylinder engine uses high compression, carefully tuned exhaust systems, and other refinements to provide power while extracting maximum efficiency from every drop of fuel without the added complication of hybrid systems.
The 2014 Mazda 3 offers two different variants of the engine, and we think that no matter which one you choose you'll end up with a reasonably smooth, responsive combination. A 2.0-liter version is rated at 155 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque, and a more powerful 2.5-liter version puts out 184 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque. Each is available with a six-speed manual gearbox or a six-speed automatic transmission. At least initially, Mazda isn't offering the larger engine with the manual transmission, however, and it hasn't yet detailed the next high-performance Mazdaspeed3. The 3 gets retuned springs, shocks, and anti-roll bars to improve straight-line stability, and the automaker claims to have improved both cornering capacity and ride comfort. It says the Mazda 3's stopping distances are among the best of all compact cars (all models get four-wheel discs); meanwhile, electric power steering replaces the former electrohydraulic system.
Thanks to the new SkyActiv engines, the Mazda3 gets EPA highway fuel economy of up to 30 mpg city, 41 highway, and even the larger 2.5-liter engine returns up to 28 mpg city, 39 highway. Among the various features contributing to greater fuel efficiency is the i-ELOOP system, which uses a special alternator system and recharges the battery mainly during deceleration and braking. In a first for a production car, the system charges a capacitor—which can absorb a great deal of energy quickly—to recapture maximum energy during braking. For now, this feature is only offered in the top-level Grand Touring, with the Tech Package.
Overall, the Mazda3 is now at the head of the class with respect to powertrain performance. Most aspects of the driving experience are very satisfying—we'd call it far more athletic than your typical compact car. We find the suspension and dynamics to be excellent in tight hairpins, although the new steering didn't feel as confident on center on the highway, and a lot of ride harshness (and noise) still makes its way into the cabin compared to other cars in this class.
It's about half an inch shorter in height and 1.6 inches wider. The body structure is both 30 percent stiffer and lighter than the previous model, Mazda says, contributing to good handling and fuel efficiency together.
Car design is a game of give and take, so it's no surprise that the Mazda3’s long hood and swept-back proportions stake claims on what otherwise would be passenger space. We do wish that Mazda would have considered the practicality of the package just a bit more; its wheelbase is about 2.5 inches longer, yet the front pillars have been moved back nearly four inches and the cabin feels 'scrunched' accordingly, with the back seat suffering. The front-seat area is spacious, and seats are supportive (with newly contoured seats and more back and lateral support). In back, meanwhile, Mazda claims more knee room and shoulder room, but it feels tighter, in a fore-aft sense, than most other compact entries. The rear seatbacks are almost 2 inches higher, to improve comfort for back-seat passengers, which only serves to push the heads of taller riders up against the cardboard-like contoured headliner in models with the moonroof. One feature that's unusual in a new car is the bottom-hinged "organ-style" accelerator pedal, which Mazda says is more comfortable for drivers.
The 2014 Mazda 3, which has already been named an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ model this year, adds a number of new electronic safety systems to the company's compact car line. Each body style is fitted with six airbags: front and side bags for each front-seat passenger, and side-curtain bags stretching the full length of the cabin. Like all new cars, it has anti-lock brakes, stability control and traction control, a tire-pressure monitoring system, and other standard safety fittings. New for this model year are several systems that use a combination of camera and radar-based sensing to assist and alert the driver in potentially hazardous situations. Mazda groups all of the new safety systems together under the name i-ActivSense. They include adaptive cruise control, a blind-spot monitoring system, lane-departure warning alert, and headlights that switch automatically between low and high beams.
There's also a forward-obstruction warning system, which alerts drivers if the car is closing too quickly on an obstacle directly ahead. Mazda says that system operates at speeds from 9 to 92 mph. Finally, there's a new Smart City Brake Support system, which monitors closing distances and will pre-tension the brakes and alert the driver if a collision appears imminent at speeds up to 19 mph. If the driver doesn't respond in time, the system will automatically brake the car to a stop. Another interesting feature available in the Mazda 3 is the Active Driving Display—an odd heads-up display with its own little screen (which over two test cars wouldn't stay aimed in the line of sight).
One area where cars are evolving quickly is in infotainment, and the Mazda 3 is no exception. All 's' versions, as well as 'i' Grand Touring (and optioned 'i' Touring models) include the Mazda Connect system, which brings a large, colorful, high-contrast touch-screen display atop the dash (some might see it as looking like an aftermarket offering, but we like how it's high in the field of vision). Unlike the system in the larger Mazda6 and CX-5, with its laggy response, this system is quick and responsive, with relatively easy-to-navigate menus that can be selected with the touch screen or with the rotary (iDrive-like) Command Controller.
That system includes the now-standard AM/FM radio, CD player, optional SiriusXM satellite radio, and a USB jack and auxiliary audio input port for connecting digital music players. The premium audio option is a Bose system with Centerpoint virtual surround sound. Voice control allows users to search among folders, find tracks, repeat, and shuffle them using spoken commands. The system promises good usability, as you can use the Internet for finding locations, but the navigation system is onboard, with map and routing information stored on a SD card.