- Responsive powertrains
- Sporty profile, eye-catching sheetmetal
- Great handling
- Excellent gas mileage
- Premium feel, in some respects
- Tight back seat
- Busy ride
- Road noise
The 2015 Mazda 3 is one of the best-driving small cars, with efficient engines and smooth transmissions that help give it a more premium feel than its price would suggest.
The Mazda 3 is among the very best in its class, though it may not grab as much attention as offerings from some larger brands. Redesigned in 2014 with a fun, attractive new look, plus new features and more efficient engines, the Mazda 3 should be a mandatory inclusion on any shopper’s small, fun-to-drive, efficient list.
What's more, the improvements to the 3 come without disturbing what's been Mazda's primary appeal, particularly with this car's predecessors: driving fun. The 3 is one of just a handful of driver's cars in the segment, along with the Ford Focus and the VW Golf.
With all of that praise heaped on, there's one asterisk we mention before going further: The svelte, almost sexy proportions of the new Mazda 3 compromise its interior space somewhat. Provided you don't need a bigger car (like a Hyundai Elantra, which qualifies as a mid-sizer) the Mazda 3 should stay on your list, as it's one of the best entries in the compact segment.
The 2015 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 grille, crisp edges, 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 hood of the Mazda 6 sedan had been grafted to the front of the smaller car.
The front-seat area is spacious, and seats are supportive; they have a new contour and afford more back and lateral support. In back, 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 unfortunately pushes 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 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 2015 Mazda 3 offers two different variants of the engine, both of them smooth and responsive. 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. Overall, the Mazda3 is now at the head of the class with respect to powertrain performance.
The 3 gets retuned springs, shocks, and anti-roll bars to improve straight-line stability, and the automaker claims to have improved both cornering capability 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). Precise electric power steering replaces the former electrohydraulic system; it could use some more feedback, but it is very well weighted. Most aspects of the driving experience are very satisfying—the 3 is far more athletic than your typical compact car. We find the suspension and dynamics to be excellent in tight hairpins, although the steering doesn't feel as stable on-center in highway driving, and a lot of ride harshness (and noise) still makes its way into the cabin compared to other cars in this class.
The latest Mazda 3, which was named an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ model for 2015, adds a number of electronic safety systems to the company's compact car line. Al models are fitted with six airbags: front and side bags for each front-seat passenger, and side-curtain bags stretching the full length of the cabin.
There also are several systems that use a combination of camera and radar-based sensing to assist and alert the driver in potentially hazardous situations. Grouped 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. We had trouble keeping it aimed in the driver's line of sight.
Mazda has also made big strides in the 3's infotainment offerings. The Mazda Connect system uses a large, colorful, high-contrast touch-screen display that sits atop the dash (some might see it as looking like an aftermarket offering, but we like how it's up in the field of vision). Unlike the system in the larger Mazda 6 sedan and CX-5 crossover, with its laggy response, this system is quick with relatively easy-to-navigate menus that can be selected with the touch screen or with the rotary (iDrive-like) Command Controller. As of the 2015 model year, Mazda Connect is now standard on all but the base i SV trim level.
Mazda Connect controls a standard AM/FM radio and CD player as well as optional SiriusXM satellite radio, and includes 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. Cars equipped with navigation can use the Internet to find destinations, while map and routing data are stored locally on an SD card.
For 2015, Mazda has added standard equipment to most models and option packages in addition to bringing Mazda Connect to almost all models. The i Touring now includes a rearview camera and halogen fog lights, while the s Touring now includes a power sunroof. The s Grand Touring now includes a Homelink remote transmitter that's integrated into the rearview mirror.
Also notable is the fact that Mazda started offering the larger, 2.5-liter engine with the manual transmission sometime later in the 2014 model year, and it is now available on premium models as well. Those in search of more power will have to wait until Mazda announces its next MazdaSpeed3 hot hatch, which is expected within a year or so.
Thanks to the new SkyActiv engines, the Mazda 3 gets EPA fuel economy of up to 30 mpg city, 41 highway with the 2.0-liter, and even the 2.5-liter engine returns up to 28 mpg city, 39 highway. Among the various features contributing to greater fuel efficiency is the available i-ELOOP system, which uses a special system of an alternator feeding a supercapacitor that harvests electricity during deceleration and braking and uses it to power the car's electrical components. For now, this feature is only offered in the top-level Grand Touring trim with the optional Tech Package. It makes only a small difference in EPA fuel economy, but could have bigger effects for someone who drives in stop-and-go traffic often.