The last-generation Mazda 3 was one of the best-performing compact cars—excluding the company of ‘tuned’ special-performance models like the Mazdaspeed3, Ford Focus ST, and VW GTI, of course. In most respects, the new Mazda 3 maintains that performance edge; but it’s no great leap.
In powertrain performance, the redesigned 2014 Mazda 3 remains at the head of the class. Whether you get the 2.0-liter in-line four or the 2.5-liter version, and whether you opt for the six-speed automatic or the six-speed manual gearbox, these combinations all bring satisfying performance and better responsiveness than most compact cars.
The reason why these powertrains work so well? Through its so-called Skyactiv initiative, Mazda has gone and engineered, from scratch, a new engine (here in two different sizes), plus an all-new six-speed automatic transmission and a new six-speed manual gearbox. Along with the latest versions of the Mazda 6 mid-size sedan and CX-5 compact crossover, these models are all built on a purpose-built platform, to accommodate that new platform, and steering and suspension systems have been redesigned at the same time, all to preserve weight and improve fuel-efficiency, without sacrificing driving enjoyment.
The manual gearbox snicks neatly and precisely between gears, and the clutch takes up easily and neatly; and in automatic versions the transmission shifts quickly between gears, almost with the decisiveness of a dual-clutch system, but with more smoothness when you need it. The only odd thing we noticed in our test drive, when we encountered some low-speed hairpin corners, was how widely spaced first and second gear are. 3s versions get steering-wheel paddle-shifters.
Between 2.0-liter ‘i’ and 2.5-liter ‘s’ models, there’s probably not as much of a difference as you might think. The ‘i’ should be plenty quick for most needs, and it’ll save you a mile per gallon or two overall. Both of these engines have the same personality and are very smooth all the way up the rev range. The 2.5-liter has one big advantage, though: It makes its peak 185 pound-feet of torque at 3,250 rpm, while the 2.0-liter makes 150 lb-ft at 4,000; it feels noticeably stronger at the lower end of the rev range, which should make it an even better companion with the automatic transmission.
One note: Over two different test cars with the 2.5-liter engine, we encountered a noticeably lumpy low idle when the engine was fully hot.
In general drivability, the Mazda 3 also excels. The powertrain is never caught flat-footed, and the accelerator pedal is confident and linear, not just tuned for jumpy response on the test drive. The steering feels precise; there’s never excess body motion; and the four-wheel disc brakes (even on the base SV) are confidence-inspiring. Transmissions (except for the odd 1-2 gap we noticed in our automatic test car) offer a nice set of ratios that seem well-suited to the engine, including a very tall sixth gear that had the engine in our Grand Touring turning at an indicated 2,050 rpm at 70 mph.
And on the other hand, when you want to drive quickly, you can hit the Sport button for a more aggressive throttle setting and a delayed shifts for the automatic transmission. With it clicked, we also noticed that the stability control has a remarkably loose rein on overzealous driving styles; it’ll even permit a little bit of sliding—all in the name of fun, right?
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. We agree.
Mazda put lots of engineering into an electrohydraulic power steering system for that last-generation car, and nailed it, with the best steering, by a long shot, of any small car. That last-generation car is a tough act to follow, and we simply don’t think the new car’s electric power steering system is as good. It’s one of the better systems in this class, and we really like the strong sense of center at lower speeds, out of corners, but it doesn’t do well with oddly crowned roads, or track all that well at highway speeds—requiring more small adjustments than we would have liked.
In fuel efficiency, the Mazda 3 does make a significant leap. Although the 2.0-liter Skyactiv engine had been offered for the past couple of model years in some models of the 3, the 2014 models all have the new and far more efficient engine lineup. As we outline in our Green and Fuel Economy section, that means an EPA rating of more than 30 mpg Combined for the entire lineup--and mileage gains on the order of 30 percent for some of the lineup.