Mazda's fundamental approach to making their cars fun to drive is based upon dozens of systems working together to deliver an entire experience. It works, and generally speaking, Mazda's cars and SUVs drive and handle better than many of their rivals.
Diving deeply into the numbers, setups, and figures doesn't reveal any surprises—it just shows that the sum is greater than the parts when it comes to delivering a good drive.
The 2017 Mazda 3 gets a 7 out of 10 for performance on our scale thanks to good handling and competent 6-speed automatic and manual transmission options. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
By the numbers, the base 2.0-liter inline-4 makes 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque. It's the engine found in most Sport and Touring models and is reasonably perky in most situations. We've found that the power doesn't come on strong until about 4,000 rpm, which is relatively high in the rev range.
Bumping up to the 2.5-liter inline-4 brings a 184 hp engine that makes 185 lb-ft of twist, but more impressively, makes the power more available in lower rev ranges.
Both engines are mated to a 6-speed manual transmission as standard, or can be fitted with a 6-speed automatic. We prefer the automatic when paired with the 2.5-liter inline-4 (it feels more confident with more torque), but both options can be equally fun and frugal.
New for 2017, Mazda has added an engine management system dubbed G-Vectoring Control that modulates torque to the front wheels (they're the only drive wheels, no all-wheel drive is available in the Mazda 3) based on steering input. The system is built to reduce body roll during cornering or high-speed inputs, although we haven't yet driven those cars to judge for ourselves. We'll admit that we're skeptical, but we'd also admit that Mazda's philosophy of the little things making a big difference has worked very well so far.
The one major dynamic shortcoming is this new car's electric power steering system. Mazda put lots of engineering into an electrohydraulic power steering system for the last-generation car and nailed it, but we simply don’t think the new car’s full-electric 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 fine adjustments than we would have liked.
Steering-wheel paddles are included in models with the 2.5-liter engine and automatic transmission, and the auto 'box shifts with the decisiveness of a dual-clutch system. The manual gearbox snicks neatly and precisely between gears, and the clutch takes up easily and cleanly. Neither engine is ever caught flat-footed, and the throttle pedal responds linearly instead of having a jumpy tip-in like some cars trying to promote a performance vibe. One feature that's unusual in a new car is the bottom-hinged "organ-style" accelerator pedal, which Mazda says (and we agree) is more comfortable for drivers.