2016 Mazda MAZDA3 Review

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The Car Connection
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The Car Connection

The Car Connection Expert Review

Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
April 26, 2016

The 2016 Mazda 3 is one of the best-driving and best-looking small cars, with a more premium feel than its (now even lower) price might suggest.

Whether you're talking about the hatchback or sedan, the design, or the experience in the driver's seat, the 2016 Mazda 3 remains one of the most distinctive cars in the compact-car class.

While it might not grab as much attention as offerings from some larger brands, the Mazda 3 has a compelling combination of efficient engines, design flair, safety, value, and driving precision should earn it a place on almost every shopper's small-car list.

The Mazda 3 has its primary appeal in driving fun. Even though it's not the quickest, most powerful car in its class, the 3 is one of just a handful of driver's cars in the segment along with the Ford Focus and the VW Golf. You'll get satisfying performance whether you get the 155-horsepower, 2.0-liter inline-4 or the 184-hp, 2.5-liter version, or whether you opt for the 6-speed automatic or the 6-speed manual gearbox. In any combination, they bring satisfying performance and better responsiveness than most compact cars.

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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 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. 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 svelte, almost sexy proportions of the new Mazda 3 somewhat compromise its interior space. The front-seat area is spacious,and seats are supportive. Adult-size rear riders will find themselves pushed up against the headliner. In general, cabin trims and materials have improved, but there are still some cheap bits.

Mazda has also made big strides in the 3's infotainment offerings. The Mazda Connect system uses a large, colorful, high-contrast touchscreen 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 touchscreen or with the rotary Command Controller.

The latest Mazda 3 has been named an IIHS Top Safety Pick+, and all 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-collision 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 automatic emergency braking system, which monitors closing distances and will prepare the brakes and alert the driver if a collision appears imminent at speeds up to 19 mph.

Mazda improved the equipment in the Mazda 3, and it's done that again for 2016, with more features and a somewhat lower price in base form. It's offered in base SV, Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring models, with things like perforated leather upholstery, adaptive front lighting, and moonroof reserved for the top Grand Touring. 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.

Also available in the Grand Touring as part of the Tech Package is the 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. It makes only a small difference in EPA fuel economy, but could have bigger effects for someone who frequently drives in stop-and-go traffic.

We've seen some great overall mileage figures with the Mazda 3. Even with the 2.5-liter engine, relaxed daily commuting conditions should let you easily top 30 mpg.

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2016 Mazda MAZDA3

Styling

Whether you get the curvaceous sedan or hunkered-down hatchback, the Mazda 3 is far more eye-catching than other compact cars.

The Mazda 3 was completely redesigned for 2014, and although it's now entering its third model year in this form. It's by no means lacking in flair; it's one of the most eye-catching, contemporary designs in its class, in fact. In hatchback form, its "cab-back" styling, evoking the proportions of a rear-wheel-drive car, really helps the design pop in ways that other compacts don't.

The latest 3 adopted Mazda's "Kodo" design language, which was first seen on the CX-5 crossover and Mazda 6 mid-size sedan. Although the front end might look blunt, this new design improves aerodynamics.

The look of the 3 from the front is near and sophisticated, with the top corners of the grille leading into thin, swept-back headlamps. Designers stretched the hood, while the windshield pillars were moved almost 4 inches rearward—interestingly, this was done in part to accommodate the specially tuned exhaust system of the SkyActiv four-cylinder engine. The cabin is set further to the rear, making the profile dramatically different from the previous 3 and other compact cars.

A shoulder line that sweeps along the body side ends in taillights with pointed ends. Hatchback models adopt a more fastback roofline, which culminates in a rounded-off hatch, sacrificing some cargo capacity compared to the outgoing model. Both the sedan and hatchback ended up a little too rounded in back, even though they're so distinctive-looking in front. Although the rear proportions seem to work better for the sedan than the hatch, we'd likely still choose the hatchback for its superior flexibility.

This combination of the aggressive grille, crisp edges, gentle curves, and pushed-back cabin makes the car look taut and sports-car influenced. But it can also make the Mazda 3 look a little long up front—as if the hood of the Mazda 6 sedan had been grafted to the front of what’s otherwise a smaller car.

Inside, the Mazda 3 isn't quite as radical, but it has a tech-savvy look that also makes it a standout in this class. The instrument cluster houses a large central analog gauge with a wing-shaped digital display on either side. Regrettably, Mazda has succumbed to the use of glossy black trim for the center console and door accents, set off by satin chrome highlights. They look a bit cheap here and can also cause glare that is itself a driver distraction.

Mazda has designed a new driver-focused cockpit for the latest 3, with pedals and manual controls arranged symmetrically around the driver's centerline. A head-up display is available and it uses a clear panel that pops up from behind the instrument cluster when the car is turned on to show speed, turn-by-turn directions, and other critical information.

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8

2016 Mazda MAZDA3

Performance

Steering falls just short of the greatness we've come to expect from the brand, yet it's one of the best-driving frugal small cars.

Although the Mazda 3 might not have power and torque figures that are best-in-class, the 2016 Mazda 3 is near the front of the class when it comes to the driving experience. You'll get satisfying performance whether you get the 2.0-liter inline-4 or the 2.5-liter version, or whether you opt for the 6-speed automatic or the 6-speed manual. All bring satisfying performance and better responsiveness than most compact cars.

Both engines are part of a new so-called SkyActive engine family, complemented by new Mazda-designed (6-speed automatic or 6-speed manual) transmissions, and they have a better tactile feel than other units in this price-conscious class. Steering and suspension systems were redesigned at the same time, and it all adds up to a very detail-oriented small car from the driver's seat.

There's not as much of a difference between 155-horsepower, 2.0-liter "i" and 184-hp, 2.5-liter "s" models as you might think. The "i" is plenty quick for most needs, and it’ll net you an extra mile per gallon or two overall. Both engines have the same personality and are very smooth all the way up the rev range.

There's one big advantage for the 2.5-liter, 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 rpm; as a result, the 2.5 feels noticeably stronger at the lower end of the rev range, which should make it an even better companion for the automatic transmission.

The Mazda 3 also excels in general drivability. Its steering feels precise—there’s never excess body motion—and the four-wheel disc brakes (even on the base SV) are confidence-inspiring. Transmissions offer a nice set of ratios (except for the odd 1-2 gap we noticed in our automatic test car) 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.

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.

When you want to drive quickly, you can hit the Sport button on "s" models for slightly more aggressive throttle response and 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 a slide—all in the name of fun, right?

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.

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2016 Mazda MAZDA3

Comfort & Quality

The 2016 Mazda 3 has the look and feel of a more expensive car inside, although its headroom is a casualty of the swoopier roofline.

The 2016 Mazda 3 has some pretty impressive materials and interior appointments, but some issues with interior space and ride noise keep it from being at the head of its class.

With the last redesign that the 3 got a couple of years ago, it made some major gains in interior trims; yet there were some steps backward, however—mostly the consequences of the Mazda 3's fashionable exterior.

From the front seats forward, the Mazda 3 feels premium, and materials are a major step forward for Mazda—even in some cases better than what’s offered in the latest Mazda 6. Yet, the interior surface alongside the rear doors is a hard surface that has a slightly different sheen and is just hard plastic (Mazda isn’t the only offender; it’s also in the Honda Civic, for instance). The headliner itself is another area of disheartening cheapness; in both top-of-the-line Grand Touring we spent time with, it felt like flimsy cardboard covered by a felt-like material, with the entire section a bit loose over the moonroof mechanism. In short, you don't have to look far to see the cost-cutting.

By current compact-car standards, the ride is also a bit busy (it would have been ahead of the class norm a few model years ago, but attention to ride refinement has transformed many on-a-budget offerings). You might call it ideal, but only if you've driven on smooth-surfaced Southern California roads. The ride in lower-level "i" models is a bit better.

In refinement, the 2016 Mazda 3 is reasonably good, as Mazda has added sound-deadening material behind the dash, under the floor mats, and elsewhere. Engine noise has been nicely quelled, yet road noise is still there, perhaps more so than in most rivals.

And now there's the matter of interior space. With its long hood and swept-back proportions, the 2015 Mazda 3 is attractive on the outside—verging on sexy—but that design is quite limiting on interior space and utility.

In back, two 6-footers will be able to get comfortable enough, provided those in front aren’t also tall. We’d advise against the moonroof, because it brings a very odd, scooped-out headliner that will leave taller passengers feeling like the roof is bowing around them. Rear occupants sit almost 2 inches higher than in the old car, but the way the rising window line limits window space still makes it one of the more claustrophobic small-car experiences—especially in the hatchback.

If you’re mainly planning to use the Mazda 3’s front seats, that might not matter; for the most part this compact-car family offers pleasing interior appointments, and even the look and feel of a premium-brand vehicle in some respects.

Those front seats are very comfortable and supportive, with lower cushions that are long enough for taller drivers; and the nice, contrasting perforated-leather upholstery in the Grand Touring feels luxury-caliber. Mazda has enlarged the cushion of the driver's seat and completely redesigned its front seat backs to provide a more natural sitting position and increase lateral support.

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2016 Mazda MAZDA3

Safety

The Mazda 3 earns top crash-test ratings all around, and its active-safety set is impressive.

The 2016 Mazda 3 is one of the best choices in its class that you can make for safety; and that's just considering its occupant protection. Above that, the 3 has some of the best available active-safety features, still going well beyond what's offered in some other vehicles in its segment.

The 3 has been tested by the IIHS, and it's earned top "Good" results in all categories—including the new small overlap frontal test. As a result, it has been awarded the IIHS Top Safety Pick+ distinction. When equipped with the optional crash-prevention, the Mazda 3 also gets an "Advanced" front crash protection rating from the IIHS. Furthermore, the 3 achieves top five-star ratings in all of the federal government's crash tests, except the calculated rollover test, where it earned four.

All Touring and Grand Touring models come with blind-spot monitoring with rear traffic alerts, and "i" Touring models include a rearview camera, as do "i" Grand Touring and all "s" models.

Other available active-safety features in the 3 include automatic emergency braking, which uses laser sensors to help anticipate a collision and activate emergency braking automatically (under 19 mph); frontal-collision warning, which warns the driver of hazards ahead (at speeds between 9 and 92 mph); and lane-departure warning, which warns the driver when they're straying from lane markings. Automatic high beams and adaptive front lighting are also available.

Outward visibility is surprisingly obscured in the Mazda 3. This is in part due to the upwardly curved window line, but it also stems from the thick door pillars. And while the hatchback's blacked-out glass leads you to believe there’s a big window back there, the actual translucent real estate is quite minimal. So the rearview camera and items like the blind-spot monitor are helpful, even in this small car.

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2016 Mazda MAZDA3

Features

Mazda has dropped the base price for the 2016 Mazda 3 and buffed up its feature set; there's even more to like.

The 2016 Mazda 3 has become an even better deal than it was last year, with more features than before—and the automaker has made it easier this year to add some popular features without moving to one of the pricier models.

That said, there are still plenty of reasons to recommend the top-of-the-line Grand Touring models, too; they can be loaded up with some technology features that aren't typically found in this kind of affordable compact.

Models equipped with the Mazda Connect infotainment system—in all but the SV sedan—can connect a smartphone via Bluetooth for expanded capability. Text-to-voice technology lets the system read e-mail and text messages aloud through the car's audio system, as well as display short messages on the touchscreen. Users can select from among preset replies and have the system send them. The system will also read updates from Twitter and Facebook, and a "Shout" audio function lets users choose among responses. The system's software can also be updated, meaning features can be added in the future without having to swap out physical hardware.

The navigation system is clear and straightforward, and we like the point-of-interest integration. However, when we were moving along, it wouldn’t let us pan over to an alternate destination while we were using the map view—a function that you have in nearly every other system.

The display is crisp, colorful, high in contrast, and it’s quick and responsive, with no lag whatsoever—a big improvement over the system in the Mazda 6 and CX-5. The layout of the menus is better, too, and you can either navigate through them on the touch screen or use the controller to move between the tabs and screens. We like how it offers multiple controls and redundancies, yet the lack of a simple "back" button within some screens is frustrating.

In calling out the various Mazda 3 models, Mazda uses "i" to designate the smaller engine and "s" for the larger one. Either engine can be paired with any trim level or body style, with the exception of the SV, which is limited to "i" sedan versions.

All models, even the base SV, include keyless ignition and entry, air ducts for the rear-seat passengers, a tilt/telescope steering column, and power windows, locks, and mirrors; and for 2016, Mazda has added a rearview-camera system to all models.

The SV Sedan has a one-piece folding rear seat, and it makes do with a four-speaker sound system with an auxiliary input. Curiously, SV models with the automatic transmission include a stripped-down version of the gauge cluster without a rev counter.

Sport models step up to some pieces of equipment that many shoppers won't want to go without: a 60/40-split folding rear seat, cruise control, Bluetooth, a CD player, power mirrors, and the Mazda Connect infotainment system with navigation.

Those affordable i Sport models can be dressed up for 2016 with the addition of a $1,000 Preferred Equipment Package that adds upgraded trim and upholstery, rain-sensing wipers, 16-inch wheels, and blind-spot and rear cross-traffic systems, among other additional items.

Touring models add alloy wheels, heated mirrors, a rear spoiler, fog lamps, a rear-seat armrest, premium sport seats, and some minor leather trim, as well as blind-spot monitoring and rear traffic alert.

Add the Touring Technology Package to the "i" Touring, and you get items that are all included in the "s" Touring and Grand Touring: dual-zone climate control, an overhead console, illuminated vanity mirrors, and a power moonroof.

For 2016, there's also a new Popular Equipment Package that adds to the Touring model (for $1,100) dual-zone climate control, Bose surround sound, satellite radio, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.

The "i" Grand Touring models get a long list of upgrades that include vinyl upholstery, automatic climate control, a power driver's seat, the moonroof, and front heated seats. There’s also upgraded Bose nine-speaker audio, plus satellite radio and HD radio.

Step up to the 3 "s" Touring, and along with the larger, 2.5-liter engine you get steering-wheel paddle shifters, LED running lights, halogen fog lamps, bi-xenon headlights, larger 18-inch alloy wheels, and a Sport mode button for automatic-transmission models.

At the top of the lineup is the "s" Grand Touring model, which gains perforated leather upholstery, the moonroof, bi-xenon headlamps with Adaptive Front Lighting, and rain-sensing wipers. For 2015, Mazda adds Homelink transmitter functionality to the auto-dimming rearview mirror.

Adaptive front lighting and rain-sensing wipers are included in the "s" Grand Touring, while if you add the Technology Package you get a long list of additional active-safety features (detailed in the Safety section)—plus the i-ELOOP system and active grille shutters, which together modestly increase EPA-rated fuel efficiency.

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2016 Mazda MAZDA3

Fuel Economy

Frugal can be a lot of fun; and the fuel-efficienct 2016 Mazda 3 is living proof.

Without turbocharging or hybrid systems, the 2016 Mazda 3 manages to beat many models in this class, many of which have smaller engines and less power.

Part of the secret is that Mazda engineered both of the engines in the Mazda 3 from scratch to meet current demands for emissions and efficiency; both engines offer a very high (13:1) compression ratio, as well as direct injection, variable valve timing, and a host of other measures that are aimed at saving fuel without introducing sluggishness.

We've seen some great overall mileage figures with the Mazda 3. Even with the 2.5-liter engine, relaxed daily commuting conditions should let you easily top 30 mpg.

Mazda 3 "s" models, which come with the larger, 2.5-liter engine, are rated at 28 mpg city, 39 highway, 32 combined for the sedan and 27/37/31 mpg for the hatchback for automatic models, or 25/37/29 mpg for sedans and 26/35/29 mpg for hatchbacks when equipped with the manual, according to the EPA.

Mazda 3 "i" sedans (which use the 2.0-liter engine) achieve EPA ratings of 29/41/33 mpg with the manual transmission, or 30/41/34 mpg with the automatic; hatchback models lose 1 mpg on the highway.

Add the Tech package to the automatic "s" Grand Touring model boosts the hatchback's mileage up to 28/39/32 mpg, and puts the sedan at 29/40/33 mpg. Those elevated numbers come from the Tech Package's regenerative engine braking system and active grille shutters. Simply put, the system, called "i-ELOOP," stores electricity in capacitors to run the various electrical systems. The electricity is supplied to the capacitors by the alternator, which runs only when decelerating and braking so as to remove any drag from the system for better efficiency under power.

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October 7, 2016
2016 Mazda MAZDA3 5-Door HB Manual i Touring

Sporty looking but slow off the mark

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This is a seriously good looking car but sporty looks belie what's going on under the bonnet. Even though it's got 2 litres to go at, it's desperate for a turbo. Having said that it will pull away in an... + More »
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April 24, 2016
2016 Mazda MAZDA3 5-Door HB Automatic s Grand Touring

Half of an M3 for one third the price

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My 2016 Mazda3 HB is a solid, comfortable, small car that gets better the more enthusiastically is it driven. It's really a 4-dr coupe as there's not a lot of rear seat/leg room. It's agile in town with good... + More »
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January 25, 2016
2016 Mazda MAZDA3 4-Door Sedan Automatic i Grand Touring

Very Great and Sweet Ride :)

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I love the Mazda 3 Sedan because when i was buying the car my main objective was Affordability , Stylish , Navigation System and Fuel Economy. So Far I Love it . If you see fuel consumption at 9.5/100 Litres... + More »
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January 11, 2016
2016 Mazda MAZDA3 5-Door HB Automatic s Grand Touring

What an amazing car. I couldn't be happier

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What a great car; The engine is responsive and the drive quality is fantastic. Sport mode absolutely lives up to its name, and you can engage it while in the manual shifting mode of the car. The active radar... + More »
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December 12, 2015
2016 Mazda MAZDA3 5-Door HB Automatic i Touring

Affordable,Stylish Automobile

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The Mazda has a smooth,comfortable ride,with adequate leg room space in front and back. The hatchback has a good size cargo area to meet most needs of storage space,etc. Reasonably priced,affordable for a... + More »
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August 23, 2015
2016 Mazda MAZDA3 5-Door HB Automatic i Touring

A Great Mazda for the Family

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It has a great body with wonderful interior. It has features found in luxury cars. Our unit is made in Japan so the quality is good. It even has a comfortable ride and the 1.5 liter engine is very capable. The... + More »
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August 13, 2015
2016 Mazda MAZDA3 4-Door Sedan Automatic s Touring

Excelent car, fullfil all requirements

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Everything excelent! Real superb handling, real enjoy driving! Very nice features. A premium car with normal price.
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Styling 9
Performance 8
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