2014 Mazda3 first drive review: The MazdaNeed3

2014 Mazda3 5-Door

Mazda’s all-new Mazda3 5-Door blends aesthetic with athletic.

San Diego, CA – In June of 2003 Mazda management turned off ‘cruise’ and, with the impending intro of the all-new Mazda Mazda3, turned up the wick on a product program with a new sense of both urgency and relevance. And while Mazda’s overall lineup remained – over that next decade – a work in progress (what model program isn’t?), there was no argument with the success of its Mazda3. Ten years later, with the arrival of an all-new third-gen 2014 Mazda3, Mazda would seem to have again struck design and marketing gold; the 3’s still a charm.

A new Mazda3 may not carry the import for Mazda that Ford’s Model A once held for Ford, but one can’t minimize the impact the C-segment sedan and hatch have had on the Hiroshima-based company’s resurgent success and rising bottom line. With more than 3.5 million units sold since its 2004 (model year) launch, the Mazda3 is the brand’s most important model, accounting for roughly 30% of global sales and fully 40% of sales in the U.S. And while the 2nd-gen redesign for the 2010 model year may have given some (at least those with decent eyesight) pause, it did little to erode the model momentum.

That 2nd-gen angularity – and smiley-face front fascia – is replaced with Mazda’s new KODO design language, first seen in production on the new CX-5 crossover two years ago and reinforced on the all-new Mazda6 introduced for 2013. On the newest ‘3’ the basic proportions of its two previous gens remain more-or-less intact, but the wheelbase is stretched, overall length is shortened, and those creases added to a singularly smooth shape in 2010 have been melded into a more fluid, organic form. From virtually any angle this is more than a new Mazda3; by most subjective and objective measurement it offers a singular – and signature – design in this way-competitive segment.

2014 Mazda3 Interior

2014 Mazda3 Grant Touring 5-door: Spacious feel, upmarket adds and enhanced functionality.

Inside, the changes wrought by Mazda’s interior design team may not be as dramatic, but they’re no less tasteful. Gone is the preponderance of what seemed to be plastic for plastic’s sake. In its place is a way-tasteful combination of color and texture, with an emphasis on reducing visual clutter while upping its functionality. Most notable is the separate installation of a Nav/Infotainment screen above the dash rather than in it. And while the screen takes on the visual feel of a small TV it leaves the instrument panel and HVAC controls alone, creating a visual lightness you could almost think of as mid-century modern. Were it, of course, mid-century.

If you like the Mazda3’s updated appearance, you’ll love the feel behind the wheel. The steering wheel is almost perfect in overall size and rim diameter, and does nothing to obscure your view of the instrumentation. In pulling the A-pillars back toward the driver, the design team opened up the view available to both driver and passenger, creating an expansive feel in front and to the sides. Only in the rear does the Mazda3’s coupe-like profile impede (very slightly) rearward visibility; it becomes a non-issue with proper positioning of your rearview mirrors.

Seating in our Grand Touring 5-door was covered in black leatherette, whose feel and texture supplied a convincing substitute for the real, grass-fed alternative. The front seat shape was a seemingly optimal blend of decent lateral support (Zoom-Zoom) and easy access (Room-Room?). In the back, you won’t confuse the available space with that of VW’s Passat, but the accommodation will certainly provide the kids with a play station or full-size adults a lunch or dinner run. For those regularly car-pooling with four other passengers we’ll suggest the Mazda5 or CX-9.

Of course, this newest Mazda3 incorporates the full course menu of SkyActiv technologies. Those, rolled out with a trial dosage on the ’12 Mazda3, constitute a holistic approach to powertrain, structure and manufacture. The end result is an efficiency that puts the Mazda3 fully into the 40-mpg club, with little diminishment of the character that makes Mazda, well, Mazda.

The majority of our intro time in the hills east of San Diego was spent behind the wheel of the 2.0 liter 5-door equipped with 6-speed manual. If, like me, you enjoy the essential simplicity of a Miata, but have a very real need for four doors and hatch, the 2.0 liter/manual fills the bill completely. The suspension is taut, the steering – with actuation via electric power assist – is connected, and the Mazda3’s relatively light weight makes the platform eminently tossable. On a route where twists and turns were maximized, the Mazda3’s 155 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque never felt strained, while the platform never lost its composure.

2014 Mazda3 5-Door

Mazda3 5-Door is both fun and functional.

Time with the 2.0 liter/auto was more limited, but we found it to be a viable alternative for those with two left feet or – more darkly – no left feet. Again, response is good, highway speeds relaxed and the combo does everything asked of it. One contributor to the goodness of the smaller powertrain is the bump in usable torque at the sweet spot in the rpm range. While the overall output is essentially the same as in 2012, the fun index is upped significantly.

The upmarket option is Mazda’s 2.5 liter, and a brief drive in San Diego left us more ambivalent. Sure, 184 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque are significant bumps, while the mileage penalty – but a couple of miles per gallon whether in the city or on the highway – is insignificant. But throttle and transmission mapping in search of the optimal mileage has left the powertrain flaccid. And while you can hit the ‘Sport’ button to up the sport, in the 2.0 liter we never felt the need for a button; it was simply sporty. We’d put the 2.5 liter money into summer tires for the 2.0 liter – and then wear ‘em out over a summer.

Mazda – both cleverly and strategically – provided some competitive examples for comparison driving. And while anxious to get back behind the wheel of the ‘3’, brief drives in the new Civic, Corolla and Jetta provided a valid idea of where the Mazda sits in the segment. All four cars are very well executed, and both the new VW’s powertrain (1.8 liter turbocharged four) and Corolla’s redesign were credible and commendable. But at the end of the day this newest Mazda shone the brightest, an established star with a most-successful reboot. In lieu – at least for a time – of a new MazdaSpeed 3, I’ll dub this the MazdaNeed 3. And see about getting one for my ownself.

Pricing and key specifications follow…