I’ve owned a couple Mazdas through the years. I’ve liked them for their sporty handling and edgy styling, which sets them apart from many competitors.
The new 2019 Mazda3 Hatchback does nothing to spoil those differentiators. In fact, it improves on the looks and upgrades the interior to make it even more attractive. Mazda also adds all-wheel drive (AWD) as an option, putting it in direct competition with the sporty AWD Subaru Impreza, but with a touch more zip.
But don’t start thinking this review will be a lovefest: The Mazda infotainment system continues to disappoint and I suspect it will put off more than a few potential buyers.
First the good. Mazda makes its formerly optional 2.5-liter SkyActiv-G I4 engine standard across the Mazda3 lineup, which consists of both a hatchback and sedan, three trim levels in the former and four in the later.
The sedan is the price leader with the base going for about $21,000, while a base hatch with cloth interior starts at $24,520, including delivery. The tested utility truck gray (polymetal gray mica) hatch was the top-level Premium with AWD, listing at $29,820. A few options pushed it to $31,460. So, choices run the gamut between base and Premium.
But as I said, the spiffy fuel-efficient SkyActiv-G engine is a winner and not only because it efficiently drinks regular fuel and expels minimal emissions, the engine also delivers a healthy 186 horsepower and matching torque. Rocket? No, but quick enough to be fun and when electronically slipped into its Sport drive mode.
This Mazda will scoot, but like its cousin, the MX-5 (commonly Miata), the Mazda3 feels more sporty than muscular and much of the joy it creates on the road is due to its fine handling. Not racer like, but sports car like, the Mazda3 turns into sharp corners with authority and purpose. There’s good feedback to the wheel that is appropriately firm but not heavy. Fun!
The ride continues to improve from generation to generation, and now with a 107.3-inch wheelbase is the best it has ever been. But Mazda moved back to a torsion bar rear suspension (think previous-gen Mustang), away from a multi-link. While I’ve enjoyed driving many a car with torsion-bar suspension, this still feels a bit choppy on seriously potted roads. Ride is never uncomfortable, but you’ll know you’ve squared up on a pothole.
Mazda uses a six-speed automatic to put its power to use and that works smoothly and efficiently. A few brave souls might prefer the noble six-speed manual, but it’s only available on this top-line Premium hatch, not the sedan or lower hatch models. That may price out a few potential buyers, but if fun is in your top five buying needs, go for the manual.
Inside, the gray tester was much more stylish than past gen 3s with black over red leather dash and red leather seats. Dash trim is chrome, as are the door releases and Bose speaker covers in the doors. There’s black gloss by the shifter and on the console and the steering wheel and shifter are a grainy soft leather.
Fit, finish and quality inside look much improved from earlier models and the cockpit is quieter too. Mazda’s dash layout is clean and easy to understand. I like that the infotainment screen is 8.8 inches wide and nicely tucked into the dash top’s center. It had looked a bit like it was bolted on in the past. This is a more handsome design.
Sadly, Mazda sticks with a big knob on the console to control the infotainment system like BMW did a few years back, but has mostly corrected. This one isn’t the least bit intuitive, even among a couple younger riders I asked to try the system. After a few days, I finally managed to change a channel to one I wanted, but setting or deleting favorites was a mystery and too distracting to easily do while driving.
That’s too bad because mostly the rest of the interior — heck, the whole car — was a winner. The Premium model comes with all the safety features you’d expect, plus heated seats and a good sunroof. Standard too is a head-up display, adaptive front lighting system, paddle shifters and the leather seats.
Front seats are not only heated, but shaped more like you’d find in a performance car with supportive side bolsters both for the hips and back. The driver’s seat is powered with a lumbar support that’s adjustable and there are two seat memory buttons on the dash.
I found the front seats comfy and even a taller rider said headroom was sufficient here. In fact, you sit so low you won’t be able to rest your elbow on the door sill, if that’s something you normally enjoy in summer. Meanwhile the back seat is short on legroom.
Yet there’s good news behind the split rear seat as storage space is spacious with a full 20 cubic feet. If you have more adult friends than cute little car-seat users, the sedan model may be more to your liking. Cargo room shrinks to 13 cubic feet, but the overall car length grows from 175.6 inches in the hatch to 183.5 inches in the sedan. The extra room in the rear seat may save a friendship or two.
Consider too that the Premium model comes with a dual climate control system, manual tilt/telescope steering wheel and a bevy of safety systems. Standard here are smart cruise control, a blind-spot warning system, automatic emergency braking, a lane departure alert and assist feature that can be disabled as needed or desired, plus a driver alertness system that monitors how attentive a driver is being.
One other quirk to mention. Whenever the driver stops the car and puts it in park it automatically sets the parking brake. That would make sense if this were a manual transmission car, but it’s not. This automatic feature means a drover must press a brake release button every time the car is started, just to get it rolling. Can’t say how many times I put the car in reverse only to have it strain against the parking brake as I tried to back from a parking space.
While the test car added a few options, I found the key one to be a wireless charging station for cell phones just below the center stack. It’s a $275 add-on, but I used it daily and bet you will too. Remember too that Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard on all Mazda3s now too.
And earlier I alluded to the Mazda3’s stingy engine, and it was. I got 26.9 miles per gallon in about 70% city driving. The EPA says to expect 24 mpg city and 32 mpg highway. One reason the Mazda3 is so efficient, a cylinder deactivation system that you’ll never notice working. It just cuts out cylinder use while unneeded at speed to save gas.
Luckily for consumers, the Mazda3 is not only much improved and reasonably priced, but a sharp looker and fun to drive.
Hits: Edgy hatchback that’s fun to drive, good acceleration, good handling and now offers AWD. Many safety features standard, plus heated seats, sunroof, Sport drive mode, comfy supportive seats, wide infotainment screen and Mazda3 also is available as a sedan.
Misses: Putting the car in Park sets the parking brake each time so you must press a brake release button just to get rolling each time you start the car. Small car (sometimes a bit choppy) ride and poorly designed infotainment tuning system with knob on console that’s hard to figure out for channel changing or setting favorites.
Made In: Hofu, Japan
Engine: SkyActiv-G 2.5-liter I4, 186 horsepower
Transmission: SkyActiv-Drive 6-speed automatic (Sport mode)
Weight: 3,082 lbs.
Length: 175.6 in.
Wheelbase: 107.3 in.
Cargo: 20.0 cu.ft.
MPG: 24/32, 26.9 (tested)
Base Price: $29,820 (includes delivery)
Major Options: Cargo mat, $90
Floor mats, $125
Illuminated door sill trim plates, $425
Frameless auto-dim mirror, $275
Navigation SD card, $450
Wireless charging pad, $275
Test vehicle: $31,460
Sources: Mazda, Kelley Blue Book
Editor's note: Mark Savage's auto review column, Savage On Wheels, looks at a new vehicle every week and tells consumers what’s good, what’s not so good, and how the vehicle fits into the marketplace.