When Mazda introduced its 3 model, in 2004, it had a winner. Almost right out of the gate, it sold like hotcakes and was so far ahead of its predecessor, the Protégé, it might as well have come from a different manufacturer.
Not hard to see why. It was driver-friendly, comfortable, lively, featured world-class styling, a high level or refinement, and was arguably the best handling model in its class. It also heralded a change in fortunes for the company, who launched the 3 worldwide, in France. Once the ball was rolling, Mazda could hardly keep up with global demand. The Sport model, in particular, was very desirable, featuring a level of refinement a cut above all of its rivals.
Things went swimmingly until 2008, when the next generation appeared. Not quite as sexy, it featured a cute front grille treatment that looked like some sort of mechanical smiley-face. I always thought it looked like the bulbous, cocaine-propelled spaceship in the animated movie, Heavy Metal. Still a nice package, but not as iconic or distinctive as its predecessor.
So here we are with the third generation, which has shed its cuteness and ill-conceived front grille and comes with a little more gravitas than generation number two. Still not as purposeful looking as the first generation, IMO, but better.
It comes in three versions: GS, FX, and GT. The first two put the emphasis on economy, with a thrifty 2.0 litre four cylinder engine and good – but not exceptional – fuel economy. The GT Sport, meanwhile, which is what I drove this time around, has a lively 2.5 litre four cylinder that develops 184 horsepower, giving the 3 a higher level of performance and significantly greater fun quotient. It can be had with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic. My tester had the manual, and a smoother, more agreeable shift mechanism doesn’t exist in this market. Couldn’t ask for a nicer gearbox.
The 3’s other attributes are in evidence as well. It still has a high level of driveability, with excellent peripheral visibility, easy ingress and egress, and decent storage. With the back seat up, there’s 350 litres of room back there, which is comparable to, oh, the Ford Focus or VW Golf.
A couple of observations. First up, fuel economy is definitely not what it should be. In town, the 3 Sport devours 9.3 litres per 100 kilometres, which is what you’d expect from a V6 engine. On the highway, things are a little better: 6.4 L /100 km, but still, competitive fuel economy, which has always been one of this car’s shortcomings, is still an issue. Interestingly, the six-speed automatic delivers slightly better fuel consumption: 8.4 and 6.1 L /100 km, respectively.
Second, Mazda’s entertainment/communication display is awful. A screen located mid-dash displays things like Bluetooth, Yelp, am/fm radio, and GPS, if the car has it. But it’s all controlled by a knob located behind the shifter and navigating your way around simple things like volume control, tone, and station presets is distracting and annoying. This set-up is used throughout Mazda’s model lineup and is arguably the most poorly-designed one in the industry.
On the other hand, the “Active Driving Display”, which projects speed and navi directions onto the windscreen in front of the driver, is a nice touch, and is actually useful. This is also known as Heads-up Display and is utilized by lots of other manufacturers. And Mazda had adopted regenerative braking to replenish the vehicle’s battery charge. This set-up is usually found on hybrids, but it’s a good idea here as well. Mazda calls it the i-ELOOP system and it’s a great idea.
Last but hardly least, is price. After the dust settles, my 3 GT Sport goes out the door for just over thirty large. The optional Luxury Package, which includes leather upholstery, a garage door opener, and power driver’s seat, adds $1500, but even so, this is a pricey little package and base price is still just a titch under $27,000. All things considered, the GS/GX might be the way to go here. Yes, you’ll give up some 30 horsepower, but the GS, for example, starts at about seventeen grand, with another three large on top of that if you want air conditioning and an automatic (they come together in this trim). Still no bargain, but easier to take than the GT.
That said, the third generation 3 is still an agreeable vehicle to spend time in. It has less road noise than a Civic, is sexier than a Corolla, and has a greater sense of refinement than a Nissan Versa or Sentra.
AT A GLANCE
Engine: 2.5 litre four cylinder
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Drive: Front-wheel drive
Horsepower: 184hp @ 5700 rpm
Torque: 185 ft. lb. @ 3250 rpm
Base Price: $26,995; as tested $30,190
Fuel Economy: 9.3 litres per 100 kilometres (city); 6.4 litres per 100 kilometres (hwy). Regular fuel.
Alternatives: VW Golf, Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Nissan Versa, Hyundai Elantra GT, Kia Forte5, Ford Focus.