The Good: Playful handling, you’ll never have trouble finding it in the parking lot.
The Bad: Hefty price for a compact car – a really compact car.
The Verdict: A good little car trying to be more than it is.
In the economy car market, buyers tend to consider one factor above all others – price. Admittedly, cost plays a role in most vehicular transactions (unless you’re lucky enough to be cross-shopping Ferraris and Lamborghinis, in which case, screw you), but especially so in the cheaper segments of the market, where buyers tend to be…well, let’s just say it: poorer. If they had more money, logic goes, they’d buy a larger car.
So the $24,445 sticker price of my Mazda3 came as quite a shock. “Who in their right mind would spend 25 grand on this tiny car?” I asked myself. Yet while passersby on the sidewalk clearly heard me, their responses involved veering away from the man talking to himself instead of answering my question.
If you need a sedan for that kind of money, a Honda Accord EX automatic runs only $670 more, with great handling and interior room that seems limo-like in comparison. Even within Mazda’s own ranks, the larger Mazda6i Touring automatic can be had for $23,600.
In general, added performance tends to be the main reason compact buyers tolerate higher price tags – but the 3s only offers 167 horsepower from its 2.5 liter four-cylinder. A Honda Civic Si sedan can be yours for $22,815 and offers thirty more horsepower and a racier suspension – and hell, Mazda’s own MazdaSpeed 3 goes for $23,945, and offers 263 horsepower and a lot more driving fun.
So how does Mazda justify this price? In a word repeated three times: features, features, features. The 3s is loaded with enough gear to make a Mercedes blush: xenon headlights that turn with the steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth (which refused to work on my tester), and heated leather seats with power controls for the driver. An optional 10-speaker Bose stereo and moonroof also came on my tester; however, it lacked a few other options, such as a navigation system. Check off every option possible, and you’ll be confronted with a $26,285 tab.
To be sure, they’re nice features to have – some more so than others. Heated seats, for example, are awfully handy come the colder months, as they usually take less time to warm up than the entire interior of the car, and the high-powered swiveling headlights could save your life if they light up a Sasquatch in the road that much earlier. But for the most part, they’re like whipped cream on top of your Ben & Jerry’s – nice to have, but hardly necessary.
Luckily, the basics of this particular sundae are quite tasty even without all the toppings. The cheapest of the range can be had for a mere $15,795 – but at that price, you’d better know how to use a clutch, because you can’t get an automatic on the bargain-basement i SV model. Nor can you have air conditioning or power locks, so it’s perfect for anyone who feels nostalgic for driving back in 1979. (Sadly, a CD player is standard, but you could always cover it up with electrical tape.)
The best bet of the range is the i Touring model, which offers a Goldilocks-like mixture of features (16” wheels, Bluetooth, power locks with keyless entry, traction control and cruise control) and price ($18,250 – a little more if you want the automatic). However, that model – like all Mazda3s with an “i” suffix – comes with a 148-horsepower 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine. If you want the bigger 2.5 liter, you’ve gotta step up to the s Sport; it’ll cost $1,240 more than the i Touring, but at least they’re kind enough to throw in electroluminescent gauges and a “welcome lighting system.”
Luckily, both i and s models come with the same suspension setup – meaning even stripper models should be plenty of fun when the road turns twisty. Mazda has done a good job in the last decade making sure “zoom-zoom” isn’t just a slogan whispered by one of those creepy kids from The Bloodening.
On the highways and byways of Westchester County, the Mazda3 proved a willing playmate (does that sound dirty to you, too?), bobbing and weaving through tight turns and long sweepers quite happily. For its part, the engine provides adequate power; while it’s not likely to be confused with the Batmobile anytime soon, the 3s accelerates with enough verve to keep from feeling underpowered. (However, spirited drivers will definitely want to become accustomed to the manual shift gate of the 5-speed automatic…if they haven’t decided to buy the MazdaSpeed3.)
Still, one might expect a little more performance – or at least craziness – out of a car with the sort of styling the 3 exhibits. No dowdy Corolla looks here – this Mazda isn’t afraid to let its freak flag fly. Mazda describes the car’s styling as “Nagare inspired,” after a recent concept car, but given its Japanese heritage, angular headlights and utterly enormous maw, “anime inspired” would probably be a better way of describing it. (Though “whale inspired” might work too, given that it looks like it could suck in its body weight in krill every day.)
Inside, the sporty design theme continues onto the dashboard, where a high-mounted display makes glancing over to check the radio frequency quick and easy. The large central-mounted audio controls are pleasantly easy to use –more so than many of the complex computer systems in far more expensive cars, even.
Still, the interior has a ways to go before it could be considered perfect; the interior plastics seem awfully hard; it would be excusable in a $15,000 car, but when you add on ten grand of options to that same car, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask for a classier feel to the interior. And what’s with the retro pixilated display for the radio? Yeah, red is better for night vision, but is there any reason it has to look like it’s from the Reagan administration? Maybe Mazda and Mitsubishi share a supplier.
Interior room is tight at best, cramped at worst. Even the front seats are a little tight for people of Conan O’Brien-like proportions (such as myself), while the back seat is just about useless with someone my size up front. It’s small enough to be a potential deal breaker for potential buyers – though if they’re considering the Grand Touring model, they might just sacrifice the leather seats and buy a much more accommodating Mazda6 instead.
The Bottom Line:
The Mazda3 is a fun-to-drive little car ideal for those who want to stand out. Lanky people might want to look elsewhere, but if you fit inside, you’ll probably be quite happy.
The Grand Touring model isn’t the best deal in the lineup – at this price point, buyers are more likely to cross-shop with larger sedans better able to fit their lives. Most people will probably consider cheaper trim levels that offer most of the important features for a much more reasonable monthly payment.
But whether you spend 15 or 25 grand, you’re still getting the same car beneath the surface – a playful compact that’ll make you smile along with it.
Base Price/Price As Tested: $23,050/$24,445
0-60: 7.7 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver; manual transmission model)
Fuel Economy: 22 city/29 highway (EPA estimates)
Competitors: Honda Civic, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus