Grippy, spry, and perfectly embodying the automaker’s motto of Zoom-zoom, the 2014 Mazda 3 hatchback is an excellent new entry into the competitive compact car market. The superb styling sets it apart from the crowd, and snappy performance puts it out front, but the 2014 Mazda 3 lacks the fuel economy and value of similar vehicles. There’s always a trade-off it seems.
My 2014 Mazda 3 tester came fully loaded to the hilt, and the list of optional features involves a lot of acronyms of varying importance. My loaded Grand Touring Titanium model has the available 2.5 liter SkyActiv engine, an extremely punch motor that feels more powerful than its 184 horsepower let on. The stiffer, lighter SkyActiv body architecture helped Mazda actually shave weight on the new Mazda 3, with my fully-equipped tester coming in at around 3,000 pounds.
The low weight pays off in the corners, where the Mazda 3 grabs onto the road and doesn’t let go. Handling is light but direct, providing plenty of driver feedback. Even as the Mazda 3 wows with its zip, it soothes with a ride that is comfortable and concise, allowing for spirited driving experience that won’t jar your senses on the pothole-marred highways of the Northeast.
The smooth response of the big four-banger is aided by a six-speed automatic transmission, the only option for the 2.5 liter SkyActiv motor, though it’s a damn fine transmission. Equipped with paddle shifters and a Sport button, the transmission holds onto higher gears longer under acceleration, and downshifts in anticipation of oncoming corners, allowing one to power out of a turn. The drivetrain is one of the best you’ll find in this segment, and it does it all without a manual transmission or turbocharger.
Alas, all this performance comes at the cost of fuel economy. On paper the Mazda3 is rated as 38 MPG on the highway with the optional i-ELOOP mild hybrid system, but in the real world the Sport button is a Pandora’s box of sort. Once you’ve driven the Mazda 3 in Sport mode, there’s no going back. Fuel economy suffers a big blow in Sport mode, and while I topped my Mazda 3 tester out at over 40 MPG on the highway with a light foot, my average fuel economy for my week of driving was barely above 30 MPG.
That said, with the way I drive, any car still able to deliver 30 MPG or more deserves some credit.
There’s more to the 2014 Mazda 3 than just the driving experience, as this sprightly compact is chock full of technology. Mazda’s excellent Mazda Connect infotainment system is responsive and easy to use thanks to a knob/joystick that sits between the two front seats. The tablet-like touchscreen looks like it should detach, but trust me, it doesn’t, just like the pop-up Heads-Up Display that displays your speed and GPS directions.
On the negative side, the voice controls weren’t all that intuitive, and the suite of driver-assistance technologies, like lane departure warning and Mazda Smart City Brake, which can automatically apply the brakes in an imminent collision scenario. These features seem out of place in a “driver’s car” like the Mazda though, and the only button I ever used regularly was the Sport button.
Other improvements to the 2014 Mazda 3 include more rear head and legroom, which allows a true six-footer to sit somewhat comfortably. There isn’t a lot of extra room leftover in the hatch area though, with just 20.2 cubic feet of space offered with the back seats up. Fold the seats down and you get just over 47 cubic feet of storage space, which is sizable if not impressive. The Mazda’s raking roofline cuts into the cargo space, though it adds a lot to the sporty look of the hatchback.
Unfortunately, all these tech goodies and performance come at a steep cost, and fully optioned out like my tester is, the 2014 Mazda 3 takes a big bite out of your budget. My tester came in at $29,185, making it amongst the most expensive cars in this segment. In fact, a fully-loaded Focus Titanium still falls about $1,000 short of the Mazda, and that neglects the excellent Focus ST entirely. It’s a hard pill to swallow considering the high level of the competition, and the fact that I can get a 252-horsepower Ford for about $5,000 less than my fully-loaded tester.
Perhaps there’s just a little too much going on here? Mazda has built an all-around excellent car here, but it’s trying to be all things to all people. To get the best tech you need the best engine, but many of these features (like the Heads-Up Display) is just a bunch of unnecessary fluff. How many people are really going to engage the lane departure warning system on a regular basis? Ultimately it just adds to the cost of the car, without enhancing the driving experience.
It certainly doesn’t make the Mazda 3 any less of a car. But in this segment, where price is often the deciding factor for many buyers, the 2014 Mazda 3 bets that buyers are willing to pay a little more for the extra, but often unnecessary, features. It’s a bold move, and I’m not certain it will pay off in the way Mazda hopes. As Jo pointed out in his review of the 2014 Mazda 6, you’d be better served with a lower-priced Mazda 3 that lacks some of the cool gadgets, and mostly-unnecessary technologies as well.
Hopefully I’m wrong, because this is easily a class leader in the compact class. You’ve just got to pay to play.