Review: The 2014 Mazda 3 Is A Compact Statement

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.






About the Author

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he’s running, because he’s one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.

  • $29,185 !!!?? FFS, man! That’s only $800 shy of a Mercedes-Benz CLA!

    • KJ

      Yes, but what do you get with base CLA?

      • Jo Borras

        A Mercedes.

        • KJ

          Right, just the name without the bells and whistles. A real comparison would be fully loaded at 46k for this car.

          • Huh? That’s not a comparison- a comparison that consumers make is “What can I buy with ‘x’ budget?”, and they look at cars in that price range. Even without all the bells and whistles, the Benz has a name, a reputation, and an upscale dealer experience that Mazda can’t match.

          • KJ

            True, but consumers also will check the features they would get at a particular price point. Firstly, you probably won’t cross shop between a MB and a Mazda though one can argue CLA250 is a down market car for MB. Mazda is still in the budget segment though it is moving upmarket and it’s in no way competing with the MB. Secondly, most cars nowadays will overlap in pricing going from one segment to the other. You can no longer expect a standard car loaded to be far below the price point of a premium base car.
            The decision factor will also lie on the content of the car you are getting.
            So if you were to go with X budget yes you can potentially qualify cars across different scales but ultimately it is what you are looking for in a car that will be deciding factor. Lastly, I am not sure how important dealer experience is. I just don’t want to get ripped off by a sales guy and I want the service center I can trust. But if the car loves dealer visit (MBs are known for quality problems) then it kills the experience.

  • David Meyer

    @Chris: There are really two “cars”, here. The Mazda3 “i” and the Mazda3 “s”. You tested the “s”, the model with the larger engine and the automatic transmission – and ALL the tech gear. And you are complaining about the PRICE? Surf over to the “build-your-own” and see what the top of the “i” line costs – especially with the manual transmission.
    Saves HOW many thousand$?
    BTW: if fuel efficiency is important to you, stop using that “Sport” button, or stop testing how fast you can get from light to light. You DO realize that your behavior is optional, right? While the “i” might not be as quick as the “s” in “Sport” mode, it gets better gas milage than the competition and still accelerates better.
    @Jo: yes … less than $1,000 shy of the LOWEST price for a CLA. Close to the entry-price for an ILX, an A4, a BMW 3, an IS, and a couple other expensive names you might know. And offering a roomier back seat, as well! The absolute TOP of the Mazda3 line(s) is just under the lowest available price of these various other cars … similar size, similar performance, don’t bother to compare the MPG (even while enjoying it).

    • Christopher DeMorro

      I can only test the car I’m given to driven, and from what I understand the smaller engine translates into an entirely different driving experience. And as I said in the review, once you hit the Sport button, with its crisper shifters and better acceleration, it’s hard to go back.

      That’s the real Tale of Two Cars here.

      I drive each car in the manner it seems best suited, as though I were a legitimate buyer interested in this *very* vehicle. I came away impressed with the Mazda 3 in so many ways, but as-equipped, in this price range, there are LOTS of cars to choose from that offer all manner of exciting driving experiences. I reported what I got, driving the car in a way it seems to have been built for. I mean, it’s Mazda, the Zoom-zoom brand. This car is FUN to drive, and I’d certainly recommend people check it out.

      But there’s a very specific sort of buyer for this car, and I think Mazda is filling in for Saab as the youthful, geeky, kinda-fast-but-not-overly-so brand. I just don’t get why you’d even offer lane departure warning systems in a car like this. In the Kia Cadenza, it totally makes sense, and I said as much.

      In this Mazda 3? I’d rather see a Track Apps feature like in the Ford Mustang.

      Anyways, I hear what you’re saying, but just understand that I’m tasked to review the car I am given, not the other models Mazda makes. It’s like saying I know how a 2014 Shelby GT500 handles because I’ve driven a Mustang V6 during a trip to Washington. Maybe that’s a little drastic, but suffice to say, with a different engine and a manual transmission (which is NOT offered on the bigger motor) makes for a different driving experience…and take out all the tech, the leather seats, and well, aren’t we talking about a different car?

    • Jo Borras

      A roomier back seat does not a reasonable value proposition make, duder. The fact that this is even possible makes me think Mazda is playing a pretty deceptive pricing game. I’d much rather see a Honda-like, simple price structure that didn’t go nuts like this at all.

      • David Meyer

        @Jo: If it were just “a roomier back seat”, I’d most certainly agree with you. That comment was aimed at the similar sized models offered by the pricier brands, offering less room for more money.
        Mazda offers the Mazda3 i, with a 2.0L engine and a bit more “go” than your generic appliance Corolla or Civic. These models also have fewer features … the LEAST expensive even has steel wheels, like most of those Civics and Corollas! The car tested, though, was a Mazda3 s, with a 2.5L engine – even more “go” and a thicker feature list.
        The “i” needs lots of options to reach ~$25K while the “s” 5-dr can be puffed up nearer $30K. What’s the price range for the big-engine Civic? AFAIK, there IS no big-engine Corolla. And neither of those offer a 5-door model. The Corolla comes as a 4-door sedan. Period. Is that all you want for a “choice”? Too simple!

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  • My 1/2 cents

    Mazda’s “connect system” is a big joke. It’s full of customer complaints and bugs. The fixed LCD screen is a definite eye sore. Mazda sales are down substantially in most markets compared to the same period in 2013. Mazda skimping out (or removing them altogether) with basic important details like illuminated glove box, a new tiny glove box, a seda that doesn’t allow the seats to be folded. What does all this say about Mazda or even the author of the above blog?

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