The Mazda 3 has been the best driving small car on sale in America almost since its introduction. Adding Skyactiv fuel-savings tech to it also made it one of the most frugal. But competition never sleeps, and the Mazda is now beginning to show its age.
To address this, some recent updates to the 3’s infotainment system have been made. A large, centrally-mounted monitor now comfortably fills the space just above the climate controls. No longer do you need to squint to see where you are on the previous ___-inch nav screen. Software is by ____, and while not the last word in refined looks, it works adaquitely. Some areas of the interface still need work, however. An example would be that when you toggle the steering wheel button “down” to change radio presets, the system switches to the next one above, and vice-versa. At least they finally added a USB port—and in the right place too—hidden away in the center console.
Otherwise, the 3’s interior remains competitive, though some the leather doesn’t feel as nice as the Dodge Dart’s, and there’s no option for such sybaritic comforts as a heated steering wheel. More distressing is the lack of a backup camera. While some might do perceived quality better or offer more features, the Mazda still trumps everything for driver satisfaction. Its steering is a model for others; it offers great clarity of feedback, excellent weighting, and controls chassis that is incredibly fun on the right road, yet refined and decent riding on those that aren’t. The test car’s six-speed manual gearbox and feelsome clutch are also as good as such get in an economical, front-drive car.
The available six-speed automatic is also smooth and responsive, though it could use a automatic “sport” mode. Coupled to the terrific Skyactiv 2-liter engine, either is part of the best small car drivetrain in the business for its combination of stellar real-world economy and pleasingly smooth, refined operation. While others such as Hyundai have recently come up for criticism when it turned out their MPG claims were exaggerated, I have yet to drive a Skyactive-powered 3 that doesn’t beat its EPA numbers. All while having much more fun than in something like a Prius or Yaris.
About the only place the 3 really is showing chinks in its armor is in its exterior styling. The previous design regime’s smiley-face front ends didn’t look great when they debuted, and have aged badly. The wheel/tire package (which helps with stellar economy) also undermines the Mazda’s look, making its exaggerated front fenders look bloated and rear look less taught. The new Hyundai Elantra GT five-door shows how it should be done. But if beauty is more than skin deep, the Mazda 3 still is gorgeous.
EPA ratings: 27/38; 21mpg combined
Price as tested: $25,855
Here is what Mazda has to say about the 3.