Mazda has a tradition of building zippy, entertaining small cars, something that's evident in the Mazda 3, which always has been known for its sharp handling and engaging nature. Of course, the Mazda 3 still provides suitable levels of economy and practicality, too. That's because even the base Mazda 3 comes with a refined engine and a surprisingly sophisticated suspension and interior, while higher trims offer more power and plenty of useful convenience and luxury-oriented features.
There have now been three generations of the Mazda 3. Whether you're shopping for a new or used small sedan or hatchback, we highly recommend the Mazda 3.
Current Mazda 3
The Mazda 3 has been fully redesigned for 2014. Compared to the previous (second) generation car, this latest Mazda 3 is sleeker looking and boasts notable improvements in terms of fuel economy, interior quality and feature content.
While some small cars do little more than meet the basic requirements of economic transportation, the Mazda 3 is an overachiever. You'll first notice this in the way the car drives, as it's quick to accelerate and fun around turns. Inside, you'll find a modern, grown-up look and generally high-quality materials. Plus, there are plenty of standard features on the higher trim levels, so your passengers are bound to think you paid more than you actually did.
Two body styles are offered, a sedan and a hatchback. Both are available in 3i and 3s trim levels that are broken into sub-trims. The base 3i SV (a sedan-only trim) gets you the basics, while the 3i Sport adds a few extras like a folding rear seat and Bluetooth. The 3i Touring features alloy wheels, keyless/ignition entry and blind-spot monitoring. On the 3i Grand Touring, you'll get a sunroof, leatherette upholstery, a navigation system and a premium sound system. The upgraded 3s trim level comes in just the Touring and Grand Touring sub-trims. You'll find a similar mix of features, though these 3s versions have a few exclusive features. Extra safety features, including a frontal collision warning system, are also optional on the 3s Grand Touring.
Equipped on 3i models is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque. The 3s gets a more powerful 2.5-liter engine good for 184 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission are offered for the 3i, while the 3s comes standard with the automatic. Either way, fuel economy is impressive for a small car, with combined EPA averages hovering around 32-34 mpg.
On the road, most drivers should be happy with either engine; the 2.0-liter engine provides quicker-than-average acceleration, although it does sound a bit noisy under hard acceleration. The larger 2.5, meanwhile, is quicker still, with only a minimal drop in fuel economy. Also notable is the Mazda 3's nimble handling, a result of its quick steering and nicely tuned suspension that still provides a comfortable ride. Inside, the seating is roomy, even for 6-footers in back, and both the sedan and hatchback offer above-average amounts of cargo space. As a whole, we think the latest Mazda 3 is a top choice for a small car.
Used Mazda 3 Models
The second-generation Mazda 3 debuted for the 2010 model year and ran until 2013. Compared to the original, first-generation car, this 3 has a similar underlying architecture. But improvements were made in terms of interior refinement, ride quality, power and, later, fuel economy.
As has been tradition, this Mazda 3 was available in two body styles: a sedan or a four-door hatchback. There were two main trim levels: 3i and 3s. A variety of sub-trims, such as the SV, Sport, Touring and Grand Touring, offered increasing amounts of standard features. The Grand Touring, in particular, was very well equipped, coming with leather upholstery, a premium sound system, a power driver seat, keyless ignition/entry and the option for xenon headlights and blind-spot monitoring.
One thing you'll want to pay attention to for this generation is what's under the hood. The 3i had a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. For 2010 and '11, it produced 148 hp and 135 lb-ft of torque, and could be paired with either a five-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmission. For 2012 and '13, this engine was still standard on the base SV, but an improved version (the "Skyactiv-G"), was installed on Sport (2013 only), 3i Touring and Grand Touring. This 2.0-liter engine made slightly more power -- 155 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque -- and was considerably more fuel efficient. It came matched to a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic. If you can, this is the four-cylinder to get.
The Mazda 3s trims were powered by a 2.5-liter inline-4 good for 167 hp and 168 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual was standard here, and a five-speed automatic optional. With engine, acceleration was strong, but fuel economy suffered as a result.
There weren't any other major changes to this generation, although Mazda updated the car's styling a little for 2012. For its final year, the 3 received a bigger screen for its optional navigation system. Also, for 2010 only, the 3i SV and 3i Sport didn't come with stability control.
In reviews of the time, we found this generation of Mazda 3 was blessed with athletic handling and -- with the s trim's superior tires -- a healthy amount of grip around turns. The 3's highway ride was smooth enough to please most commuters, although those who prefer softly sprung compacts like Toyota's Corolla might think the 3 is too firm. Inside, the Mazda 3 was a class leader in terms of interior design, quality and feature content. The sedan was a bit less spacious than its competitors, particularly in back, where long-legged people might feel cramped. However, the driver seat offered a wide range of adjustment, and the tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel was a welcome feature.
The original Mazda 3 was produced from 2004-'09. Much of the current car's underpinnings were carried over from its predecessor, so both generations will offer similar driving dynamics. The original base 3 featured essentially the same 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine as today, although in its first two years in production, it lacked variable valve timing. The upgraded inline-4 displaced 2.3 liters, and its output was 156 hp. A four-speed automatic was optional with the 2.3-liter for 2004 and '05, and was replaced by a five-speed auto thereafter. Beginning in 2006, cars sold in California-emissions states were partial-zero-emissions-vehicle certified.
From its introduction, Mazda expanded the number of trim levels from the initial three when the Mazda 3 was launched: i sedan, s sedan and s hatchback. The many convenience and luxury features were available in packages and as stand-alone options. In 2005, Mazda released a SP23 Special Edition as a top-of-the-line trim for both body styles. For '06, the SP23 was gone and the trim levels expanded to include the Touring and Grand Touring trims. Antilock brakes also became standard on all s models.
For 2007, there was a very minor exterior refresh along with a standard auxiliary audio jack and a rear seat armrest for the 3s. Stability control became optional for the first time, but was available on the Touring and Grand Touring trims only. Front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags became standard on all s trim levels the following year. In its final year in production, all Mazda 3 models came standard with antilock brakes, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags.
Like the current car, the original Mazda 3 was the top choice of Edmunds in the economy family sedan segment. It also provided a refined driving experience that reminded us of a junior sport sedan rather than a lowly econobox. Both engines offered satisfying power, though the bigger 2.3-liter engine was noticeably peppier. Fuel economy lagged behind the class standard, however. Other minor gripes involved engine noise and the Mazda 3's firm ride.
While the Mazda 3 represents an attractive used car choice, we'd look for an example equipped with antilock brakes, and if an s model is in your sights, try to get one with stability control.
Read the most recent 2015 Mazda Mazda3 review.
If you are looking for older years, visit our used Mazda Mazda3 page.