The redesigned 2014 Mazda 3 sedan manages to stand out even when it doesn't stand out. It rides on a wheelbase that's identical to most of its competitors, namely the Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra and Toyota Corolla. It's much like them under the hood as well, with its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine turning the front wheels through a six-speed automatic. It's good looking, but it's not startlingly beautiful.
Despite its similarities, however, the 2014 Mazda 3 is a different breed of compact car. This is the sweetest and most comprehensively satisfying to drive small sedan currently available. It's not perfect, but it sure is lovable.
It's almost cuddly good.
Only the Second Full Redesign of the Mazda 3
Mazda has been building strong compacts since 1977, when it introduced the rear-drive GLC. But this is only the third generation of the Mazda 3 name, which was introduced for the 2004 model year. Three generations in 10 years is a pretty quick turnover, but the second Mazda 3 was a worthwhile step forward, and so is this one.
As is typical of sedans in this class, the Mazda 3 has grown slightly. That 106.3-inch wheelbase is up 2.4 inches over the outgoing model, while the overall width is up 1.6 inches and the overall height has dropped 0.6 inch. The overall length is down about half an inch to 180.3 inches, but most of the difference comes from the shape of the bumper cover, not the actual structure.
The general proportions of the new sedan aren't much different from the old one. The nose is still long and flat-topped, the roof is gracefully arched and the trunk is again short. One design change we're glad to see is the elimination of the previous car's dopey, grinning front grille and wedge-shaped flank detailing. In its place is Mazda's latest "Kodo" design theme. On the 2014 Mazda 6, Kodo has produced extravagant fender shapes that seem to have swooped in from a Maserati. The Kodo elements are more subtle in the Mazda 3, with the swoops now suggested in the modeling of the fenders instead of in the shapes themselves.
We Tested the Midgrade Model
A five-door hatchback is again offered, but the subject here is the mainstream four-door sedan. The 2014 Mazda 3 i Touring model we tested is two steps up from the base $17,740 SV model, but three steps down from the top-of-the-line $26,790 S Grand Touring.
Starting at $21,440 with the six-speed automatic transmission, the test car was fortified with a $1,600 Technology package, a $200 charge for the Snowflake White Pearl paint, $125 worth of scuff plates and a $70 cargo mat. Add it all up and this is a $23,435 Mazda 3.
Unfortunately, the test car was also equipped with the 155-horsepower 2.0-liter version of Mazda's direct-injection, DOHC Skyactiv four. And that winds up in a single exhaust outlet out back. Mazda 3s powered by the 184-hp, 2.5-liter version of the engine get a dual chrome-tipped exhaust to let the world know you're a driver of taste, distinction and robust financial wherewithal.
Lightweight but Not Fast
At 2,903 pounds, the 2014 Mazda 3 is svelte by 21st-century standards. But 155 hp can only do so much with that much mass, so the measured performance of the new Mazda 3 is subdued. Letting the transmission shift itself, it traipsed from zero to 60 mph in a languid 8.3 seconds (8.0 seconds with a foot of rollout as on a drag strip) and knocked off the quarter-mile in an easygoing 16.2 seconds at 87.3 mph. The transmission can be shifted manually (push forward for downshifts, pull back for upshifts) but that didn't do anything to improve the numbers.
That doesn't mean it's not useful, though, as that transmission is a blast when running the hilltop roads in Southern California. Dive into a corner and the tranny quickly snicks down to the requested gear. Snap over the sweet electrically assisted power steering, release the brakes and every one of those 155 horses show up to pull you through the apex.
With MacPherson struts up front and a multilink independent system in the rear, the Mazda 3's suspension isn't exotic, but Mazda has tuned it for maximum communication with the driver. Even though the test car wore modest P205/60R16 Yokohama Avid all-season tires on alloy wheels, it felt planted and tenacious under all circumstances. On the skid pad it pulled an average 0.82g whether the traction control was turned on or off. It went through the slalom gates at a drama-free 63.1 mph.
The four-wheel disc brakes never complained when the car was pushed on the street, and the antilock system worked without a peep or utterance. Still, a 133-foot stop from 60 mph isn't overly confidence-inspiring.
It's the Details That Make This Car Special
What's particularly satisfying is how well detailed this car is. For instance, look past the handsome shape of the trapezoidal grille to how it's trimmed in discrete chrome accents that look like they were pulled off a more expensive car. And that chrome trim continues along the side of the car, where it defines the bottom edge of the greenhouse.
As fine as the new 2014 Mazda 3 looks on the outside, it also makes drivers instantly comfortable on the inside. The seats are well shaped and contour to even the oddest-shaped body; the steering wheel is the perfect diameter, thickly padded and covered in black leather with contrasting red stitching; the automatic transmission's shifter has some appropriate heft; and it all feels ergonomically correct.
Still, it's not perfect. The striped upholstery lining looks goofy and feels like a garment bag, while the instrument cluster is clogged up by an unnecessary piece of shiny plastic that segregates the tachometer from the large speedometer. Beyond that, there is some faux carbon-fiber trim that's not only implausible as carbon fiber but harshly ridged, too. You could almost buff your fingernails on those ridges.
Those hiccups aside, the Mazda 3's interior is otherwise thoughtful, comfortable and finished with a high degree of quality. There's plenty of room up front, but adjusting those front seats for a 6-footer does cut severely into the room in back. Mazda claims 35.8 inches of legroom for the rear passenger, which is down 0.4 inch from the second-generation sedan and a vast 5.6 inches behind the 41.4 inches of rear legroom Toyota claims for the also-new 2014 Toyota Corolla. A limousine the Mazda 3 is not.
Excellent Ride and Frugal, Too
Over bumps on surface streets, the 2014 Mazda 3 experiences some impact harshness that can be initially disconcerting. But the ride itself is controlled during cruising speeds and the car runs quietly, with little in the way of tire noise over most surfaces. Compared with the direct competition and from an enthusiast's viewpoint, the Mazda 3 does the best job of balancing handling and ride comfort in its class.
Mazda makes big claims for its Skyactiv technologies in promoting better fuel economy. This includes a regenerative braking system similar to that in a hybrid that scavenges power for later use by the car's electrical system.
During its 1,112-mile stay with Edmunds.com — including lots of pushing to see what it could do — our Mazda 3 averaged a commendable 29.1 mpg. The EPA ratings are at 30 mpg in the city and 41 mpg on the highway, and these seem achievable given a more conservative driving style. And virtually any style would be more conservative than ours.
A Compact Car for a Certain Kind of Driver
In a world of commodity sedans that drive like the legumes they are, the 2014 Mazda 3 offers something slightly different. It has an eagerness the Corolla doesn't offer, and a style that's distinctly different from Honda's Civic.
Most of all, it has a feel that makes you look forward to driving it, whether you're just running errands or heading out on a road trip. It's involving in a way that its competitors aren't, even if they happen to share the same size wheelbase or engine type. It's not a feature you'll find on the window sticker, but it is one that you'll appreciate every time you get behind the wheel.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.