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 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, the Mazda 3 is a car we highly recommend.
Current Mazda 3
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 — it's quick to accelerate and eager to race 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, and both are offered in Sport, Touring and Grand Touring trim levels. Sport models include air-conditioning, power accessories, a 7-inch touchscreen and Bluetooth, and Touring models add alloy wheels, simulated leather upholstery, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and ignition, automatic wipers, blind-spot monitoring and low-speed automatic braking.
The Grand Touring has LED headlights, leather upholstery, a Bose stereo, sunroof and satellite radio. Many of the features offered as standard on the Grand Touring model are options on lower trims. You can also get an optional package for the Grand Touring that bundles some extra safety features.
Sport and Touring models get a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque. Standard on Grand Touring and optional on the Touring hatchback is a more powerful 2.5-liter engine good for 184 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmissions are offered for both engines. No matter which powertrain you choose, fuel economy is impressive for a small car.
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 current Mazda 3 is part of the car's third generation, which went on sale as a 2014 model. This generation featured completely new styling, more powerful and fuel-efficient powertrains, and better electronics and safety features while retaining the previous-generation 3's fun-to-drive nature and choice of sedan or hatchback body styles.
Shoppers for this generation 3 can likely pick any year since there haven't been any dramatic changes since the debut. Note that for 2014-'16, Mazda used "i" and "s" designations for the engine selection, tying availability to trim level. Cars for 2017 and up also feature subtle styling and interior updates.
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: the 3 i and the 3 s. A variety of subtrims, such as the SV, Sport, Touring and Grand Touring, offered an increasing number 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 and 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 3 i had a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. For 2010 and '11, it produced 148 hp and 135 lb-ft of torque, and it 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 (Skyactiv-G), was installed on the Sport (2013 only), 3 i 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-four good for 167 hp and 168 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual was standard, and a five-speed automatic optional. With this 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 3 i SV and the 3 i 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 such as 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 to 2009. 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-four 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 certified as partial zero-emission vehicles.
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 3 s trim. Stability control became optional for the first time, but it 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.
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.