Balance is rarely achieved by accident, but through careful consideration and deliberate actions. Tip the balance one way or the other and you're left teetering on the edge. Maintain your balance, however, and you can deliver across the spectrum.
Mazda has managed to strike an impeccable balance with its redesigned 2014 Mazda 3. Available as either a sedan, or hatchback as we have here, the completely revamped Mazda 3 has taken a significant leap forward on a variety of fronts. Sharper styling inside and out, improved ergonomics and plenty of fun-to-drive personality have vaulted it to the top of our rankings.
Improvement Where It Was Needed
The previous Mazda 3 was a commendable choice for shoppers who placed big value on a fun-to-drive feel. In other areas, though, it came up short against competitors like the Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra. Many found the styling of the previous Mazda 3 a bit odd, and most winced at the flimsy interior plastics and outdated features. That was then. The 2014 Mazda 3 s hatchback you see here not only addresses its predecessor's drawbacks, it jumps a few steps ahead in many respects.
Now, we're taken with the exterior styling and impressed with the segment-leading interior. Gone is the wide smiling grille, replaced by a more angular inlet and tautly stretched headlights. The overall body sculpting conveys a more cohesive design that blends all elements seamlessly. The new hatchback balances a pleasingly sleek shape with just enough visual interest to make it attractive.
Even more significant than the exterior makeover is the Mazda 3's cabin, lifting cues from German vehicles that are priced well beyond the typical compact car. Our test car in range-topping Grand Touring trim far exceeds typical expectations for the economically minded segment.
Mounted high atop the dash is a 7-inch color display with tack-sharp graphics and faultless operation. Besides looking like an iPad mini, it seems to have been lifted directly out of the current Mercedes-Benz lineup. Unlike Mercedes' screen, though, the Mazda's display also responds to touch inputs.
Wait, Did We Just Compare a Mazda to a Mercedes?
Yes, and we're not through yet.
Situated right where you'd rest your inboard hand is an infotainment controller that distinctly echoes the setups used by Audi and BMW. This knurled dial has a satisfying heft to it and is thoughtfully flanked by physical buttons and a tiny volume knob. Thanks to a smart on-screen layout and a logical menu structure, operating the navigation, radio and climate systems is incredibly simple and requires very little time to get used to. In some ways, it's superior to systems found in those luxury German sedans.
Besides the surprising bells and whistles, the Mazda 3's interior features a more conventional design than before, with a horizontal dash from door to door. All controls and gauges are placed well within reach, requiring just a quick glance to read. Materials quality has suffered in years past, but the new plastics are easier on the eyes as well as to the touch. On top of it all, literally, is a head-up display that shows speed and navigation prompts right in the driver's line of sight.
In total, this new 2014 Mazda 3 represents a more mature interpretation of the compact hatchback. It deftly balances a wealth of features with thoughtful design and execution without feeling like gimmicky afterthoughts.
Maintaining On-Road Balance
As with its predecessor, the new Mazda 3 is offered with one of two available engines. Base Mazda 3i models are powered by a 155-horsepower 2.0-liter four cylinder engine. Our Mazda 3 s test vehicle gets the more powerful 2.5-liter, four-cylinder that produces 184 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque. In Grand Touring trim, as we have here, the only available transmission is a six-speed automatic with manual shift control.
In Edmunds testing, the Mazda 3 s hatchback made the sprint to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds (7.6 seconds with a foot of rollout as on a drag strip). That's half a second quicker than the Mazda 3i we tested with a manual transmission. It's also nearly a second quicker than the Ford Focus. While we wouldn't consider it fast, it certainly has enough pep to merge onto a crowded highway with ease.
Coming to a stop from that speed required 126 feet of pavement, which is about what we expect from hatchbacks in this class. The Mazda also weaved through the slalom cones at 61.1 mph and pulled 0.81g around our skid pad. These figures are also par for the hatchback course. But those numbers really don't do the Mazda 3 justice.
If driving excitement is your thing, the 3 brings with it the kind of athleticism that Mazda is known for. Even though the weight is biased toward the front, the 3 feels remarkably balanced on winding mountain roads. Its limits are far beyond what the average driver will ever need, but that translates to a solid on-road feel that may yet bring out the enthusiastic driver in you.
There's enough power to bring a smile to our jaded faces, yet not enough to get into trouble. The transmission capitalizes on the available power with smart gearchanges in automatic mode and quick responses in manual mode. When it comes to steering, this might be one of the best tuned in a wide swath of categories. Reactions to steering inputs are immediate and precise without ever becoming busy. Feedback is there, too, but there's no torque steer, or a tugging at the wheel, under acceleration.
Best of all, you get all that performance and excellent mileage as well. The Mazda 3 has an EPA estimate of 31 mpg in combined driving (27 city/37 highway). Even with our exuberant driving styles, we managed to attain a respectable 28.3 mpg over a few weeks. In our highway-heavy evaluation loop, however, we were astounded by a 41.1-mpg result.
Not Just a "Driver's" Car
Don't let the Mazda 3's performance credentials scare you off if that's not your thing, though, because it's well mannered in every setting. The suspension is a little stiffer than the typical hatchback, but it's in no way harsh or intrusive. It's perfectly enjoyable in the daily commute and tackles errands with ease.
Behind the rear seats, you can cram 20.2 cubic feet of cargo, which is about 3 cubes less than its main rivals. Flip those 60/40 seats forward and you get 47.1 cubic feet, a number that splits the difference between its competitors. The hatch opening is on the narrow side, so wide objects may take a little maneuvering.
What gripes we do have are minor. On the highway, road noise is ever present, but not to the point of annoyance. After several hours behind the wheel, the lack of lumbar support for the driver seat may also be a source of discontent for some. The rear seats provide adult-sized headroom, but legroom is limited and having the seat cushions mounted low to the floor makes those accommodations less suitable for tall passengers over the long haul. Shorter folk will fare just fine back there.
More Than You Bargained for
Our range-topping 2014 Mazda 3 s Grand Touring came to us nearly fully loaded with a sticker of $27,585. The only significant option missing was the $1,600 GT technology package that adds a regenerative engine braking system, active grille shutters, automatic high beams, a lane departure warning system, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning and automatic braking. It's worth noting that other hatchbacks don't even offer some of these features.
While that 27 grand may seem high, the luxury-leaning infotainment system and head-up display we mentioned earlier are included, along with a rearview camera, adaptive headlights, rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitoring, leather upholstery, heated seats, dual-zone climate control, smart key entry and ignition and a nine-speaker Bose audio system. Going with the S Touring trim will still get you the larger engine but cuts down on some of the features to bring the pricing down by about $2,000.
Should You Buy a Mazda 3?
The 2014 Mazda 3 s is now our top pick among compact hatchbacks. It unseats our former favorite Ford Focus, which is still a great choice in its own right. We have yet to run the new Hyundai Elantra GT and Kia Forte cousins through our battery of tests, and the new VW Golf is on its way, too.
Knowing this, we're still confident that the Mazda 3 can compete. Its overall balance is hard to come by in any car category and if one of the new contenders does manage to best it, we can't imagine it will be by a significant margin. With athletic performance, all-day comfort, a wealth of features and a versatile layout, the Mazda 3 delivers on all counts. The fact that it does so while remaining fun to drive is an added bonus that you can't put a price on.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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