I staggered into the third-tier country club, in the desert 70 miles outside of downtown San Diego, with a dazed smile on my face. All the surrounding car hacks bore the same look. We’d just driven for three hours, and now we were emerging from the dream.
“How was your drive?” asked a car-company rep.
Usually, when they ask stuff like this, you mumble some nonsense about “torsional rigidity” and then make haste for the buffet. But this time was different.
“It was...great,” I said, with disbelief, because there was no other word.
I mention disbelief because I was driving the 2014 Mazda3.
Not the MX-5, or a souped-up vintage Miata, but the 3, for most of its life a generic backbencher in the unglamorous compact segment. The 2013 Mazda3 model, and all previous iterations, were OK, but just that.
But as I wound this new one through the roads near the U.S.-Mexico border, I kept thinking: “this could be the car of the year.” It won’t be, probably. But, when you consider how much it costs and what it does for that price, it’s going to have to be heavily considered. Mazda has made the best compact car in recent memory.
First, let’s talk about design. Mazda is basing all vehicle models these days of its 2010 Shinari concept car, which loosely translates as “resistance to being bent.” In practice, that gives you a perfectly proportioned vehicle, with a longer front hood and overall weight positioned toward the back wheels. It worked in the Mazda6, but the nature of that car’s segment meant that it looked similar to the competition. But for the 3, which is up against a vast sea of econoboxes, it really comes into play with beautiful flowing lines that are perfectly integrated into the whole, particularly on the hatchback edition. The worst feature of the old Mazda3, the smirking grille, has been replaced by a more upright five-point look, making it more vertical.
“We wanted the car to be more aggressive,” the designer told me, “but we didn’t want it to be over-the-top aggressive. Sexy but a little bit more masculine.”
Normally, such statements from designers should be taken with a polite nod and quickly forgotten. But in this case, it’s true. The interior works even better, with a smooth-looking, driver-oriented cockpit unheard of in the economy segment. Everything sits right on the driver’s centerline, symmetrical across the dash, and not busy. The front seats are slick-looking, really comfortable, and lined with a variety of pleasant-feeling materials. Nothing feels forced or pretentious. It’s just an incredibly stylish car, inside and out.
The 2014 Mazda3 comes with two engine variants: a 2.5-liter that gets 184 hp, and a 2.0 liter that gets 155 hp. They get paired with a responsive six-speed transmission with optional sport paddle shifters. The 2-liter engine gets up to 34 mpg combined and the 2.5 gets up to 31 mpg. Those are definitely economy-car-worthy numbers, but the car is so light that it drives sporty anyway.
First, I got into a 5-door with the 2.5-liter engine, in the “grand touring” package. Once all the bells and whistles got added up — the adaptive safety features, the XM radio, the dynamic stability control, the 18-inch wheels, and, I don’t know, the ability to tell the future — the car clocks in at $27,590, which inches it out of the economy range and into enthusiasts territory. But a stripped down 2.0-liter, with about 85 percent of the features and capabilities, will be sold in the mid-$16,000 range, which is very affordable in the contemporary car market.
At any price, man, what a car. The Mazda3 feels like it was engineered by someone who loves cars, not by a committee. It moves innately, with great acceleration, incredible poise, and effortless electric power steering. I can’t remember driving anything, particularly not in this price range, that has such perfect balance through tight turns.
When it comes to hot hatches, the Mazda3 measures up well with the souped-up Ford Focus ST, and every bit the equal of the Golf GT diesel that I drove in Europe this summer. As for the rest of the segment, the Civics and Corollas and Passats of the world, they’ll continue to outsell the Mazda3 because of pure name recognition. Those remain reliable choices that will run forever. But compared to the Mazda3, they’re standing still.
For our last run of the day, we got into the four-door, with the less powerful engine. It brought the Mazda3 back toward the rest of the pack a little. Though the handling and suspension remained superb, and the front cockpit continued to be a very pleasant place to live, that extra 30 hp makes a big difference. At times, particularly in heavy freeway traffic, it felt more like an ordinary compact car.
The Mazda3 isn’t perfect. As with all compacts, the backseat feels more than a bit cramped. Despite Mazda’s great pride in it, the in-dash 7-inch LED display is still pretty confusing to operate, another lousy car-based iPad knockoff. A ship like this deserves a better shipboard computer. Also, the piece of glass, inserted just past the steering wheel that digitally reflects your speed up into your line of vision is distracting to annoyance, and also positioned too low.
But overall, the bar has been set for this segment, and high enough to leave the rest flummoxed. I can’t wait to get behind the wheel of a Mazda3 again. That’s not something I can say about most cars, much less econoboxes.