ROAD TEST EDITOR JONATHAN WONG: This 2015 Mazda 3 s Grand Touring is like a Mazdaspeed 3 Lite. It’s got the more potent 2.5-liter engine with 184 hp, opposed to the base 2.0-liter with 155 hp. There’s a six-speed manual transmission here and a chassis that, in typical Mazda form, is tuned to the sportier side of the spectrum. And it’s not a stripper model, either, with leather-trimmed seats, a Bose sound system, navigation, rearview camera and the little active driving display at the top of the gauge cluster cowl.
There’s definitely a respectable amount of power on tap to make things interesting. It’s not too far behind the Honda Civic Si’s 205-hp output, but this Mazda 3 has more torque with 185 lb-ft versus 174 lb-ft. The gap widens when you look at cars in this class that are even more performance focused like the Volkswagen GTI and Ford Focus ST. But for a “normal” version of a car, this 3 is a lot of fun with grunt that you’re able to really wring out on the streets. The Skyactiv four-cylinder is smooth and doesn’t mind revving. The gold standard for four-cylinders in my opinion remains Honda’s K-series engines, but the Mazda powerplant is creeping into the conversation now.
Unlike the manual shifter in the previous two generations of the Mazdaspeed 3, the six-speed gearbox in this 3 is incredibly slick slotting into gears with ease. Shift throws are short, and the clutch is light and easy modulate. Getting back to the engine for a quick second, it has good throttle response, which is always nice when you are going down gears heading into a corner.
And this hatchback is a handler. It stays well planted around sweepers and in turns with a little bit of body lean. Of course, if you push it too hard, the front tires will give way and you’ll push, but that takes really over-driving the car and that’s something you shouldn’t be doing on the streets anyway. Steering feels direct and well weighted for a sporty hatch, and the brakes are confidence inspiring beginning right at the top of the pedal stroke.
There’re also some pretty decent tires on this 3. The 18-inch performance all-season Dunlop SP Sport 5000s were respectable dry and weren’t really loud.
During daily driving, the ride quality is firmer, but the suspension still softens blows from larger impacts over ruts and potholes. Those seeking cushier rides will want to look at duller-performing entries like the Toyota Corolla or Nissan Sentra. If you are willing to give up a little bit of ride comfort, then this Mazda 3, Honda Civic, Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus are vehicles you will want to test-drive.
The latest-generation 3’s sheetmetal is distinctive still, even after ditching the smiley front-end appearance of the previous car. It looks all right to my eyes and follows in the footsteps of the 6 and the facelifted CX-5. I do prefer the old rear-end styling on the five-door hatchback that was more defined and less rounded like this new car, though.
Inside, things look good finally with a respectable central screen instead of the old screen inset into the dash. It makes dealing with radio and navigation functions easier, along with the command knobs on the center console. Materials are upgraded a notch with soft-touch surfaces in all the important areas, and the front bucket seats are comfortably firm and supportive in the right areas. It was easy for me to find a comfortable seating position, and pedal placement with the bottom-hinged gas pedal is really nice.
Mazda did a good job with the new 3. It remains entertaining to drive, features a nicer interior, offers good fuel economy and packs in a ton of features with a fun drivetrain. For a daily driver, this 3 as equipped is difficult to beat.
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ASSOCIATE EDITOR GRAHAM KOZAK: This thing right here -- a manual-equipped Mazda 3 hatch with the big motor and more creature comforts than the fleet-spec econoboxes that usually come with stickshifts -- is one of those cars that enthusiasts and car writers have clamored for. Short of a brown diesel Volvo wagon -- manual-equipped, naturally -- I can’t think of a car that ticks more car geek boxes than this. I mean, it could be turbocharged and rear-wheel drive, but let’s not get too crazy here.
Compared to the 2.0-liter car, this 2.5-liter-equipped 3 isn’t vastly more powerful -- 184 hp to the smaller motor’s 155. Peak output is at 5,700 rpm, and it drops precipitously after 6,000 rpm, but there’s never any feeling of breathlessness and you don’t feel like you’re ever whipping the car.
Delivery is smooth, almost shockingly so for a Mazda. There’s surprisingly little rasp as you goose the accelerator and climb toward those higher rpm. The wheel and clutch pedal are equally well-weighted, though there’s some bump steering under acceleration over rougher pavement. You have to push pretty hard in corners before the car pushes back, and even then there’s no vicious understeer. Basically, it all seems to work so nicely with the steering and neutral chassis that you could almost think you’re in, I dunno, a brand-new Volkswagen Golf GTI.
I’m not really one to gush, but this car is a big deal in its own understated way. For once, you can get an attractive, well-equipped car with a well-balanced chassis, adequate power and that hard-to-quantify fun factor for under $30,000. For once, you don’t have to compromise features to get an affordable-yet-engaging driving experience. If Mazda has a tough time moving manual-equipped 2.5-liter Mazda 3s, don’t blame the product planners or engineers -- blame the market.
The 2015 Mazda 3 s Grand Touring 5-Door is a solid performer.
ASSOCIATE EDITOR JAKE LINGEMAN: I will agree with Graham in that this 2015 Mazda 3 s Grand Touring is a solid performer in every sense of the word. But at nearly $30K, it still seems like too much money. Would a married adult, with a kid or two, buy this car? I don’t think so, that’s family-sedan time. Would a college kid be able to spend $30K for a nearly topped-out 3? No way.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great vehicle. The 2.5-liter provides a good bit of power, and the six-speed makes it truly fun to drive. The actual linkage bit feels rock solid and could be up there with the best in the business. That used to be the Honda S2000/Acura 'box, but this is like pulling a baseball bat handle. And a 35-mpg EPA fuel-economy rating on the highway is nothing to sneeze at.
The seats are comfortable and the overall interior is solid. I’m not a huge fan of the screen that juts out of the dash -- it looks like an afterthought -- but it does work well with the big dial in the center console. The hatch also adds a ton of utility with the seats folded; I didn’t need to carry anything, but I took a look in the back anyway.
So, if you were to spring for the 3, you'd definitely want the s trim. That gets the 2.5-liter four-cylinder. The base 2.0-liter engine is almost annoyingly slow. That puts you at about $25K -- a few options later, and here we are. You can get a midgrade Ford Fusion for that as-tested price or a midgrade Chevrolet Malibu. Both of those offer nearly the same amenities and probably more cargo space overall, if not as much height.
I like this car as equipped a lot, too, but I just don’t think the market will.
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