othing about the 2017 Mazda3 5-Door hatchback jumps out at you. It’s a nice-looking piece — aggressive nose, contoured sides — but it’s not a “wow!” The 184 horses from its 2.5-liter naturally aspirated, twin-cam four sound plenty potent, but straight-line performance is only fair; 0 to 60 runs are in the mid-7-second range. The cockpit is clean and well-finished in quality materials, but again, it’s doubtful any passenger will be bowled over when climbing aboard.
But do you know what? From the driver’s seat, you won’t care about any of the above. That’s because the third-generation Mazda3 does everything so well, it simply radiates motoring joy. It’s a delightful machine — happy at its job, well-oiled in its responses, the very definition of value and refinement. Never once during my week with the car did my insides flood with a performance-induced adrenaline rush, but I thoroughly enjoyed my daily drives anyway, savoring engineering that places astuteness over showiness. You can’t help but smile at this car’s ability to sand the rough edges off an otherwise arduous commute.
One standard characteristic is the 3’s steering. It’s light, smooth, and super precise. As a result, even a gentle pace through a winding road is rewarding. The 3 goes exactly where you point it without any wasted motion and with plenty of feedback telegraphing through the wheel to your fingertips. It’s a testament to Mazda’s commitment to driving excellence that a car without overt sporting pretensions should steer so well. Aiding handling response is the standard G-Vectoring Control system, which gradually reduces engine torque as you turn into a corner — allowing the front tires to focus on grip and thereby improving bite. This behavior — the 3’s almost spiritual connection between steering wheel and road — is just one of the pieces that add up to make such a compelling whole.
The chassis is equally likable, reasonably grippy but more notable for its poise and comfortable ride. Like the steering, it’s totally satisfying. The six-speed manual gearbox is also a standout, with a feathery, quick action that slots right into your desired cog every time. I’d noted from the window sticker that my test car was equipped with optional radar-guided adaptive cruise control (part of the $1,100 Safety package) and was curious how the system would deal with the manual transmission when traffic ahead forced the car to slow down. Wouldn’t the engine simply stall? Well, no. Turns out a dashboard light and a chime warn the driver to step in and downshift if such a situation arises. It’s nice to find such a system available with a manual as the pairing is a rarity.
Inside, the cockpit isn’t lavish, but it is extremely pleasant. Good seats, excellent fit and finish, a clean layout. The center console sports a small rotary controller for scrolling through menus on the central color touchscreen display. Surrounding it are buttons for directly accessing the various systems — nav, audio, etc. Works great. It’s very intuitive with no fussiness.
The climate-control interface is likewise straightforward, with dual-zone control and heated seats included in Grand Touring trim. The wheel is superb, a chunky three-spoked, leather-wrapped design with helpful buttons for operating the Bluetooth phone system and more. Mazda’s love of driving is right there in front of you. The driver’s panel dominated by a big central tachometer for all your engine-revving, gear-changing pleasure. My only gripes: Rear-seat legroom is tight, and visibility to the rear quarters is impeded by the 3’s beefy C-pillars.
Starting at just $24,730 in top-of-the-range Grand Touring trim, the 3 hatchback punches well above its sticker price. Included are a Bose nine-speaker surround-sound audio system, leather seats, 18-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry with pushbutton start, a glass moonroof, rear-view camera, blind-spot monitoring, and more. My test car added the Premium Equipment package ($1,600, including nav, LED headlights, heated steering wheel, and more), the Safety package (with the aforementioned adaptive cruise, traffic-sign recognition, lane-keep assist, and more), and a few other small options, bringing the final tally to $28,030.
It probably wouldn’t win a test-numbers comparo with any rival in its class, but the Mazda3 doesn’t care. The focus here is on a premium driving experience, and the 3 feels “premium” through and through. From the response of its switchgear to the fluidity of its chassis, the 3 is built to delight. Such finesse is not to be overlooked. It can mean the difference between arriving after a long drive feeling refreshed instead of beat up. It can take the edge off of fighting traffic. It can make you take notice, as you’re winding through a sinuous mountain road or skimming over the freeway, of just how unfailingly polished and likable this little machine is.
Engineering alone can’t produce such mechanical harmony. The Mazda3 is the masterfully executed automobile it is thanks to an abiding understanding of art.
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