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2014 Mazda Mazda3 Pros and Cons: Why (Not) This Car?

2014 Mazda3 front quarter
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Introduction

For decades auto industry analysts have been talking about the increasing need for scale. Cars have become so technologically complex, and buyer expectations have risen to such lofty heights, that a sub-gargantuan company won't have the requisite resources to develop competitive cars.

This doesn't bode well for Mazda, which split from Ford a few years ago and which has never been a major player anywhere. Since the Hiroshima-based company developed the new 2014 Mazda3 compact sedan and hatchback from a clean sheet entirely on its own, how competitive could this car possibly be? Perhaps it'll do a few things well...

Mazda3 Reviews: 2014 Mazda3 front quarter

Clean and fluid. The s's 18-inch wheels help disguise the lengthy front overhang. more Mazda3 photos

Mazda3 Reviews: 2014 Mazda3 interior

Vastly improved styling and materials. A lot going on, yet the appearance is clean, not busy.

Tested: 2014 Mazda Mazda3

4dr Hatch 184-horsepower 2.5L I4 6-speed shiftable automatic FWD

Compared: 2014 Ford Focus

4dr Sedan 160-horsepower 2.0L I4 6-speed automated manual FWD

Why the 2014 Mazda Mazda3?

  Compared to the Focus
Handling
Handling: About the same Better Worse

Scratch that. The new Mazda3 is at or nor the top of the compact car segment in so many areas that I'm going to have to pick and choose given the five category limit.

A traditional Mazda strength, handling, leads the list. Nothing is as critical to enjoying a car as handling, and Mazda really knows how to not only tune a car to perform well, but to feel right in the proces. Though steering assist is now fully electric, rather than the previous electro-hydraulic setup, the system's weighting is, if anything, more natural and feedback more nuanced than before. You'll also find quick steering in a Ford Focus, but with more effort, less feedback, and a somewhat more artificial feel.

Combine this quick, communicative steering with a balanced, poised, precise, and agile chassis (I can add more positive adjectives if four isn't enough), and the Mazda3 feels better the curvier the road gets. Some cars take a while to learn, and even then don't feel like a willing partner. The small Mazda feels like a car you've known forever almost instantly. Driving it is a great deal of fun, without any unpleasant surprises.

Among competitors, the Focus comes closest in this regard. It also handles very well, but with a distinctly different character. Where the Mazda has an organic liveliness, a fine-tuned fluidity to its moves, the Ford has the tightly damped, thoroughly refined, rock-solid solidity of a car designed for the European market. The Focus feels a little more upscale, but doesn't provide quite as direct a connection, especially at around-town speeds. A tall, deep, over-designed instrument panel doesn't help. In contrast, the view forward from the Mazda3's driver seat over a more compact instrument panel and less steeply raked windshield is nearly ideal.

Every other competitor feels more insulated, less athletic, less intuitive, or all of the above.


Fuel economy
Fuel economy: About the same Better Worse

Ever since gas guzzling rotary engines almost put Mazda out of business in the 1970s, fuel economy has been a company weakness. The 2013 Mazda3 with a 167-horsepower 2.5-liter engine and five-speed automatic transmission managed only 22 mpg city, 29 mpg highway in the EPA's tests. (The same engine with a manual transmission did even worse, 20/28.) The 2014 with a new SKYACTIV 184-horsepower 2.5-liter engine and six-speed automatic transmission fares much better, 27 mpg city and 37 mpg highway. A $1,600 Tech Package (on the tested car) adds a capacitor-based regenerative braking system that bumps these ratings to 28/38. Quite impressive for a large, fairly powerful four-cylinder engine. The i's 155-horsepower 2.0-liter engine does a bit better still, 30/40, but anyone who cares about driving will gladly trade a 2-3 mpg to pick up 29 horsepower.

In my real-world, sub-freezing suburban driving, the trip computer reported a two-way average around 40 mpg when I drove with a feather-light right foot. Push the car harder and high-20s to mid-30s happen.

The Focus also manages 27/37 in the EPA's tests, but wasn't quite as efficient as the Mazda in my real-world driving. Others including the 23/35 Dodge Dart GT and 21/29 Kia Forte SX don't come close.



Mazda3 Reviews: 2014 Mazda3 rear quarter view

Unlike with the first two generations, no rear side window aft of the doors.

Mazda3 Reviews: 2014 Mazda3 instrument panel

Stylish yet functional.

Powertrain performance
Powertrain performance: Much better Better Worse

If you're looking for the quickest car in this segment, you're going to want something with a turbocharger. A MazdaSpeed3 will arrive in a few years to take on the Ford Focus ST, Subaru WRX, and Volkswagen GTI.

Among compact cars aimed at a broad audience, though, the Mazda3 s is perhaps the quickest. The 184-horsepower 2.5-liter engine can get the car's 3,002 lbs. from a rest to 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds. The Ford Focus, with a peakier 160-horsepower engine to motivate a similar curb weight, is only slightly quicker than the 155-horsepower Mazda3 i. Reviewers typically wish for more power from both. The 3,348-pound, 184-horsepower Dodge Dart GT and 3,122-pound, 201-horsepower Kia Forte SX come closer to the big-engined Mazda. This said, the Mazda3 doesn't feel as quick as it is, likely because the engine is smooth (if satisfyingly snarly high in its range) and builds power very linearly. Compared to the similarly powerful 2.4-liter in the Dodge Dart GT, there's more torque (185 vs. 171 lb-ft) at a lower peak (3,250 vs. 4,800 rpm).

Later the Mazda3 s will also be available with a six-speed manual (already standard with the base engine). This combination won't be as quick, if the Mazda6 is any guide, but it should be even more engaging. The latest Mazda shifters have an excellent mechanical feel. You feel like you're operating a well-engineered piece of machinery. With other manual shifters you all too often feel like you're pushing cables through a tube, which is essentially what you are doing.

Currently the larger four is only offered with a manually-shiftable six-speed automatic.
Compared to other automatics, though, the Mazda's is about as good as they get, with intelligent logic (you'll rarely feel a need for the paddles), quick responses (with an upcoming caveat), and smooth shifts. At lower speeds a conventional torque converter buffers the engine and transmission, but otherwise this task is managed by a multi-plate clutch, improving efficiency and lending the transmission the crisper character of an automated manual.

And that caveat? Well, in normal mode the powertrain doesn't feel all that quick to respond to the throttle. This is because it has been tuned to achieve those excellent EPA ratings. Fix this by hitting a sport button just ahead of the shifter. The downside: in sport mode the transmission doesn't shift into as high a gear around town, so using it all the time will harm mpg.


Interior styling
Interior styling: Better Better Worse

The interior styling of the 2010-2013 Mazda3 was my #1 reason why not to buy one. Chock full of "what were they thinking?" details and constructed of cheap materials, I hated it. Newer competitors, including the 2012 Ford Focus, were much nicer to spend time inside.

The 2014 Mazda3 follows the path blazed by the 2013 CX-5 and 2014 Mazda6. So while its interior isn't luxurious, it's very attractively styled in the "serious driver" idiom. Not everyone will care for the freestanding infotainment display, but this does permit the rest of the instrument panel to be lower. You'll find the same in BMWs and Mercedes. Aside from this display, the interior styling avoids trendy elements. Nothing seems out of place, and it should still look good a decade from now.

Materials are generally as good as can be expected inside a non-luxury car. A multitude of finishes and textures are employed to enhance visual and tactile appeal, but they meld well. The combination of faux carbon fiber, piano black, and satin metal bits doesn't appear busy.

This said, when you shut the doors or press against the panels the impression lingers that the Mazda3 was engineered to hit weight and cost targets. While it certainly doesn't feel cheap, it doesn't feel like something from Germany, either. Aside from somewhat flimsy door pulls, the Ford Focus feels more solidly constructed.


Controls and instruments
Controls and instruments: Much better Better Worse

The functionality of the Mazda3's interior isn't only skin deep. The controls, while minimalistic, work quite well. As in an Audi, BMW, or Mercedes, many functions are managed via a button-surrounded knob on the center console--just one that's more intuitive to use than those in the big buck cars. The main downside: some things that might have a dedicated knob in a conventional layout require a few clicks and twirls here. But get to the correct screen and the big knob does function as a radio tuner.The touchscreen-based MyFord Touch system in the Focus has more colorful displays, but isn't as easy to use. The Dart's touchscreen interface is better than the Ford's, and arguably easier to use than the Mazda's knob-centric system.

The Mazda3's instruments are clear and attractive. In the s a digital speedometer is inset within an analog tach--a design I've long appreciated in the late RX-8 sports car. The s also features a head-up display that, unlike others which project onto the windshield, uses a dedicated clear screen that motors up from the top of the instrument hood. Nice to have, but unfortunately the display includes little more than a speedometer. In some situations a tach up there would be more useful.


Why Not the 2014 Mazda Mazda3?

  Compared to the Focus
Ride smoothness
Ride smoothness: Worse Better Worse

I've read good things about the ride quality of the Mazda3 i. The Mazda3 s, though, rides with a little too much jiggle and jostle for mainstream tastes. Credit/blame a firmer suspension and lower profile tires (215/45WR18s on the s vs. 205/60HR16s on the i). A Ford Focus feels more refined and less jumpy over bumps. Other competitors which prioritize ride over handling (Chevrolet Cruze, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra) also have a cushier ride.


Quietness
Quietness: Worse Better Worse

The cars that ride more smoothly than the Mazda3 also ride more quietly. Though far from loud (that would be my 2003 Mazda Protege5), noise levels are noticeably higher than the segment average. But this segment average is well below where it was just a few years ago. So anyone coming out of an old compact car might even perceive the new Mazda3 to be quiet.


Mazda3 Reviews: 2014 Mazda3 front view

New face far more appealing than the 2010-2013 smile.

Mazda3 Reviews: 2014 Mazda3 rear seat

Among the tighter rear seats in the segment. The price of the long nose and sleek roof line.

Rear seat room & comfort
Rear seat room & comfort: About the same Better Worse

The Mazda3 also isn't a clear choice if a roomy rear seat is a top priority. Sitting behind my 5-9 self, I had little room to spare. The rear seat in the Ford Focus is at least as tight, but has a more comfortably positioned cushion. A Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, or Toyota Corolla has far more rear seat room.

If you like how the Mazda3 looks and drives, but need more rear seat legroom, the Mazda6 offers another three inches for another $2,100 to $3,700 (depending on trim level).


Cargo capacity
Cargo capacity: About the same Better Worse

Cargo capacity is similarly adequate rather than abundant, though much of the shortfall is above the level of the seatbacks (where you're not likely to stow stuff anyway).


Other features of the 2014 Mazda Mazda3

  Compared to the Focus
Exterior styling
Exterior styling: About the same Better Worse

Many people will likely find the cleanly styled Mazda3 highly attractive. It's certainly an improvement over the smiley-faced, overstyled second-generation Mazda3.

An unusually long distance between the firewall and axle, which lends the third-generation Mazda3 the proportions of a rear-wheel-drive car, isn't just there for aeshetic reasons. The full SKYACTIV engine treatment includes an exhaust header that requires a lot of space behind the engine. (Because the 2013 Mazda3 lacked the space for this header its engine had a lower compression ratio.)

Normally I'm a big fan of rear-wheel-drive proportions. But the hood on the new Mazda3 appears disporoportionately long, perhaps because much of its length is ahead of the front wheel. The s's 18-inch wheels help to disguise the amount of front overhang. The i's 16s appear far too small.


Front seat support & comfort
Front seat support & comfort: Worse Better Worse

The front row feels about as roomy as that in the midsize Mazda6, and the official specs support this impression. The larger car actually has a tenth of an inch less front shoulder room. Among competitors, the Focus and Forte are narrower, while the Dart is even broader.

The shape of the Mazda3's front seats fits me very well, and includes a decent amount of lateral support. They're among the best in the segment. Those in the Ford Focus, though, are better still, with more luxurious padding and larger side bolsters.

The first thing I'd change about these seats, though, is the deletion of the previously available separate adjustments for front and rear cushion height. With just a single adjustment you cannot adjust the tilt of the cushion. Back in the day even the manual seats in Mazdas included separate front and rear height adjustments.


Feature availability
Feature availability: Better Better Worse

On a lesser car, feature availability would also be among the reasons to buy. Here it got squeezed out by strong performances in five other categories. That missing seat adjustment didn't help.

You can get a lot of other stuff, though. The Grand Touring trim level includes proximity key (just leave it in your pocket), heated leather seats, automatic dual-zone climate control, a moonroof, surround sound Bose audio, nav, app support (Pandora, Stitcher), the head-up display already mentioned, a rearview camera, steering-linked xenon headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, a blind spot monitor, and rear cross traffic detection. A Technology Package adds the capacitor-based regenerative braking system, automatic low-speed braking, a lane departure warning system, and auto-dimming headlights.


Audio & nav systems  



A Bose audio system standard in both s trim levels is about as good as you'll find in this segment.

The nav system has some strengths and weaknesses. The display is much larger than with the 2010-2013 Mazda3. It includes the speed limit, which turns red if you exceed it. But for some reason there's no manual zoom, at least none I could find. Instead, an auto-zoom function can be enabled.


Price or payments
Price or payments: Better Better Worse

The downside of adding the $1,600 Technology Package and $295 in scuff plates and mats to a $27,290 2014 Mazda3 s Grand Touring is that you end up with a $29,185 compact hatch. If these prices seem more like those for a mid-sized car, well, they've all been creeping up. The midsize Mazda6 Grand Touring lists for $3,700 more.

To put a comfortable distance between $30k and the Mazda3 s's sticker, you'll want to do without the Tech Package or even step down to the $25,890 Touring (sacrificing the sunroof, leather seats, and a few convenience features to save $1,400).

A Ford Focus Titanium hatchback with Handling Package, nav, and sunroof lists for virtually the same amount as a Mazda3 s Grand Touring, but doesn't offer as many features. Adjust for the Mazda's additional content, and it's about $675 less even when equipped with the s's larger, more powerful engine.

Compared to the Mazda3 s without these options, a self-shifting Kia Forte SX with Technology and Premium Packages lists for $590 less. The Kia has some features not on the Mazda, including a heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, and a ventilated driver seat with a couple more power adjustments and memory. But even without the Technology Package the Mazda also has some features not on the Kia, including the head-up display, blind spot warning system, rain-sensing wipers, and steering linked headlights. Adjust for these differences and the Kia is about $750 less.

For 2014 the Dodge Dart GT has become the value play in the group. Fitted with the Technology and Sun/Sound Groups and nav, to align it with the Mazda3 Grand Touring, the Dodge lists for over $1,000 less despite including about $1,000 in additional content (for a feature-adjusted price difference of over $2,000).


Conclusion

The 2014 Mazda3 s suggests it's too soon to write off the smaller car companies. Despite being the product of an organization with limited resources, the new compact impresses with many segment-leading strengths and few weaknesses. The Dart and Forte offer a few features the Mazda does not, while the Focus is nearly as fun to drive and feels a little more solid and polished. All three competitors are quieter. But Ford doesn't offer a similarly powerful engine, and equally powerful competitors lag in fuel economy. No competitor offers a more timelessly stylish, more intelligently designed interior. Factor in Mazda's talent for making a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and for anyone who enjoys driving (or wants to) the 2014 Mazda3 s is the top choice among mass market compact cars.

Mazda3 Reviews: 2014 Mazda3 engine uncovered

Neatly arranged under the cover, you wonder why they bothered to include one.

Mazda3 Reviews: 2014 Mazda3 cargo area seat folded

A lot more space with the rear seat folded.

See more 2014 Mazda Mazda3 photos

Mazda provided an insured car with a tank of gas.Bob Bucknum at Suburban Ford in Waterford, MI, helpfully provided the comparison car. He can be reached at 248-674-5626.

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2014 Mazda Mazda3 pros and cons, according to Michael Karesh: the best reasons for buying (or not buying) the 2014 Mazda Mazda3. Join TrueDelta to post your own impressions.
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