The Mazda 3's new-for-2012 fascia is a welcome improvement. The 3 looks sharper and more mature now that the smiley-face designs are gone. On our tester, the gloss-black grille inserts contrast nicely with the bright-white paint.
The most remarkable thing about Mazda vehicles is that they all truly embody the famous "Zoom-Zoom" advertising tagline. The stubby, direct shifter in this Mazda 3 feels like it was taken directly from an MX-5, making every gearchange a pleasure. Likewise, the engine is eager to rev and pulls smoothly throughout the tachometer's range. Add steering that is direct and weighty, yet manageable around parking lots, and you have a recipe for a really enjoyable driving experience.
The result is that driving the Mazda 3 encourages me to do silly things like rev-matching down three gears before turning into a parking lot (prompting a friend to ask, "Not the gear you wanted?") or deliberately seeking twistier roads through town. In what is essentially an economy sedan, no less. If I had to buy a compact sedan tomorrow, I'd be strongly considering the Mazda 3.
Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor
The past year or so has seen a bumper crop of versatile, refined, and efficient compact cars. For those who care first and foremost about driving though, the choice really comes down to only two: the Ford Focus and the Mazda 3. These two cars, which not coincidentally share a basic architecture, stand above their competitors for their superb steering and their excellent body control. The 3 remains the senior partner for its livelier, more energetic personality. Its 2.5-liter four-cylinder has a 22 lb-ft torque advantage and also revs quicker. It's paired with a six-speed gearbox that's almost as slick as that in a Miata.
Although its driving credentials remain sterling, the 3 has fallen behind the pack in other areas. Not so long ago, we praised the car for its level of standard and optional equipment. Now I wonder why I can't find a USB port to charge my iPhone. The nav system was never the best, but now its itsy-bitsy screen and confusing steering-wheel controls seem like some sort of cruel joke. And of course, the 2.5-liter four-cylinder makes you pay for its performance both figuratively, in the form of noise and harshness, and literally, with a comparatively awful 20/28 mpg fuel economy rating. The fix for the latter issue is the SkyActiv 2.0-liter four-cylinder.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
It says a lot about the Mazda 3 that it took second place in the small-car comparison test in the July 2011 edition of Automobile Magazine, going up against four excellent cars that were launched much more recently than the Mazda. I haven't driven a 3 since our Four Seasons 3s hatchback left more than a year ago, and I had forgotten how good this car actually is. The steering is excellent, the engine is very strong (although fuel mileage is poor for the segment), chassis balance is impeccable, and it rides well, too. Only the clutch's very high take-up tarnishes the driving experience for me, but at least the gearbox itself has nice action. Extra-supportive, heated leather seats made it easy to forget my issues with the clutch. Despite its age, the 3's distinctive styling helps it stand out in an overachieving crowd, too.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
After trying Mazda's direct-injection 2.0-liter I-4 in a Japanese-market 3 last year, I was really looking forward to driving a 2012 3 equipped with the company's so-called Skyactiv engine. Alas, it wasn't to be - not all trim levels receive the fuel-sipping powertrain, and as a result, the 3 GT sedan I brought home for the night had the tried and true 2.5-liter I-4.
Skyactiv aside, there's very little that differentiates the 2012 Mazda3 from last year's model. Sure, a mild nip/tuck lends a measure of restraint to the previously cartoonish front grille, but the remainder of the car is essentially the same old song. No matter -- it's still a pretty sweet tune. Yes, David, the 3 may be lagging behind competitors by way of interior amenities and infotainment options, but it still remains one of the most competent, satisfying offerings in its class. Few cars in the C-segment exhibit the solidity, poise, and enthusiasm of the 3 -- high praise, considering its basic architecture is nearly eight years old.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
It's been awhile since I've driven a Mazda 3, but it only took a few minutes for me to remember why it's long been one of my favorites. Mazda has been installing really good manual transmissions in their cars ever since I can remember - at least back to the days of the first Miata, if not before. The throws of this six-speed manual are short and crisp, and the transmission delivers the power of the four-cylinder engine to the wheels quickly and neatly. On paper, 167 hp and a six-speed manual don't look that remarkable, but in practice they work quite well together. Unfortunately, while this combination might deliver a decent dose of the zoom-zoom performance on which Mazda prides itself, it results in fuel economy numbers that, for this class, are really not very good at all. 20 mpg in the city - really? (Mazda has just introduced their new SkyActiv engine technology to address this problem.)
Another place where the Mazda 3 is a bit of a letdown is in the integration of its technological features. The cabin itself is nice enough, with decent seats, legible gauges, and reasonably easy-to-navigate center console controls. But the display for the nav screen is too tiny and seems miles away from the driver. Meanwhile, the display for the stereo is also too small and is poorly integrated with the color screen.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor