Earlier this year, we had our first drive of the 2019 Mazda 3 sedan, and we liked it—the new 3 is more mature and more upscale and yet it still stirred our soul. But there were important variants we had yet to drive: the hatchback, versions with all-wheel-drive, and models with a manual transmission. As Paul Harvey used to say, stand by for . . . the rest of the story!
First, the hatch: Like many, we were less than enamored by the Mazda 3 hatchback’s styling when it was first revealed. But with time, the design has grown on us. Yes, the proportions are still a bit strange, but are they really all that different from those of the outgoing model? Besides, Mazda’s designers are all about the surfacing, and, out in the real world, we like the way the light plays on the car’s flanks. What about that big ol’ C-pillar? Thanks to the car’s large side mirrors, it’s not much of a problem for the driver. And being eight inches shorter than the sedan, the hatch is easier to park.
Note that the hatchback shares almost no sheetmetal with the sedan—only the hood and rocker panels are identical. Obviously, you’d expect the roof, quarters and possibly the rear doors to be different, but unique front fenders and front doors? You may not love the new car’s shape, but you have to admire Mazda’s commitment to it.
Unfortunately, either body style has the same Achilles heel: a lack of rear-seat room. With the seat adjusted for your average-height author, the back seat is tight; with a six-footer up front, even children will have to sit criss-cross applesauce. The hatchback gives up only 0.1 inch of rear-seat headroom to the sedan, but in a car this tight, every little bit counts. Meanwhile, the cargo bay isn’t what you would call generous. For someone looking for raw practicality, it’s hard to argue for the Mazda over, say, the more commodious Honda Civic.
But as our first drive of the sedan revealed, all can be forgiven once you hit the open road. Which brings us to the second variant we came to test: The new i-ACTIV all-wheel-drive system.
The AWD Version
Mazda’s previous-gen AWD system was pretty cool: It used the data available from multiple sensors—outside temperature, wiper operation, etc.—to clue itself into current conditions and adjust power distribution accordingly. While that system is still in use on Mazda’s crossovers, it’s gone for the new Mazda 3.
The new i-Activ setup works hand-in-hand with Mazda’s upgraded G-Vectoring Control Plus (GVC+) vehicle-dynamics software. The system looks at traditional data points (yaw, wheel speed, steering-wheel position, and more) and runs a virtual model of the car’s dynamics in software to guide its decisions about where the power should be going. Mazda’s engineers tell us that the system is so accurate and quick that there isn’t time (or need) to wait for other outside inputs.
Meanwhile, GVC+ is pulling its own fancy tricks, such as reducing engine torque as the driver turns the steering wheel in order to get a bit more weight on the front wheels—thereby increasing responsiveness—and dragging the outside front brake on turn-out to help straighten the car.
To demonstrate the system to us, Mazda built a snow course in Squaw Valley and had us run it in both front- and all-wheel-drive Mazda 3s, including one car fitted with snow tires in which the engineer riding shotgun could turn GVC+ off. You don’t really notice GVC+ in operation when its active, but when disabled the car was obviously slower to turn in and respond to the driver’s commands. And what happens on the snow translates to dry roads, only at higher speeds: With AWD and GVC+, you can drive a lot more quickly. And isn’t that what Mazdas are all about?
Which leads us to the elephant in the room: The torsion-beam rear axle, regarded in the industry as the Wal-Mart of rear suspensions. Mazda acknowledges that there was a cost element to the decision, but also argued that the fewer bushings the design requires allowed chassis engineers to better control body motions, which in turn makes the car more comfortable for both driver and passenger when driven fast. We can get behind this explanation, whether or not it’s true: Mazda put us on some rather challenging roads, and we found ourselves gradually ramping up our speed, finding a rhythm, and sticking to it. One of the most effective things a car can do is instill confidence in its driver, and the 3 does that better than most. Our bet: If you didn’t know the Mazda 3 lacked an independent rear end, you’d never guess.
Dave Coleman, Mazda’s manager of vehicle dynamics engineering, pointed out that torsion beams are usually used to enhance trunk space and lower the cost. “They’re engineered cheap because they’re used on cheaply engineered cars,” he said. “A crappy car with a torsion-beam rear axle is going to be a crappy car no matter what.” Point taken.
We have to mention fuel economy: We saw indicated economy in the low 30-mpg range in the AWD cars on twisty, hilly mountain roads. For the way we were driving and the 186 horsepower delivered by the 3’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder, that’s pretty impressive. Mazda didn’t mention its cylinder-deactivation feature during the technical rundown; clearly it was content to let the function’s results speak for themselves.
The Manual Transmission
Last but not least is the manual transmission, and, oh, what a sweetheart it is. Mazda spends a lot of time sweating the way its cars feel, and it shows in the stick-shift 3. The clutch pedal has short travel, even take-up, and nice weight, and the shift lever seems to drop into each position as if propelled by unseen forces. Furthermore, the manual is yet another reminder of the pure sweetness of a big, naturally aspirated four: The pull is even and organic, and the impression one gets is that the driver can deploy each of the engine’s 186 horses as and where needed. Sure, we’re car-magazine writers and we’re genetically programmed to say every car is better with a manual transmission—but the Mazda 3 truly is even better with a manual.
So what we have here seems to be an outstandingly excellent car, one that appeals to all of the senses in being upscale, comfortable, and great to drive. But will it be a runaway hit? Possibly not.
The big problem for the Mazda 3 is that it may be priced out of the market. Bear in mind that the 3 (and the AWD version in particular) has two things working against it: One, AWD is a popular option on rear-drive-based cars but not so much on front-drive ones, since many Snow Belters believe that front-wheel-drive is good enough whether they run winter tires or not. Second, when times are good and gas prices are low, Americans want bigger cars and SUVs; when they aren’t, they increasingly are turning to hybrids.
We sampled two Mazda 3 AWD models, a sedan priced at $30,660 and a hatch priced at $31,360. The manual transmission is only offered on top-of-the-line hatchbacks, which means they start at $28,445, and the one we drove listed for $29,960. Those are problematic numbers, because taking your $30K to a Toyota dealership will get you a rather nice Camry or RAV4, and $28.5K is enough for a new Volkswagen GTI. Given those options, why would either Joe Average or Jane Enthusiast buy a Mazda? The company might argue that the new top-of-the-line 3s are as nice as an Audi, and they’d be right—but let’s not forget that you can get a genuine A3 for only a couple grand more. The company’s move toward a more premium market position is going to take some time, and work.
There’s no question that the 2019 Mazda 3 is a gem, and not only that, but we’ve liked every single variation we’ve tried. Whether it will sell or not remains to be seen, but the people who do write the check will be getting a great car no matter the body style, driveline, or transmission.
2019 Mazda 3 Hatchback AWD w/ Premium Package Specifications
|PRICE||$31,360 (as tested)|
|ENGINE||2.5L DOHC 16-valve I-4; 186 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 186 lb-ft @ 6,000 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD hatchback|
|EPA MILEAGE||24/32 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||175.6 x 79.7 x 56.7 in|
|0–60 MPH||7.0 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||130 mph|