WEST HOLLYWOOD, California—From its clean-shaven, ambitious face to its well-toned tail’s twin exhaust outlets, the 2019 Mazda 3 presents a fresh take on compact-car aesthetics and fires a ringing salvo on the question of driving manners. Offered as an elegant sedan and, ahem, distinctive hatchback, the 3 is the latest effort by Mazda to move upscale, a quest that started in 1992 with the company’s stillborn Amati luxury division.
Driving this 3—the advancement of Mazda’s worldwide bestseller with more than 6 million units since launch in 2003—is an unqualified pleasure. There are four trim levels: base, Select (sedan only), Preferred, and Premium. All share the same powertrain with a carried-over 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission. A manual transmission will be offered later, an all-wheel-drive version comes soon, and the compression-ignition Skyactiv-X four-cylinder engine will be available in the 3.
For our test drive from Sunset Boulevard to a United States Forest Service picnic area in the San Gabriel Mountains and back, we sampled the sedan with the Premium package. No hatchback was available, and be advised it will arrive in showrooms later than the sedan, which comes in March. Our sedan included a leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather seats in a beautiful ivory-gray tone, and superb 12-speaker Bose audio (although the standard eight-speaker system wouldn’t be hardship).
The engine makes 186 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque, which isn’t bad. Now including cylinder deactivation for added efficiency, it’s smooth and responsive and delivers a pleasurable and encouraging humming note. The powerplant interacts beautifully with Mazda’s in-house automatic, and when we selected Sport mode, good things happened in the mountains where holding third gear is imperative. We came away with the sense it would be possible to drive the 3 for many years with complete satisfaction.
A significant change with this new chassis is deletion of the multilink independent rear suspension in favor of a patent-pending torsion-bar arrangement. Whether this has to do with cost, packaging, or Mazda’s screed about the car as an extension of the driver’s body and soul is unclear. Anyway, we have no complaints about handling, and the predictive and stability-enhancing G-Vectoring Control Plus (details here) is standard even on base models. The car turns in smartly on the stiff chassis and is imperturbable. The 18-inch, low-profile Toyo Proxes all-season tires were acceptable in terms of grip, and ride quality exceeds expectations. Meanwhile, the brake pedal is firm and progressive in the Porsche fashion, and it’s easy to bring the sedan to a stop without bobbling your passenger’s head.
Another point of merit is the quiet cabin. The shroud rises perhaps a bit too high over reconfigurable gauges, yet outward visibility is good thanks to the semi-wraparound windshield and slender, slung-back A-pillars. Angled atop the sleek dashboard, the 8.8-inch display screen has a sensuous elongated form. Do not mistake it for a touchscreen, though. Rather, the rotary controller on the wide center console accepts the inputs. Menus and submenus abound, and as we learned, even the turn signal’s mysteriously soothing clack can be adjusted for volume. Like the people riding in open-top tour vehicles back on Sunset Boulevard, we marveled, but our wonderment concerned the content level of this modestly priced—yet notably more expensive—car.
Let us amend that. Not only the content, but also the level of refinement is marvelous—a clear indicator of those upmarket intentions. “If a button feels cheap, you don’t have any sense of pride in the operation of the product,” said Matthew Valbuena, Mazda engineer for human-machine interface. Be assured that nothing inside feels or looks cheap. Stepping out of our sedan, we admired how the Soul Red Crystal raiment ($595) enhanced the elegant form. The 3 has the best countenance and most tasteful attire in any group photo of current compact cars. It seems to yawn, like a recent Ivy League graduate, before undertaking important deeds. The wide hood flows onto the front fenders, and the lamp clusters (adaptive LEDs in the Premium trim) have a fine simplicity. (The hood is the only common body panel between the sedan and hatchback.) No excess of ornamentation, no gratuitous surface modeling clutters the sides. Product manager Kota Beppu compared the profile to a “single flowing brushstroke,” and that’s not just New Age folderol. Proportions, overhangs, and gaps are just right. As Dave Coleman, manager of vehicle dynamics for Mazda North America, expressed it: “If you’re going to make a car look this good, you shouldn’t put it on stilts.”
We give all due praise to the sedan. What about the hatchback? The bulbous rear quarter section is faintly disturbing. Is this car intended to carry hooded hair dryers to and from beauty salons? Maybe the shape points to a trend, and we will learn to love it. We’re reminded that some of Beethoven’s contemporaries found his music unlistenable. One hatchback was displayed at the hotel Mazda chose for this global press preview, but we will have to wait to drive cars like it.
The 2019 Mazda 3 is a small car. Backseat entry is tight. With the front seats pushed all the way back, it’s almost impossible. A plea to Uber drivers: If you’re buying a Mazda 3, you should only accept ride requests from people with flat heads. But beyond our ambivalence about the ungainly hatchback, we have to hand it to Mazda for going all-out on the new 3. A large team strove for and achieved excellence.
|2019 Mazda 3 Sedan Specifications|
|ENGINE||2.5L DOHC 16-valve I-4; 186 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 186 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD or AWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||26–27/35–36 mpg city/hwy|
|L x W x H||183.5 x 70.7 x 56.9 in|
|WEIGHT||3100 lb (est)|
|0-60 MPH||7.0 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||130 mph (mfr)|