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2020 Mazda3 Premium Package Test Drive: Automobile All-Stars Winner

Mazda’s excellent hatchback delivers on almost all fronts without incinerating your bank account.

Aaron GoldWriterWilliam WalkerPhotographer

The Mazda3 was the sole representative of small, affordable, front-wheel-drive cars at this year's Automobile All-Stars, and it proved to be one hell of an ambassador. Editor after editor sang its praises, despite driving it back-to-back with some of the industry's best supercars.

"What the Mazda3 has working against itself in this star-studded crowd—economy and potential anonymity—it makes up for with honest-to-goodness excellence," said contributor Basem Wasef. "Feels like a big Miata hatchback," observed features editor Rory Jurnecka. "Good manual gear throws, well controlled body motions, and tight handling. The fact you can buy this much quality, fun, and practicality for less than the average cost of a new car in the U.S. today is a big win."

We would not have been surprised if the Mazda proved to be a bit out of its depth during its test drive on the Streets of Willow among heavy-hitters like the Ferrari F8, Lamborghini Huracán Evo, and Chevrolet C8 Corvette. But despite its relative lack of firepower, the 3 impressed everyone who got behind its wheel. "A bit of a turtle on the track compared to other contenders, but still a lot of fun to slide around in," said digital editor Ed Tahaney. "It's a surprisingly capable little track tick." Track ace Andy Pilgrim agreed, saying, "Pure fun. On track I can rotate and point it anywhere. It stays on-line over bumpy pavement." In fact, it was pro racer Pilgrim who first pointed out to all of our testers, "You all really need to make sure you spend a good amount of time in the Mazda3."

Mazda offers the 3 in several flavors: sedan or hatch, automatic or manual, front- or all-wheel drive. We've been very impressed by the high-tech all-wheel-drive system, which essentially builds a software model of the car's dynamics and predicts how best to distribute traction, essentially using real-world data only to check and correct its math. But we really wanted a manual-transmission car, and that meant we had to go with a front-wheel-drive hatchback in the top-trim level. We were satisfied with that, especially when we saw the price tag was just a tick more than $30,000. Hell, Lamborghini charged a third of that amount just for the Huracán Evo's orange paint.

One area where the Mazda3 doesn't offer a choice is the engine, and our group was split on the 186-horsepower output from the Mazda3's 2.5-liter four-cylinder. Pilgrim deemed the power "adequate," and Jurnecka said it was "fine for this class." For others, the old L.J.K. Setright mantra—it is more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow—was always top-of-mind. "Add a turbo," said contributor Arthur St. Antoine, "and this new compact would have me doing handstands."

But as much as we loved hot-dogging around on our test loop, we also liked the way the Mazda3 just went normally down the road. All-Stars logistics include moving the cars long distances, and the 3 was a popular choice for those drives, with some opining that it rivaled the Bentley Continental GT for long-distance travel, thanks to a quiet ride, refined demeanor, and mature cabin. "I love the design, both inside and out," agreed social media editor Billy Rehbock, and Jurnecka added, "The clean, simple interior is classy and would be right at home in an Alfa Romeo." Pilgrim chimed in with, "Surprisingly quiet for its size and price segment," while St Antoine, as usual, put it bluntly: "Why would you buy a Mercedes A-Class when you could drive this for, oh, $10,000 less?"

The Mazda3 hatchback's styling drew a great deal of criticism (or at least controversy) when Mazda first launched the car, but there were no negative comments in the All-Stars logbook about the its looks. Mazda's stylists shaped the sheetmetal to reflect light in just the right way, an effect highlighted by this car's beautiful Soul Red Crystal Metallic paint. The Mazda3 (and all Mazda models) essentially incorporate the scenery into their styling, and we loved the way the car looked in the California desert.

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We'd be lying if we said that we were unanimously united behind the Mazda3. Detroit Editor Todd Lassa was one of the car's critics. "I'd have preferred Mazda having skimped on the luxury interior a bit rather than making the cost-cutting switch to the [rear] beam axle," he said. He also panned "the inscrutable dial-operated infotainment screen. It's distracting to the point of being dangerous. Then there's the huge C-pillar blind spot. This design makes the Mazda3 the most handsome hatchback on the market today, but it doesn't do anything for driver vision."

Lassa's not wrong, but most of us found ourselves able to overlook, and drive around, the Mazda3's few shortcomings and appreciate it as an all-around package. With more and more cars becoming electrified, autonomized, and anonymized, it's good to see a reasonably-priced car that gives us what we want: Good design, good dynamics, good economy. And a manual transmission, of course.

St. Antoine summed up our feelings on the Mazda3 quite succinctly. "Handsome, sweet-driving, light on its feet, and brimming with tech," he said. Wasef tidily encapsulated the reason we named it a winner: "Quietly purposeful and surprisingly engaging, the Mazda3 easily earns All-Stars status by punching well above its weight."

Editor-in-chief Mac Morrison finished off by simply saying, "I'd buy a Mazda3 in a flash, knowing it's a great choice for everyday mundanity but also plenty capable of carving up twisty roads on the weekend, just for the hell of it."

2020 Mazda3 Premium Package Specifications
PRICE $28,420 (base)/$30,665 (as tested)
ENGINE 2.5L DOHC 16-valve I-4/186 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 186 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD hatchback
EPA MILEAGE 25/35 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 183.5 x 70.7 x 56.9 in
WHEELBASE 107.3 in
WEIGHT 3,022 lb
0-60 MPH 7.0 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 130 mph

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