Driven: The 2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo AWD Could Be Even Better
Mazda’s compact car finally gets the power it deserves, but we wish Mazda would give it even more than that.
LOS ANGELES—Welcome to the most obvious car review you will ever read. Mazda took a car we love, the 2020 Automobile All-Stars alumnus Mazda3, and added an engine we love, the 250-horsepower, 2.5-liter turbo four-cylinder from its biggest SUV, the CX-9. In doing so, Mazda fixed the biggest flaws of both: The Mazda 3 needed more power and the 2.5T engine needed a better wrapper. What's the 2021 Mazda3 2.5 Turbo AWD like to drive? After our test, we know it's every bit as brilliant as the regular Mazda 3, the chief difference being you no longer have that frustrated look on your face when you try to power out of a corner. But there is plenty more to talk about.
2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo AWD Test: Still Not the Car We Hoped For
When Mazda announced the 2.5-liter turbocharged Skyactiv-G engine was coming to the 3, a lot of us had the same thought: Mazdaspeed! But our hopes were dashed way back in 2016 when Mazda North American Operations president Masahiro Moro called the Mazdaspeed 3 "childish. " This is something I probably should take as an insult, as I am legally 30 years outside of childhood and I still like the original Mazdaspeed 3. In fact, if I was going to buy a new car tomorrow, it'd likely be the notably good Hyundai Veloster N, or at the very least a new Elantra N-Line like the one we just tested, and I have good reason to believe a new Mazdaspeed 3, if Mazda conjured one up, would be worthy of consideration.
Why? Because Mazda's engineers are freaking brilliant. I'll spare you the lecture you've read in a half-dozen other Mazda reviews, about how Mazda engineers study how the human body moves when it walks and try to mimic that motion in the cars they design. The human brain automatically tunes out the motion of our head, and if Mazda can make its cars move like the human body—through suspension, tire and all-wheel-drive tuning—you can effectively drive faster without your passengers doing the Technicolor yawn on your nice clean floor mats.
Now, let's shift gears to the Honda Civic Type R. What sets this fantastic car apart from its rivals is that it's one of the only front-wheel-drive performance cars that suffers barely a whit from its front-wheel-drive-ness. More so than any other automaker, Honda has ironed out all of the problems we associate with having the same wheels power and steer. Seeing how well its suspensions work, I have no doubt Mazda could do the same thing just as well, if not better.
2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo AWD Test: A Mazda With the Power of a Chevy Small-Block
So, envision What Might Have Been: A new 2021 Mazdaspeed 3, one with a manual transmission and front-wheel drive rather than the 2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo AWD's standard-fit six-speed automatic and front-wheel drive. Sure, the Mazda would be down on power—250 hp versus the Civic Type R's 306 or the 275 you get from Hyundai's fantastic Veloster N. But look at the torque, man, the torque! The Mazda's 2.5 turbo engine delivers 320 lb-ft, out-twisting the Honda and the Hyundai by 25 and 60 lb-ft, respectively. That's small-block-Chevy-from-the-1960s power. Granted, you need to run the Mazda on 93-octane fuel to get this much power, but even if you feed your Mazda regular 87 octane, you're still at 227 hp and 310 lb-ft.
Based on my experience with the last Mazdaspeed 3, a hypothetical Mazdaspeed 3 could have the potential to hand the Civic Type R it's own ass on a silver platter. What a shame we'll never find out.
2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo AWD Test: Not That There's Anything Wrong With It
To be fair to Mazda, the 2021 3 2.5T is, as it stands, an exceptionally nice car. I mean, exceptionally nice. I spent much of the 2007-ish era lambasting Mazda for its cheap interiors, and since then the designers have done a 360. My test car had a black-and-red interior—not a bright childish BMW shade of red, mind you, but something darker and more mature, like those dried bloodstains you will never get out of your nice white dress shirt. (Soda water? My foot.) The 2021 Mazda 3's cabin is a lovely place to be, with a dash covered in soft padded leather and expensive-feeling switchgear. Even the tick-tock of the directional signals sounds upscale.
The LCD speedo (flanked by analog gauges) moves with a smoothness that puts Jaguar's herky-jerky video dash to shame. The climate controls are a work of art in the way they look, feel, and operate. Some dislike Mazda's stereo controls, which are located on the center console aft of the shifter, but they're quite intuitive once you get used to them.
And there's nothing at all wrong with the way the 2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo AWD drives. I loved the non-turbo Mazda 3 AWD, and the turbo version is even better. The power is great and even the engine note is good—a deep woh-woh-woh at lower revs, the kind of sound you might expect from the offspring of an Audi V-8 and a Subaru Boxer—and it transitions to a traditional four-cylinder snarl at high revs. (When asked, Mazda was cagey about how much of the sound was artificial. My guess is that the low-rpm thrum is electronically generated.)
2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo AWD Test: Who Needs an Eight-Speed Automatic?
The car's six-speed automatic is a bit old-tech; Mazda told us that fewer gears means less shifting and a smoother ride, which is the exact same excuse the company gave us in 2010 when it launched the Mazda 2 with a measly four-speed automatic. The truth is that the 2.5T's torque curve is so broad and flat, and turbo lag so thoroughly banished to the lowest end of the rev range, that downshifts are rarely needed. More speeds in the gearbox means better fuel economy, though, and I was shocked to see the Mazda 3 consumed a quarter-tank of fuel during my curvy-road sojourn. (I was actually getting 22 mpg, which isn't terrible, but the 2021 Mazda 3's fuel tank holds less than 13 gallons.)
My electronic notepad is filled with compliments about the way the 2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo AWD drove. Like the regular Mazda 3, the suspension never seems to come up with the wrong answer. The ride is communicative but never uncomfortable, the steering communicative but never darty, shaky, or otherwise impolite. One of the curves on my favorite test route has a sharp kink with a sudden bump that catches out a lot of cars, but the Mazda 3 2.5T caught it the way Stellan Skarsgård catches the coffee cup in Ronin. (An obscure film reference, I know, but if you're a car fanatic and you haven't seen Ronin, there is something seriously wrong with you.) Push hard and the front tires eventually run out of grip, and from the way they let go it's clear they are (just barely) optimized for comfort over handling.
2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo AWD Test: Would You Take It Over a Mercedes?
The more I tested the 2021 Mazda 3 Turbo 2.5T AWD, the angrier I got. What a missed opportunity this is! No question, it is a great affordable luxury car—I'll dare say it's as nice as Mercedes-Benz's entry-level A220, maybe nicer. (And I don't say that lightly; the A220 is probably one of the best entry-level premium cars out there.) Both cars list for around the same price, and can you imagine asking the average American driver—not a car fanatic, just a regular person—"For $35 grand, which would you buy, a Mazda or a Mercedes?" We all know the answer.
I mean, hey, good on Mazda if it wants to push itself upscale (although look how well that worked for Volkswagen a decade and a half ago). But with the engineering know-how that makes this car so good—intelligence and excellence that practically oozes from between the body panels—the company could have turned it into one of the greatest sport-compact cars on the market, the kind of thing that would be a staple of comparison tests for years to come.
And yet Mazda is leaving that car unbuilt, apparently because folks who want it are childish.
I'd remind Mazda that it was young enthusiasts who helped get the Mazda brand where it is today. Sure, Mazda is having great success with older, slightly more affluent buyers, but where did those people come from? Ten years ago they were buying small, inexpensive cars, and now they have kids and need CX-30s and CX-9s. If Mazda dismisses cars like the Mazdaspeed 3 as childish, where is that next generation of buyers going to come from? It's all well and good to aim for an older, more affluent audience, but if you ignore young buyers, enthusiasts and influencers, next thing you know you're Cadillac with a demographic aged between 65 and deceased.
So let's loop back to the beginning. The 2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo AWD is fine. No, it's not merely fine, it's great—quick, comfortable, upscale, and good fun to drive. It's a bargain luxury car for those in-the-know. If Mazda can find buyers who actually want to blow $35,000 (or the equivalent lease payments) on something other than an SUV or a sports car or an entry-level Mercedes, no question, the brand could not have built them a better car. With the new engine, Mazda has given us everything we asked for in the Mazda 3, and we genuinely thank them.
But would I actually buy a 2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo with my own money? Sorry, but no. I guess I'm just a little too childish.
2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo AWD Highlights
- New top-of-the-line version of the Mazda 3
- Available as a four-door sedan or five-door hatchback
- Automatic transmission and all-wheel drive come standard
2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo AWD Pros
- Solves the Mazda 3's power-deficit problem
- Well-finished, upscale interior
- Good suspension
2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo AWD Cons
- Good to drive but not exactly thrilling
- No manual-transmission option
- Falls short of its enthusiast potential
|2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo AWD Hatchback Specifications|
|ON SALE||Late 2020|
|PRICE||$34,695/$35,215 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||2.5L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/250 hp @ 5,000 rpm, 320 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD hatchback|
|EPA MILEAGE||23/31 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||175.6 x 70.7 x 56.7 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.6 sec|
|TOP SPEED||130 mph|