There I was, foot to the floor, all four wheels spinning, the car sliding in the most wonderful, aggressive, wide-arc donuts I’ve done in a long time, taking up the whole snow-covered back parking lot at the community college, quiet and still on this late winter snow day. I was not in a WRX. I was not in a GR Corolla. I was in a rather handsome Mazda that doesn’t quite fit in.
I had been eager to drive this car for two good reasons.
The first is that it is, has been, will remain, one of the most beautiful cars on the market today at any price. There is something wonderful about the deeply sculpted sides of this futuristic egg, a kind of surface treatment that is normally reserved for top-flight supercars, or prototype race cars. It’s a gorgeously handled design, one that just so happens to be a family hatchback. Vehicles like this haven’t been so stylish since the 1970s.
The second is that the specs on this car are alluring. I grew up in the Nineties and Aughts, so to me a “fast AWD car” is still the turn-of-the-millenium Audi S4. Amazingly, both cars make the same horsepower: 250. But while that S4 needed 30 valves, two turbos, and six cylinders to make that power out of 2.7 liters, the Mazda gets the same out of a 2.5-liter inline four. And it does it lower in the rev range. And it makes a good deal more torque, too, 310 against 258 lb-ft. And the Mazda weighs less, too! A 2000 Audi S4 was 3384 pounds with the manual transmission. A new Mazda3 2.5 Turbo AWD is 3393 with the mandatory automatic. It’s not like that’s all a question of luxury: this Mazda3’s interior is draped in leather just like that Audi was.
And on that frosty morning, snow coming down and blanketing the Finger Lakes, it did all that I wanted it to do. It let me turn off traction and stability control and slide to my heart’s content. I could pin my foot to the floor and get the car sideways, I could lift off the throttle and trim the line, dipping the nose of the car in. I could transition, I could tip the car in deep and power my way out of it. It was all I wanted out of an all-wheel drive car in the snow.
This, of course, is missing the point of the Mazda3 Turbo. It is very clearly not a Mazdaspeed3, in name or in spirit. Mazda doesn't want it to be. Mazda wants this car to be a premium car more than it wants it to be a performance car.
This is where things get convoluted.
That all comes down to Mazda focusing this car on luxury and dialing it back that final degree from being purely sporty. This is still a 300-hp hatchback. Just because it has some leather and an automatic transmission doesn't make it, like, luxury. Even if it is luxurious, it doesn't have the presence of, say, an Audi, Infiniti, or Genesis.
Mazda designed this car with that sort of comfort in mind. Powerful as the engine is, it's tuned for low-end grunt, for driving around town. By contrast, a GR Corolla's engine feels like it's coming apart at the seams. A Civic Type R races towards redline. The Mazda3 is a rocketship, sure, but it doesn't have that same sense of attitude. Like a luxury car, Mazda just wanted it to be effortless to drive and always have enough power. Like with the CX-5 signature, Mazda is trying to see if fundamentally good dynamics and great styling combined with some extra power can make a mainstream car feel like a luxury car.
Mazda is asking you to take a leap with it, because when you present the world with a 300-hp hatchback, it's going to read as a hot hatch. I just don't know if I can suspend my disbelief.
The thing is that this Mazda3 Turbo isn’t in the same conversation when we bring up cars like the Honda Civic Type R or Toyota GR Corolla. It makes sense once you drive them. The Mazda isn't as raw, as direct as those cars in feel, even if they're aligned in stats. Power is in the same league, performance on paper is in the same category. They are all the same size, just about, they are all pricey. A top-trim Mazda3 2.5 Turbo AWD, in this case $36,010 with destination and $595 of red paint, runs as much as a base GR Corolla. A WRX or Hyundai Elantra N are right on the same echelon as the Mazda, though the ultra-sporty Civic lives in the low- to mid-40s.
I took Mazda at its word and used this hatchback as, well, a hatchback. I took it to the store. I drove it to the next town over. I ran all my errands and stuffed it full of stuff and sat in the back and ran it on the highway, on flat straights, up long grades, and over twisting mountains in the Catskills.
And do you know what? It was comfortable, relaxing, and thoughtful. Mazda remains committed against touch screens. While there is a big digital display, what looks like an iPad glued to the dash, you get to everything with a clicky spinny dial mouse on the center console.
What it wasn't was luxurious. Drive something like a Genesis and you will be shocked at how much more comfortable it is. The higher quality interior adds price to those cars, but the suspension tuning doesn't. There are much more cultured cars on sale than this Mazda.
My biggest apprehension was visibility. As handsome as this design is, the back seats are a cave, basically, and there isn’t a ton of glass in the rear half of the car. Somehow it wasn’t too bad keeping myself from merging into oncoming traffic, and the back seats weren’t as tight as I expected. There was even a good amount of room in the rear cargo area. It’s no Prius, but it could have been worse.
What I didn’t anticipate was the fuel economy. It was awful! I barely scraped out 24 mpg with this car, no matter how I drove it. Highway driving, getting around town, even on my long stretches when I wasn’t doing donuts in every snowy pull-out, nothing improved. This, with a car that needs premium gas. It’s expensive! A 600-mile round trip like the one I did would cost a bit over $100 at New York’s average around $4/gal. Any Californians reading this would have it worse. The same kind of drive, say, LA to Yosemite and back, would run you $125.
And here is my fundamental question: If you are driving a car that asks as much of you as a real, hardcore, all-wheel-drive performance car, shouldn’t it trust you like a real, hardcore, all-wheel-drive performance car? If I’m going to go through the trouble of paying this kind of money, both at the dealer and at the pump, shouldn’t I get a car that is well and truly unhinged when I want it to be?
I don’t know. Against a Hyundai N, this Mazda is so much more luxurious and so much less garish. Against a WRX, it’s lower and sportier, though it misses out on the Subaru’s optional third pedal and better ground clearance. Against the Corolla it is more refined and against the Honda it’s… well, it’s cheaper. This Mazda3 is more comfortable, more stylish than all those cars. It is as powerful and almost as fun, and more adult, too.
The Mazda3 falls into a weird gap in the market. It’s not raw enough to fit in with the hardcore hot hatch crowd, and it’s not prestigious enough to fit in with the luxury car crowd. It’s certainly too thirsty to be a simply practical car, not that you’d buy the turbo AWD 3 if you were looking for pure functionality.
I think you could argue that if Mazda gave this 3 a manual transmission and a cable-actuated handbrake it would move into the same conversation as cars like the Civic Type R or Hyundai Elantra N or GR Corolla. All those sport compacts, if I’m honest, offer a greater degree of control to the driver. The GR Corolla, in particular, lets you futz around with torque splits and performance modes not seen on the Mazda, to say nothing of its three pedals and handbrake lever.
Sliding this Mazda around that snowy parking lot, I’m not sure I missed any of that. The fundamentals with this thing are so strong.
The car market is experiencing a kind of renaissance for sport compact cars right now. We are not short of options from Toyota, Honda, even Hyundai. Why Mazda gets overlooked is a bit of a shame.
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