2014 Mazda3: A big winner compact sedan

2014 Mazda3By Bruce Caldwell

Mazda has really been on a hot streak. The CX-5 crossover SUV and the Mazda6 sedan have both fared very well in magazine comparison tests. Consumers have supported those wins at the showroom. The all-new Mazda3 compact sedan is another big winner. The company’s best-selling model scores high in all categories: design, construction quality, interior roominess, fuel efficiency, and handling proficiency.

Fun-to-drive, sporty handling is a key factor that separates the Mazda3i from many of its competitors. The 3i is slotted at the “appliance” end of the buying spectrum, but it performs like a much more expensive car. Mazda understands that cars can be more than boring transportation and their products reflect that philosophy.

Walkaround: We tested a 2014 Mazda3i 5-door Grand Touring, which is a handsome little car. The Mazda styling is unique and familial. The 3-series resembles the larger, more expensive Mazda6. Mazda calls it Kodo styling (whatever that means) and key elements include a bold grille and narrow headlights (almost face-like), wheels placed at the far corners, and bodylines that sweep up and back. The 16-inch alloy wheels are on the small side these days, but fit the body well. Our tester had the optional Soul Red Metallic paint that seemed well worth the additional three hundred dollars.

Interior: Interiors can make or break an inexpensive car. In the case of the Mazda3i the interior is a highlight. The Grand Touring trim included leatherette seats that seemed very much like real cowhide. All the interior materials were of excellent quality (except for the headliner). The fit and finish were great. Door shut is solid.

Interior space is on par with much larger cars. Legroom is stretch-out great with the seats all the way back. The front seats are still comfortable when moved up enough to fit a six-foot tall person in both the front and rear seats. Headroom is ample for tall passengers. The center floor hump is rather large, which compromises the rear middle seating position. The center armrest is soft and wide.

The front seats were nicely bolstered with 3-temperature heat. The thick, contoured steering wheel had excellent auxiliary controls. The sunroof was on the small side, but still a nice feature.

A big, centrally mounted knob controls the infotainment system. It is used to select audio, navigation, and Bluetooth connectivity. We were ambivalent about the system and used the steering wheel controls most of the time. The info/navigation screen looks like a pop-up one, but it’s permanently mounted atop the dashboard.

The hatchback feature greatly increases the car’s utility. The opening is wide and hatch clears tall people. The cargo floor is flat and the 60/40 split rear seat folds almost flat.

Small item interior storage is sub-standard.

Under the Hood: Our 3i GT had the excellent 6-speed manual transmission, which mandated the base 2.0-liter 155 horsepower, 150 lb-ft inline four-cylinder engine. The smooth transmission offset the 29-horsepower deficit from the larger automatic-only 2.5-liter engine. The manual transmission included Hill Launch Assist, which should be mandatory on urban stick shift vehicles.

Fuel economy is rated at an impressive 29 city and 40 highway thanks to Mazda’s highly touted Skyactiv technology. We drove almost exclusively in the city and did match the EPA estimate. We’ve done extensive highway trips in other Skyactiv Mazdas and even exceeded the upper fuel economy estimates.

Skyactiv is the nebulous marketing term Mazda uses for their integrated drivetrain, engineering, emissions, fuel economy, and technology components. Buzzword aside, Skyactiv is Mazda’s way of saying their cars are designed to work as cohesive unit — and they do that very well.

The suspension and chassis components are an impressive blend of sporty and comfortable. There is ample fun to be had on twisty roads, but not at the expense of commuter comfort. The six-speed manual transmission encourages spirited driving, but the Mazda3i is just as happy cruising freeways in sixth gear.

The four-wheel disc brakes are excellent and several safety bonus features are standard (blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, stability control, and traction control).

Behind the Wheel: As mentioned above, the Mazda3i Grand Touring deserves its GT moniker. It’s fun to drive long distances without any comfort compromises. The rack and pinion steering uses electric power steering, but it isn’t at all objectionable.

Despite its spacious interior the Mazda3i is nicely sized for commuter combat. It’s nimble and quick. It can slice through traffic when needed and the ever-shrinking “Compact” mall parking spaces still fit.

A little more horsepower would really boost the driving experience, but that will be rectified when the Mazdaspeed3 arrives.

Whines: The cheap, flocked headliner didn’t match the high quality of the other interior materials. The front and rear door bins are unusually small.

It would have been nice if the optional 2.5-liter 184 horsepower four-cylinder engine was available with the excellent 6-speed manual transmission, but currently the automatic is it. When the Mazdaspeed3 returns with a 263 horsepower turbo engine that will be the Mazda3 to covet.

Bottom Line: The 2014 Mazda3i Grand Touring is an impressive compact sedan. It’s well built, economical, spacious, and very fun to drive. It’s definitely a winning combination worthy of consideration by anyone shopping for a compact sedan.