Mazda3 Review: Commuting in the Great Automotive Age

As the regular followers of this blog already know, my 2013 Ford Focus is no more, having died an early death in an intersection not far from my house. Two airbags deployed means a very expensive repair and an expensive repair on a car in the Focus’ price range means the phrase “total loss” will bubble up quite a lot. That meant I needed a new daily driver, and that meant a Soul Red 2015 Mazda Mazda3 Sport Grand Touring 5-door.


So, as they say on Marketplace, let’s do the numbers. In SGT trim, the Mazda3 sports a direct-injection 2.5-L 4-cylinder engine that makes 183 bhp and 185 lb-ft of torque, driving the front wheels through a 6-speed transmission. Those numbers make this engine both the largest and most powerful that I’ve ever owned, and the difference is noticeable. My neck dyno tells me that this engine isn’t doing much below about 2,500 rpm, but when the power comes on it will surprise you with how quickly it moves this 3001-lb car. If you are in a sporting mood, the paddle shifters will easily allow you to keep the engine in the power band (at least until you catch up the car in front of you. And you can toss it on twisty roads fairly easily. It changes directions sharply and with minimal body roll. The brakes are strong, with 11.6-in discs up front and 10.4-in discs in the rear, nestled inside of sleek 18-inch wheels.

But it’s not just about the numbers. The interior of the Mazda3 is a nice place to be. The seats are comfortable, the visibility is good, and the ergonomics are excellent. I particularly like the arrangement of the center console, including the location of the volume knob. Mazda engineers saw fit to move the volume control off of the center stack and instead located it close to the shifter. This location makes the knob easier to reach for both the driver and the passenger. My only complaint about the interior is buckling the rear seat belts with a child’s booster seat in place is very challenging.

Center-mounted volume knob is a nice touch.
Not a KERS system.

In SGT trim, the Mazda3 also includes something called an i-ELOOP. In addition to being difficult to pronounce, this device consists of a capacitor that charges through regenerative braking. When I read that far in the owner’s manual, I thought, “Sweet! I’ve got a Formula 1-style KERS system. Where’s the push-to-pass button?” Then I read a little further and saw that the i-ELOOP actually only powers the accessories, which in theory should ease the load on the engine and improve the fuel economy. Does it work? No idea, but the EPA-estimated fuel economy is about 1 mpg higher for models equipped with the system.

The infotainment system in the SGT model includes Mazda’s navigation system in addition to the standard features. So how is the navigation? Fine, I guess. To be honest, I haven’t used it since I discovered that Android Auto is, ahem, available to anyone with a computer, a USB stick, and the ability to follow some pretty basic instructions. Supposedly an official update is coming, but Mazda has been saying that for quite a while. In the meantime, the version available through Mazda AIO Tweaks works quite well.


The only places where I feel like the Mazda3 has underperformed are in the aural arena. Namely, the sound of the engine is not of the same caliber as it’s performance. Also, the quality of the stereo is not as high as some other similar cars in which I’ve sat. But perhaps most importantly, tire noise is very intrusive at highway speed, probably due to the OEM Dunlop SP5000s that seem to be universally disliked. These tires are simultaneously loud, hard, and poorly wearing. I also hear that despite being all-weather tires the winter traction is appalling. I can’t wait until they wear out and I can replace them with something quieter and longer lasting. This will probably happen next year. In the meantime, I did a test using an app called Sound Meter and found the interior noise level at 70 mph on various stretches of I-78 in New Jersey usually remained between about 67 and 74 dB. We’ll see if that goes down when I replace the Dunlops. For now, I’ve been driving the car for several months and gotten used to the roar (or I have selective hearing damage and don’t hear those frequencies anymore).

The Mazda3 is actually the car that I really wanted when I bought my Focus in 2015, but since I prefer to buy pre-owned cars I was nudged into the Focus by free market principles. Specifically, the inventory of used Focuses (Foci?) was so plentiful that the second generation Mazda3 could not compete on price. Anyway, by 2017 used Mazda3s had become much more plentiful and so that it exactly what I found: a 2015 Mazda3 in Soul Red with a 2.5-liter engine and about 16,000 miles on the odometer.

Parking in front of a second-generation Ford Focus is a little like parking in front of my past self.

So how do the two vehicles compare? That’s the real question since they would definitely be cross-shopped by people like me who like wagons that get good gas mileage and handle well. The list of features for both cars are very similar: in-dash navigation, cruise control, power everything, sporty wheels on a sport-tuned suspension, bluetooth connectivity, seating for 4 adults in comfortable leather seats. True, the Mazda3 has some features that the Focus did not, but that is due at least in part to the fact that it’s two years newer and so things like adaptive cruise control had filtered down to cars in this price range by the time it was on the market.


But how do they really compare? I can sum up the key differences between these two cars with one sentence: The Mazda3 does everything that the Focus did, but everything about the car is just a little bit more well-thought-out. Yes, you can stream music from your phone via bluetooth, but the infotainment system in the Mazda3 just works when you turn it on whereas in the Focus you need to make sure your phone is plugged in and everything running in the background has been turned off or else the stream will skip periodically. Yes, both cars have a spacious cargo area, but the rear seats fold flat in the Mazda3 by simply flipping them down while the Focus can only do that if you remove the headrests. And the Mazda3 doesn’t have a bulky subwoofer impinging into the cargo space in the rear. Overall both cars have about the same amount of space but the Mazda3’s interior is more smartly designed to feel more spacious than the Focus.

Is that too nit-picky? How about this: both cars have 6-speed automatic transmissions that you can shift manually if you are feeling racy, but only the Mazda3 has paddles behind the wheel while the Focus requires you to press up-and-down buttons on the side of the transmission lever. (Side note: Who at Ford thought this was a good idea? It’s like they did market research and figured out that you need to be able to manually shift an automatic transmission to compete in the segment but that no one actually uses this feature so they put a little effort into implementing it as possible.) Oh, and the Mazda3’s automatic transmission hasn’t the been the subject of multiple recalls with a warranty extension to 100,000 miles because the manufacturer just can’t seem to get it right.


And both cars have a sport mode, but only the Mazda3’s version actually makes the car more sporty. In the Focus, putting the transmission in “S” means that it holds a higher rpm longer, which is more annoying than useful. You could shift it up yourself, but then you have press those useless buttons on the shift lever. In the Mazda3, pressing the “Sport” button makes the engine and transmission more responsive. In other words, it makes the car more sporty, and noticeably so. The first time I tried it on the back country road with no one around I was shocked and what happened when I put my foot to the floor. The Mazda3 is easily the fastest car I have ever owned.

Press this. You won’t regret it.

In the end, there’s nothing that you have to forgive in the Mazda3. Or nothing substantive, at least. It’s not perfect and my gripes have been outlined above. But to be honest, it would be hard for me to be any happier with car. Sometimes it surprises me that this a car with this many features is considered an economy commuter car. It is truly a great automotive age in which we live where we can drive cars like this.

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