2017 Mazda3

All the right stuff in just the right-size package

By MALCOLM GUNN
www.wheelbasemedia.com

Honda and Chevrolet can brag all they want about their respective new Civic and Cruze hatchbacks, but as far as the Mazda3 is concerned, that news is so very yesterday.

The automaker’s small-car stalwart has been consistently dealing in hatchbacks and quasi-wagons (a.k.a. five-door models) alongside the standard sedan variant for several years, as have a number of other competing compact-class brands.

The current-generation “3” hatch and sedan arrived for the 2014 model year and are now receiving a freshening. There’s a mildly redesigned front end, including a new grille, headlight pods and running lights plus a new rear bumper for the hatchback. These subtle updates merely enhance what is arguably one of the best small-car designs available.

For the passenger compartment, the most obvious change is an electronic parking brake for all trim levels, replacing the traditional handbrake. This allowed the designers to fit a larger floor console that complements the increased door-panel stowage (replacing the previous space-limiting door pockets).

Mazda has also injected more cabin insulation to, as the company claims, significantly reduce the decibel level when traveling over rough roads.

Increasing driver enjoyment was a major goal in the Mazda3’s development, highlighted by G-Vectoring Control (GVC). The system, which is standard, monitors steering inputs and at just the right time while cornering, slightly reduces engine torque. That shifts a bit weight over the front axle and preloads the steering and suspension, thus making it more responsive. Mazda says there’s more tire contact with the road and increased stability when turning. Mazda says that GVC actually works best in rough or uneven conditions.

Left untouched are the Mazda3’s available engines. The starting point 2.0-liter four-cylinder produces 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque. Optional is a 184-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 185 pound-feet.

Either can be harnessed to a six-speed manual transmission, or available six-speed automatic. At a time when manual transmissions seem to be falling out of favor, Mazda has actually expanded availability to include stick shifts with the top-end trims, as well as the more basic models.

Of course the smaller engine is also the most thrifty, but not by much. The 2.0’s best numbers are 28 mpg city and 37 on the highway with the automatic, while the 2.5 with the same transmission is rated at 26/35.

The 2.5/automatic combo can be ordered with what Mazda calls the iEloop capacitor that stores electricity generated under braking. The system then provides power for the 3’s various electrical operations for extended periods while disengaging the alternator, which reduces drag on the engine. With it, the 2.5’s fuel-economy rating improves by one mpg in both the city and highway cycles. It’s up to the buyer to decide if the $800 iEloop option is worth it.

Basic Mazda3 sport models ring in at $18,700 for the sedan and $19,400 for the hatchback. Both are decently equipped with the usual features as well as push-button start, a seven-inch touch-screen and a six-speaker audio/infotainment system with voice command.

The mid-range Touring adds climate control, heated front seats with six-way power adjustable driver’s seat, rain-sensing wipers and 18-inch alloy wheels (16-inch steel wheels are standard). The Touring also includes blind-spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert that warns of rear approaching traffic in left- or right-hand lanes and when you’re backing up.

Along with the 2.5 engine, the Grand Touring comes with perforated-leather seat coverings, power moonroof and a premium nine-speaker Bose-brand audio system. The Grand Touring can also be topped up with navigation, pivoting headlights and various dynamic safety aids.

The sharp-looking Mazda3 already enjoys a stellar reputation as a “driver’s car” and the 2017 model should increase its desirability among buyers seeking more than just basic transportation.

What you should know: 2017 Mazda3

Type: Four-door, front-wheel-drive compact sedan and hatchback

Engines (h.p.): 2.0-liter DOHC I-4 (155); 2.5-liter DOHC I-4 (184)

Transmissions: Six-speed manual; six-speed automatic

Market position: The compact-car category is a crowded one with nearly every mainstream automaker producing at least one sedan and a hatchback/wagon. The Mazda3 stands out by providing an excellent driving experience.

Points:
• Modest redesign makes a good-looking model even better.
• Interior makeover adds a bit more utility.
• Base and optional four-cylinder engines are noteworthy for their smooth power delivery.
• Wouldn’t it be great if a performance Mazdaspeed model returned?
• Surprising that Mazda doesn’t sell a lot more of these excellent vehicles than it does.

Active safety: Blind-spot warning with cross-traffic alert (opt.); active cruise control (opt.); emergency braking (opt.); lane-departure warning/assist (opt.)

By Comparison:

Chevrolet Cruze
Base price: $17,850
A good looker with lots of passenger space. New Hatchback model for 2017.

Subaru Impreza
Base price: $19,200
Sedan and wagon versions both come with AWD. More style and power for 2017.

Toyota Corolla
Base price: $19,400
Rock-steady, but modestly powered. Scion iM wagon is now Corolla iM for 2017.