2016 Mazda3 Review: If This Is The Anti-Hot Hatch, Why Is It So Fun To Drive?

Test Drive

We spent a week with the car in search of answers.

Mazda has made a calculated decision to keep the five-door Mazda3 out of the hot hatch wars. Its top engine, a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder, makes just 184 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque. Though the Mazda3 has a curb weight of just 2,865 pounds its 0-60 mph time is an atrocious 7.4 seconds. Although the 3 looks great it doesn't feature any aero elements or other aesthetic/actual performance bits. This car is in many ways the anti-hot hatch, and that’s exactly how Mazda wants it.

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Mazda knows it can’t rely on tuned models to bring in the big bucks. The real money for the automaker is in higher trim levels and optional extras. That’s why it sees a new Speed3 as “childish,” and why you shouldn’t hold your breath for the new CX-9’s turbocharged SkyActiv four-cylinder, which makes 250 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque, to find its way into the 3. While the Mazda3 isn’t getting hotter anytime soon you shouldn’t ignore it altogether. There’s some fun to be had with this hatchback. We’d know, as we got to play around with one for a week, and it was equipped with a six-speed manual. When we drove the Mazda6 we sang the car’s praises but lamented the unavailability of a manual in Grand Touring guise.

The six-speed automatic wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary and left us wondering what the manual option offered. The 3 offers a manual on the Grand Touring trim, which lets you get a side of fun with your entry-level luxury. The difference was night and day, although keep in mind that it’s a relative change. The Mazda3 is still an affordable hatchback after all. But the manual does make city driving and passing situations a bit more fun. Our only knock on it is that you have to let off the clutch pedal a surprising amount before it’ll fully engage. That small complaint aside, the Mazda3 five-door is a joy to drive. You won't mistake it for a track-focused hot hatch but it offers a surprising amount of fun given its roots as a budget car.

The fully independent front and rear suspension isn’t tuned for performance yet holds its own through the corners. The four-wheel disc brakes provide good stopping power if you ever let things get out of hand as we did on one spirited drive through San Francisco. Mazda certainly stuck to its "Driving Matters" mantra when designing this car. But at its core the 3 is a mass market daily driver, and in that regard it checks most of the necessary boxes. We averaged 26 mpg on the highway and 16.1 mpg in the city. That’s down considerably from the 26/35/29 mpg split Mazda has given the car. The SkyActiv engine is capable of much more, which makes us wonder if we just needed to put more miles on our tester to up the average.

The Mazda3 five-door offers 20.2 cubic feet of storage space with the rear seats up and 47.1 cubic feet of storage space with the back seats folded. Those numbers are pretty crappy when compared to the competition. Hopefully an increase in storage space is in order when the next-gen 3 hatch debuts. Rear headroom is pretty good but rear legroom sits solidly at "OK," at least for someone standing six feet tall. While Mazda’s interior space could be better, its cabin design is top notch. The leather-trimmed sport seats are nice for the segment and the 7-inch touchscreen and commander wheel are a solid combo. However, we’d axe the goofy faux plastic carbon fiber panels found on the door and steering wheel.

Mazda’s Kodo design language is one of the industry’s best and has helped make the 3 one of most striking cars in the five-door hatchback segment. Long, flowing lines give it an elegant look and, when combined with the Soul Red paint the Mazda3 looks faster than it is. Our tester came in at $26,580. That kind of money buys you a Ford Focus ST or a Volkswagen Golf GTI. We’d rather have both of those cars than a Grand Touring Mazda3 five-door. Here it's all about the lower trim levels. An entry-level Sport model with a manual starts at $18,545 and offers the same great looks and interior design, albeit with a less powerful 155-hp 2.0-liter engine.

It’ll be interesting to see how Mazda moves the five-door three upmarket. The easy way out would be to drop the CX-9’s engine into it and add all-wheel drive. That would make the conversation about whether or not to shell out $27,000 (or more) for the car much more interesting. Until then, the five-door Mazda3 will remain the anti-hot hatch that's best bought on a budget. Given its sales success (it's the brand's second best selling model after the CX-5 crossover) that's not such a bad thing. Photos by Nathan Filbrandt.