In short, if you need all-wheel drive but hate the idea of a wasteful, copycat SUV, or if you want a compact sedan and don’t want your friends to think you’re in a rental car, buy a new Mazda3. Got it? Good. That was easy.
But for those of you who want to know how the Mazda3 AWD became so special, I need to give you some background information. Specifically, I need to tell you about my friend John, because we all have a friend like John, and Mazda is like John.
John is a genius. Like, a certified, bona-fide human supercomputer. He understands more about most subjects than experts on those subjects. And he walks straight into a wall three times a day. Mazda and John have a lot in common. You might look at some of the things they do and think they’re not paying attention. But if you take the time to dig deeper, you learn that there’s amazing stuff going on beneath the surface.
For example, you might wonder why the Mazda3 has two fuel gauges, one analog and the other a digital facsimile of that analog gauge, four inches apart. Or you may scratch your head that Mazda finally installed Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality, only to get rid of the touchscreen those systems are designed to use. You might wonder why a powertrain designed from stem to stern in the name of efficiency — we’re talking cylinder-deactivation on a four-cylinder! — can’t match the fuel economy of most of its more traditionally engineered competitors.
And then you walk towards this car and momentarily forget all of this. The Mazda3 sedan oozes sex appeal. Open the door, get in, and you’ll plunk yourself into a seat that’s positioned like it’s in a sports car: your hips are low, the steering wheel is squarely in front of you, and your legs aren’t bunched against a firewall that’s a foot too close. The gauges are crystal clear, in plain white lettering on a black background — and the difference between the physical gauges and the virtual LCD-panel gauges is so slight that we suspect some owners will never realize they’re not all real.
There is zero clutter — anywhere — and everything you touch feels padded and expensive, as if you were in a car costing twice as much. The switchgear is consistent in its tactility, and everything falls right where your hand thinks it should be.
It gets even better when you’re driving. The steering is sadly devoid of feedback, but it’s so precise you’d be forgiven for suspecting McLaren had done its hardware. Its weight builds up naturally, and significantly, in corners. The brake pedal seems wooden the first time you press it, but teaches you that everyone else’s pedals are neither linear nor progressive.
The Mazda3’s automatic is, annoyingly, the only transmission available with all-wheel drive, even though the brilliant six-speed available in the front-drive, top-of-the-line hatchback would work with this system. This is because [expletive] product planners [expletive] [expletive] self-fulfilling prophecy about [expletive] manual transmissions [expletive] by never building the [expletive] cars enthusiasts want and then [expletive] complain when no one buys them. [Expletive.]
At least the six-speed torque-converter ‘box shifts smoothly and with intuitive logic. It seems to know when you’re about to behave badly and downshifts through multiple gears as you enter a corner. It happily revs the snot out of the (carryover) 2.5-liter four-cylinder, which would be a problem except that the engine is so quiet, smooth, and refined. This, by the way, in a near-silent cabin that’s devoid of any excessive road or wind noise even at near-triple-digit speeds.
It’s certainly not the most powerful offering in the world — 186 horsepower and the same torque count shan’t be enough to ever put a Mazdaspeed badge on this car — but it’s the type of powertrain that’s so pleasant, and sufficiently refined, that you’re happy to drive at wide-open throttle its entire life.
And while being naughty with the Mazda3 AWD, you’ll note the lack of wheelspin. The all-wheel drive system is completely transparent in its operation and wholly conventional in layout — a computer-controlled center clutchpack can lock the front and rear axles together as it sees fit. The rear axle ratio is 1.1 percent taller than the fronts, so in theory, a small amount of rear bias is possible, but like most front drive-based AWD systems the dominant handling mode under power is understeer.
No problem, since the chassis is willing to rotate under trailing throttle or trail-braking. Though there was some consternation among enthusiasts because this generation of Mazda3 reverted to a simple and inexpensive torsion-beam rear setup (even in the AWD model), there is no cause for alarm. That’s because there’s nothing inherently wrong with a torsion-beam setup at the rear of a front-drive car, so long as it’s tuned properly. This one is tuned very properly — the ride is soft but composed, without the slightest trace of float, and there are no excess lateral motions from the rear. From the driver’s seat, you feel no body roll, brake dive, or acceleration pitch — and that’s because of the car’s body motions were tuned to replicate (and I’m being serious here) the natural motions of your head while walking.
And now we’re back in the bizarre land of Mazda engineering. We sat through an eye-watering Powerpoint presentation talking about the off-the-wall things Mazda measured and benchmarked when tuning the 3’s suspension. Things like separating out the vertical and horizontal motion of a driver’s head when traveling over speed bumps. Right, then. But while other car companies are focused on nailing EPA tests with downsized, turbocharged engines attached to CVTs — which suck down gas at an alarming rate when driven hard — Mazda is focused on the real-world performance and comfort of its cars.
The 2019 Mazda3 is exactly what happens when you focus on the important things. This is a spectacular little car to look at, sit in, or drive.
Oh, and the touchscreen is gone because Mazda thinks it’s distracting. (The company is right, whether we care to admit it or not.) The fuel economy isn’t class-leading because Mazda refused to compromise the driving experience. (Hallelujah and amen.) The second gas gauge? Well, it’s because Mazda wanted a graphical representation of remaining fuel range. Shockingly, it turns out that looks just like, umm, a gas gauge.
Oh gee, my buddy John just walked right out into traffic without looking either way. But it was because he was lost in thought about using galvanic skin-response sensors to protect people from accidental drug overdoses. Now how can you get mad at a guy like that?