As I'm making my way to beautiful Squaw Valley just outside of Lake Tahoe to test drive the new 2019 Mazda3, March Madness is in full effect and I'm quietly rooting for my alma mater University of Washington to advance in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Their opponent, Utah State, is favored to win by three points, which made it all the sweeter when the Huskies pulled away with a monstrous win, defeating their opponent by 17 points. Now, I won't get into the second round (because UW received a good ass whoopin' by North Carolina), but for that one particular upset, I was pleasantly surprised, and the underdog was victorious. Reeling my mind back to the Mazda3 I was about to step foot in, I couldn't help but draw a parallel to the underdog story...
Mazda isn't quite the size and powerhouse of other Japanese car manufacturers like Toyota, Nissan or Honda. While we hold cars like the RX-7 in high regard, Mazda hasn't sold a halo sports car to compete with the likes of the NSX, GT-R and Supra for years. Of course, we can't forget about the MX-5/Miata, but you and I can agree the little roadster isn't everyone's cup of tea. So, you kind of get where I'm goin' with this concept of the underdog, right? Many enthusiasts have been passive with what Mazda has to offer, and its fourth generation Mazda3 was no different...
"Bring back Mazdaspeed."
"Not turbocharged, not interested."
"Needs an all-wheel drive manual."
"Why the C-pillar?!"
That's just an inkling of the criticism the new Mazda3 received when both the hatchback and sedan debuted last November at the LA Auto Show. I had my reservations as well, in fact, I couldn't believe it wasn't going to share the same turbocharged powertrain of the CX-5. But like with all things, whether it's cars, food, online dating... you can't judge a book by its cover.
So, I arrived in chilly and still snowy Lake Tahoe, eager to evaluate the new compact Mazda. My itinerary included driving a technical snow course, followed by a scenic road trip to Sacramento in a 2019 Mazda3 AWD Hatchback. Little did I know, my eyes would be opened to some of the most secluded, well-paved, winding two-lane highways the state of California has to offer. Not to mention I would be pleasantly surprised by a hatchback (which the public was quick to criticize;) that left a positive and lasting impression on me.
SAM'S 8 TAKEAWAYS FROM THE 2019 MAZDA3 AWD HATCHBACK
First things first, if you haven't driven or sat in a recent model year Mazda, you're sellin' yourself short. Gone are the days of those boring commuter cars like the Protege and first- and second-gen Mazda3 and Mazda6. I've had plenty of seat time in the new CX-5 and MX-5 roadster and let's just say Mazda vehicles feel more like a refined European brand than something your mom passed down to you at 16. Everything from the leather used to its minimalist design language, soft touch of the buttons and carefully thought out ergonomics make it far less pedestrian and more premium. Before even driving the car, walking around and stepping inside the new Mazda3, I can reinforce that Mazda's identity and overall quality are better than ever.
You'd be lying to yourself if you say that you don't care about how important looks are. Style is everything, especially when shopping for new cars, and the Mazda3 designers really stepped up their game. Inspired by the RX Vision Concept, the Mazda3 is truly one of the sportiest-looking hatches ever drawn up in stock form. As far as the controversial large C-pillar goes, we actually don't mind it. It's a brave move that doesn't retain typical sharp body lines but makes for a more artistic and truly hard to replicate exterior. It's far from bland and even further from boring. Note: According to Mazda, designers use more clay than any other OEM to really convey a human touch and emotion in their vehicles.
The interior of the Mazda3 is perhaps my fav. It felt like a high-end European cabin along the likes of BMW or Audi rather than something you'd find in the compact, entry-level segment. The blueprint for the interior was also incredibly simple and intuitive. Every button, switch, monitor and control is carefully placed which allows for your driving to be more enjoyable and more focused with the least amount of distractions. Note: Don't skimp on the exclusive red leather option for the Mazda3 Hatchback...It's a must!
It doesn't take a whole lot to understand that Mazda makes one of the best engineered sports cars with its MX-5 roadster, in fact, on any given weekend they're still the most road raced vehicle over anything else in the world. It's safe to say this proven expertise can be respected again with the handling and vehicle dynamics of the Mazda3. It's not going to be a car you'll drive from the dealer lot straight to Laguna Seca, but it features a setup great for daily driving and road trip adventures like the one I completed from Tahoe to state capitol. Its cornering abilities were above average and confidence inspiring. This is even with the loss of a multi-link suspension in the rear in exchange for a torsion beam, and they've managed to retain comparable performance without sacrificing ride comfort.
I was bummed about the 2.5-liter four-cylinder power plant—no boost and only 186hp and 186 lb-ft of torque. To my surprise, it wasn't a complete sloth even with an extra passenger and luggage weighing it down. It lacked the gusto for passing on two-lane highways but was just enough to where I didn't completely write it off. In a sense, the powerplant is in line with the performance of the MX-5. The Mazda3 feels nimble, handles well, has a refined and balanced feeling, but like the Miata, doesn't have the power that'll put a grin on your face.
Snow is something I really haven't had to worry about living in Southern California, but Mazda thought it would be enlightening (maybe even funny) to throw a novice driver like me onto a snow/ice course to test out their AWD and G-Vectoring Control Plus system. What's cool is the course I was on was constructed by the same guys from the X Games, which meant my short course wouldn't be a leisurely stroll in the park but feature steep hills, sharp turns and sudden stops. I was able to compare the differences between the various models: FWD, AWD and AWD with snow tires. Miraculously, I didn't crash anything, especially in the FWD model (however I did get stuck climbing a hill from a dead stop). As for the AWD cars, I was injected with confidence lap after lap until I was getting up to "spirited" speeds. The vehicle sans snow tires definitely required some steering correction while the vehicle with snow tires gripped like I was on pavement. I was pretty mind blown.
I've been a leisurely car audio fan since high school. Turning up the volume and maxing out the bass knob is important to me. I've sat in several premium OEM car stereo systems over the last few years, but I was utterly shocked at how well the 12-speaker Bose option performed in the Mazda3. The bass didn't just hit hard but hit those extremely low notes. This is done thanks to Mazda sound engineers moving the front speakers off the doors and to the body, closer to your feet, which reduces door rattle and allows for more volume. A sub in the trunk is then added in the spare tire well. I should note the clarity and pitch of the highs could probably be a tad sharper for a premium system, but despite this, the Bose system is one of the nicest OEM systems I've experienced. Worth the upgrade.
Is this something I would personally buy? If we're strictly speaking hatchbacks under $30K, the Mazda3 just moved to the top of the food chain (Note: I haven't driven the Golf, GTI or Veloster Turbo, yet). As an enthusiast who isn't going to baby his car or leave it stock, there's a lot of reasons I would pick the Mazda3 over vehicles like the Civic or Corolla. The overall fit and finish of the cabin puts it on the level of a premium brand like Acura or Lexus. Its unorthodox styling is ahead of the curve, and quite honestly, growing on me. The powerplant left a little on the table, but that being said, I wasn't completely turned off after my 200-mile California adventure. It could use an extra 30-50hp to make it zippy; hopefully the aftermarket can remedy this in due time. But fingers crossed, the Mazda3 will follow the footsteps of its older brother, the CX-5, and a turbocharged edition will be offered in the coming years. The FWD model starts at $23,600 while the AWD I tested is closer to $29K. There's a lot of positives in both trim levels; however, for under $30K, the Mazda3 makes an excellent case for being the hottest hatch of the year.