Mazda have been hard at work trying to get us to forget about the wonderfully bonkers Mazdaspeed3 that was on sale from 2007 until 2013. The first generation car was a fun and rewarding little turbo hot hatch, but then the second generation came out in 2010 and turned the world upside down. The updated 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder put 263 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque to the road. Or, well, it tried to anyway. Stomping the throttle from a stop or slow roll would make the front tires attempt to rip the steering wheel from your hands while it torque-steered through the first three gears. It was bonkers and funny at the same time.
This brings us to the current-gen Mazda3. Sadly, nearly a decade has passed since the last Mazdaspeed3, and while there have been rumors and inklings of another, no such car has ever come to fruition. I would argue that the turbocharged, all-wheel drive hatchback on sale today is the closest thing we have. For now. More disappointing is that the 2021 Mazda3 Turbo AWD doesn’t come with a manual, instead only with a poorly-shifting 6-speed automatic.
The 2021 Mazda3 Turbo All-Wheel Drive has a turbo 2.5-liter inline-4 that makes 227 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque on 87 or 89 octane fuel. If you pump 93 into the car you’ll have 250 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque. So, basically, there’s good power, but lots of torque on tap, which makes it all the worse that the only transmission offered is an automatic. Fuel economy is rated at 23 city and 31 highway, respectively, with 26 mpg on the combined driving cycle. Even with spirited driving and leaving the car idle while taking interior and exterior photos and videos, I was still averaging between 24 and 26. I had no problems getting the estimated mpg.
Car and Driver took a sedan version of my tester and hit 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, while MotorTrend, with a hatchback like mine, did the deed in 5.9. Both are plenty quick, putting it about the same, maybe a tad faster, than the old Mazdaspeed3, and up with the Volkswagen GTI. The quarter mile went by in 14.1 seconds according to C&D, and 14.5 from MT. So the car is quick, but I can bet you it would easily beat those times with a third pedal.
I have always felt the Mazda3 has been attractive from day one. But now, this Mazda3 is in a class all its own. It’s an Aston Martin in a sea of meh, and I love it. The headlights, the taillights, the grille… it all screams class, style, and luxury. Mazda have figured out how to make safety regulations look sexy. People are always complaining to me about how boring and simple so many cars look these days. Well, here ya go, folks. Go and buy one of the best looking cars on sale today. You can put a Mazda3 Hatchback next to a group of super and hyper cars at a Cars and Coffee, and it would fit right in without any shame or embarrassment. Pay attention, BMW. This is how you do big grilles without ruining a car. Oh, and there’s not one fake goddamn vent anywhere. Not a one. Mazda need to be hired by MasterClass to do their own online show about styling with purpose. As a side note, the tires on my car were pumped to 35 psi, but for the entire week I had the 3 I kept checking the pressures, because they just always looked low.
The car that showed up in my driveway was a Premium Plus package painted in Machine Gray Metallic with black leather interior. With an MSRP of $33,750 before options, the standard equipment is what you’d expect for a car of this price. You’ll get LED front and rear lights with adaptive headlights; power and memory driver’s seat (no power passenger, really?); auto-dimming mirror; rain-sensing windshield wipers; head-up display (HUD); dual-zone climate control; 8.8-inch infotainment display; a 12-speaker Bose audio system; and of course Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The standard safety features are also what is expected for a car in today’s world: lane departure warning; lane-keep assist; auto-high beams; brake assist; and driver attention alert. With the Premium Plus trim it gives you a leather interior; front and rear parking sensors; 360-degree surround view cameras; auto-dimming exterior mirrors; traffic sign recognition; front air dam; navigation; rear smart city brake support (the vehicle uses the rear sensors to see what’s coming and stop the car for you when you’re backing up); rear cross traffic alert with braking; homelink; and black spoiler on the hatch. The Machine Gray paint is a $495 option, and there was a stainless rear bumper guard for $125. The total, as-tested price was $35,315, including the $945 destination and handling fee. All of this money, though, and there are no cooled seats or folding mirrors? That’s no bueno.
Opening the driver door you’re greeted by and interior that doesn’t look as big as it feels. The amount of legroom for the driver is far more than I can ever take advantage of with my short, stubby legs. People with longer legs than mine will appreciate the extra ability to either stretch their legs on a long drive, or to not have your knees hitting the dashboard or steering wheel. Which you know what I just thought of? How much it would suck if you had long legs but short arms. That would force you to sit uncomfortably close to the wheel. I have short arms and short legs, so I’m even. But I digress.
The interior is simple and classy. There are just enough buttons without being too many or too few, although the button to change which air vents are used is hard to see. The infotainment screen is a nice size without being too big or too small. It straddles that line of being just the right size. I love the colors and style of the information being displayed when I wasn’t using Apple CarPlay, which was almost every time. The seats are comfortable and supportive, but I would like to see an upgraded seat option with a Recaro-like bucket. Once inside I noticed that there was a lot of piano black trim, which I feel is played out. It smudges and scratches easily, and just begins to cheapen quickly. Some of the plastic materials feel cheaper than they should, and a few of the knobs wiggle a little too much for my liking. But the head-up display is wonderful, and it’s much appreciated in a car that you actually enjoy driving.
When bombing through some back roads, the Mazda3 AWD has easy and good handling characteristics. The car is quite comfortable on any road surface, and with the added all-wheel drive you feel secure in the driving inputs you’re giving the car. Throw it into a corner, and you will come out the other end appreciating the stability and sense of assuredness. It isn’t unlike a GTI in many respects, but more attractive (I do love the look of the GTI, though), and more grownup looking. Less boy racer, more mid-level suit and tie. Whether you’re on the highway or around town, the 2.5-liter turbo motor builds speed pretty effortlessly. That’s why I’m so bummed there isn’t a manual option, because this motor with the type of perfect manual Mazda put in a car, man I can’t even begin to describe how much better this 3 would be than so many out there. It would put BMW to shame. This would be The Ultimate Driving Machine.
With all of my hatred of automatics out of the way, the 6-speed unit in this car isn’t terrible when you’re letting it control the shifts. It knows what to do and does it well enough. However, the minute you try and take over with the paddles, it falls apart. The transmission and engine are not synced up.
Driving along you’ll notice the Bose system is quite good and gets very LOUD. Although my OCD Analysis was going nuts that the volume tops out at 63. Such a ridiculous number to stop at. But then again, 63 has never had a moment to shine. Now’s your moment, 63. Take it, baby. I’m weird. Continuing with your spirited drive while rocking out to… well… whatever you rock out to, you will notice the bottom-hinged throttle pedal, which is typically reserved for special sports cars, like a 911, the BMW M3, Ferraris, Lamborghinis… you get the picture. Also, finally, no gas tank button! Just push the fuel door for it to pop open. Why doesn’t the CX-5 have this?
A few gripes I do have with the 2021 Mazda3 are that I feel the brakes could be less spongy and more reassuring. You do stop, but not with as much authority as I’d like to feel in a car that I know can handle a lot more than you expect. The parking brake is very intrusive. If you try jumping on the gas as soon as you put the car into drive or reverse, the parking brake does not automatically release. You must take an extra second of holding your foot on the brake pedal. Then it’ll release as you step on the throttle. While adaptive cruise control is nice, the Mazda3 seems to be the only car that doesn’t speed up when you put your turn signal on. I don’t remember the CX-5 doing this. Also, the auto-high beam system isn’t sensitive enough to turn off automatically, making you flash drivers on the other side of the road way too often. I also do not like the sunroof, as it’s too small and I think that it would be much nicer as a panoramic style, or at least a larger surface area.
The hatch space in the Mazda3 Hatchback is damn good at 20.1 cubic feet behind the rear seats, and 47.1 cubic feet with the rear seats folder. Honda’s Civic Hatch offers 22.6 cubic feet in Sport and Sport Touring trims, but weirdly 25.7 cubic feet in the LX and EX trims. All Civic Hatchback trims feature 46.2 cubic feet with the rear seats folded, though. The Toyota Corolla Hatchback is by far the smallest at 17.8 cubic feet with the rear seats up, and 23.3 with them folded. The Volkswagen Golf has 17.4 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats, and 53.7 with them folded. The Mazda3 could easily be a little bit bigger in the hatch area if it were less angled, but come on, who in their right mind would want that?
One area where the Mazda3 is clearly superior is its cameras. I know I’ve talked about this already with my 2021 CX-5 review, but man are they good. Sharp, especially at night, with great colors and visibility. Plus, at least on the 3, you can switch on the front, rear, and side-view cameras while driving. That’s just awesome. You’re not going to use that feature very often, if ever, but it’s nice to know that it’s there. I know most manufacturers’ say that it’s “for your safety” that you can’t view them while you’re driving, but that’s bullshit. If I can look at the infotainment screen, or worse try and change the air temperature, while driving, I think I can look at a damn camera for a split second. Oh, and while you are using the cameras, you’re still able to use the mirrors, of course. Mazda have made it so that whichever individual side mirror button is pressed that one will tilt downward when in reverse. Call me old fashioned, but I still dig a tilting side mirror.
In the end, the Mazda3 Hatchback Turbo AWD is absolutely charming. It isn’t a perfect package, but it’s not far from it. It has peace of mind with the all-wheel drive system, some of the most beautiful looks on any car for sale today, and an interior that makes me appreciate simplicity over abundance. At $35,315 I do think the price tag is a bit high for a car that isn’t offered with a sportier suspension, Recaro seats, better brakes, and a superior transmission (a manual), but then that would just be the Mazdaspeed3, which this is 70% there, right? For a car that handles and speeds this well, it makes me think that when they finally do another MS3, holy shit. In the meantime, this is the executive level hot-looking hatch. Who needs an Audi A3 when you can have a Mazda3 that’s just as good for way less?