Mazda Finally Puts It All Together
Published: 07/11/2013 - by Mike Magrath, Features Editor
There's no Hippocratic Oath for automotive journalists. There's no creed, code or promise we swear to, right hand steadied on a weathered copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style. But if there were, somewhere between "I will tell the truth" and "I will not play favorites" should be, "I will not bury the lead." And so, without further ado, here it is:
The all-new 2014 Mazda 3 is very, very good.
Despite some serious growing pains that left elements of the car compromised, it remained among the best cars available in the segment. But now, free of the shackles of parent companies, Mazda finally engineered the Mazda 3 its way.
Drives Like a Mazda
We want to say we waited a few days, or hours, to come to this conclusion. That after driving the 2014 Mazda 3 we sat in front of a fire and contemplated the meaning of life and where, in this grand scheme, a new C-segment hatchback really fits. We didn't. Like a well-hit ball that sails off the bat into the wild blue yonder, we knew this one was good during the very first turn on Angeles Crest Highway.
By now, saying a Mazda has good steering response is like saying Gisele Bndchen is kind of pretty, but we're going to do it anyway. And even though it now comes with electric-assist power steering, the 2014 Mazda 3 doesn't disappoint.
"Electric power steering is very flexible," says Mazda Development Engineer Dave Coleman. "You can do anything with it. Basically, you give engineers enough rope to hang themselves." Previously, Mazda benchmarked BMW for the steering response in its compact hatch. It didn't do that this time. Nothing outside of the company met the development team's expectations, so they went internal and looked at the venerable Mazda MX-5 Miata.
Not only was the effort tuned to match the curve of a Miata's power steering, but the front suspension's caster angle was increased to 6.5 degrees the same as the rear-drive Miata and RX-8. The result is a compact hatchback that turns in brilliantly, holds a line and returns sufficient weight and feedback. Again, this isn't a surprise.
The real surprise is how sophisticated and controlled the rest of the car feels after the turn-in.
Trust the Driver
In a speech that would make some other carmaker's cringe, Mazda 3 program manager Kenichiro Saruwatari stood up in public and proclaimed, "We believe in the human being." In an era of mandatory safety nannies, this borders on heresy. Glorious heresy.
Angeles Crest Highway is 66 miles of happiness, melted down and poured over an undulating Southern California mountain range. We know the road like we know the quickest route to the bathroom in the middle of the night and after about five minutes behind the wheel of the 2014 Mazda 3, we get confident or cocky and start having fun. Mazda 3s just do that to you.
Turn-in points get later and later. Braking zones all but evaporate. We're bounding from corner to corner, linking turns like a slalom skier when we finally notice that traction control hasn't once intervened. We test the waters with a hyper-late turn-in and the car understeers a touch, but stays planted and doesn't trigger ESC. We repeat this "test" but with a slight lift of the throttle mid-corner. The Mazda 3 tucks itself neatly around the corner like it's being steered from the back. We mix the two methods. Turn in somewhere around the apex and lift sharply, completely. It's not the fastest way 'round this corner, but it's fun and the Mazda's rear slides predictably, confidently and nanny-free.
But it's not simply the lack of electronic intervention that sets this apart. The s model handles bumps and broken pavement like no Mazda 3 has before. Where previous 3s have been bouncy, boundy things that are alive, but hollow-feeling, the 2014 Mazda 3 has more effective damping. None of the previous 3's eagerness has been lost, but the edges have been sanded off.
Like the last generation Mazda 3, the 2014 is hitting the market with both 2.0-liter four-cylinder and a 2.5-liter four-cylinder Skyactiv engines. Added during a midcycle refresh a few years ago, Mazda is calling these engines carry-forward, not carry-over.
The volume-selling, lowest-cost option will be the 2.0-liter. Available on i trims, this powerplant makes 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque. When connected to the six-speed automatic, it returns an EPA estimated 30 city and 41 highway mpg. The 2.0-liter example we drove was connected to the six-speed manual transmission which returns 29 city and 41 highway mpg. And that's about the best thing we can say about this engine.
Simply put, 155 horsepower isn't a lot when you're pushing around 2,815 pounds. It's sufficient at best, but feels sluggish until 4,000 rpm when the character switches to wheezy. It's fine around the city, or on mountain roads where momentum is king, but it's a bit of a bummer in any situation where merging, passing or climbing is on the table. We have no complaints about the slick, short shifter or the new clutch engagement that is progressive and smooth.
The One You Want
Mazda's other engine offering is a different animal. Cranking out 184 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque, the 2.5-liter s trim is a much more pleasant powertrain. Torque comes on low and the power runs smooth all the way to the 6,500-rpm redline. It's quick to rev and respond to gearchanges and there's even a hint of intentional intake noise. There's not even a real fuel economy hit as this one, hooked up to a six-speed automatic, returns 28 city and 37 highway.
The 2.5 does come with two potential downsides, however. The first is that it will cost more in a highly price-sensitive segment. Mazda is yet to announce pricing for s trim versions of the car. The second issue is the initial lack of a manual transmission. One will eventually be available for the small percentage of buyers who want to row their own, but not at launch. That said, the six-speed automatic is expertly programmed and offers a sport mode that is predictive, shockingly fast and as capable as any sport mode on the market.
Both powertrains will be available in either the five-door or sedan body styles.
Mazda's Historical Weak Spot
Because Mazda has a highly talented team of development engineers who value driving and are given enormous power in the company, it's unsurprising that the 2014 Mazda 3 drives well. The bigger question is the interior. Mazda owners for years have argued that the car's mannerisms, looks and uniqueness made up for the interior. Everyone who couldn't define "steering weight" just bought something else.
This is largely rectified for 2014. There are no obvious, glaring missteps. The blank expanse of dark plastic in front of the passenger seat could be more welcoming and the navigation system feels tacked on. But textured plastics surround anything you touch, and buttons and knobs are solid with pleasing action.
So the new 3 is competitive with the rest of the segment in this regard, but there are two areas inside where it now excels: The front seats and the steering wheel. Sure, it's more stuff that comes from Mazda's fascination with racing, but the new, well-bolstered leather seats are exceptionally comfortable and look spectacular. The steering wheel, too, is near-perfect. No goofy flat-bottom, no unnecessary adornments, just a pleasantly fat wheel with accessible paddle shifters.
Mazda also added a central control knob for its navigation-infotainment system, but that was nonoperational on our preproduction test car.
The Mazda 3's history is dotted with compromise. Working with leftover or shared parts, Mazda's compact sedan made a meal out of mincemeat. But those days are over.
From chassis to engine to seats, the 2014 Mazda 3 is designed to be a proper Mazda and it fulfills that promise with few shortcomings. Interior refinement is a premium, it's competitively efficient and the 2.5-liter version is quicker than anything in this segment needs to be. Finally, the 3 has all the pieces in place to conquer the C-segment when it goes on sale this September.
That's something even us hacks can appreciate.