Having demonstrated its engineering know-how to the world, with the development of the rotary engine, Mazda turned its attention to the piston engine. Among the technologies it would perfect were the Miller-cycle engine, high-compression gasoline engines, reduced compression diesels, as well as more efficient automatic transmissions and other “SkyActiv” components.
All it has learned culminated in making its compact Mazda3 a compelling buy.
Released for the 2014 model year, the third-generation Mazda3 no longer rode on Ford’s front-drive C1 platform, but instead earned its own lightweight SkyActiv platform. Available in 4-door sedan and hatchback configurations, the 3’s Kodo design provided a commendably low 0.26 coefficient of drag to slice through the atmosphere.
The new Mazda3 provided a 6-cm longer wheelbase, yielding improved legroom for rear-seat passengers, although the trunk is smaller than average. The cabin looks contemporary and costly, highlighted by vastly improved materials and a new infotainment interface. Consumers noticed the upmarket ambience.
“I’ve owned an Audi, BMW and Lexus, and the fit and finish rivals them, not to mention the $2,200 tech package includes items that would cost two or three times as much on a German car,” one buyer remarked online.
Front and centre on the dash is a stand-up touchscreen that resembles a hotel-issue clock radio, which some drivers found obtrusive and distracting. Newly available was a suite of safety features, including blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning and a low-speed collision mitigation system.
In U.S. government crash tests, the 2014 Mazda3 earned an overall rating of five stars, with five stars in frontal and side collisions, and four stars in rollover tests. In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash testing, the Mazda3 earned the highest possible Good rating.
The base engine was Mazda’s SkyActiv design that had debuted in the previous-generation, in 2012. The Atkinson-cycle 2.0-litre 4-cylinder makes 155 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque, and is optimized for efficiency thanks to direct fuel injection, high compression (13.0:1), specially shaped pistons and reduced internal friction.
Optional was a 2.5-litre 4- cylinder, reworked with SkyActiv technology, generating 184 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque. This engine could be ordered with Mazda’s optional i-ELOOP system, which captures and redistributes braking energy to improve fuel economy by 5%.
Both engines power the front wheels through a short-throw 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission, the latter being a SkyActiv design with an aggressive lock-up clutch in its torque converter.
The Mazda3 received a mid-cycle refresh for 2017 that involved exterior styling updates, a refreshed dashboard, added sound insulation and a new electronic parking brake to free up space on the centre console. Mazda also introduced G-Vectoring Control, which senses steering-wheel inputs and retards engine timing slightly to reduce torque enough to shift the load on the front axle and sharpen handling.
Driving the Mazda3
Keen to earn the respect of driving enthusiasts, Mazda imbues all of its models with some DNA from the lauded MX-5 Miata sports car.
“My last car was a BMW Z4 and this car handles just as well, but with better interior build quality and it runs on regular unleaded. I’m glad I got the upgraded 2.5-L engine because it never feels underpowered,” one owner wrote online.
Even the base model offers good acceleration for the class: zero to 100 km/h comes up in less than eight seconds with the fast-acting automatic transmission. The larger 2.5-litre “four” with the same automatic musters a 6.8-second acceleration time to highway velocity – which actually is quicker than the manual-transmission model.
But this Mazda is about much more than just speed. The 3 raises the econobox bar with its controlled body motions, athletic responses and an electric power steering system that’s sports-car quick (2.6 turns lock to lock), accurate and gratifyingly communicative.
Despite sporting intentions, the suspension has relatively soft tuning and the car exhibits a fair amount of body roll when pushed. Emphasis is on balance and precision, rather than a battle-hardened ride. The one letdown is the amount of road noise that’s transmitted inside; there are numerous small cars that are quieter.
The SkyActiv powertrains largely deliver on their economy pledge. The larger motor averages 8.1 litres/100 km) in mixed driving, while highway trips can approach 5.6 L/100 km, with a careful right-foot management. Again, the well-sorted automatic transmission outshines the manual gearbox in this regard.
Owners talk reliability
Mazda’s small sedan and hatchback hit well above their econobox weight class with their premium cabin furnishings, sophisticated styling, sublime driving dynamics, fuel efficiency and hatchback versatility (if you choose it). The Mazda3 is such a good all-rounder, it has won numerous awards in Canada and in various markets around the world.
Drawbacks are few in number: excessive road noise at speed, weak low-end torque and a somewhat cramped back seat are about it for the gripes. Reliability has been exceptional, based on what we can surmise from owners’ online chatter. Perhaps the most common complaint has to do with brakes that wear more quickly than usual – often the rear set before the front discs – which isn’t helped by a rust issue that’s become the subject of a recall.
Mazda acknowledges 2014-2016 models have brake calipers that allow water to infiltrate and cause the parking brake actuator shafts to corrode and bind. This can cause the parking brake to not completely engage or disengage. Mazda first learned about it in 2015 when a Canadian owner reported the brakes dragging on his car. The recall involves installing a better protective boot on sensitive brake components.
A second recall also involves some 2014-2016 Mazda3s that may have gas tanks that were damaged during manufacturing. Mazda says the welded attachment of the “inlet check valve” may fail and allow fuel to leak, possibly causing a fire. Another 3,800 model-year 2016 cars may have deformed gas tanks that can leak from the recirculation pipe welds.
Some owners have commented on the car’s infotainment display, which can malfunction and reboot often, especially in 2014 models. Software updates don’t always restore order, and some display units have been replaced outright. Others aren’t entirely happy with the audio sound quality (opt for the Bose system), and there have been Bluetooth connectivity issues, too.
Beyond that, there are a few random complaints about easily chipped paint, air conditioners that conked out early, and automatic transaxles that whine – all in minute numbers. Some 3 models, which had been imported from Japan since inception, began arriving from Mexico as Mazda’s new factory in Salamanca got up to speed in early 2014.
The vast majority of Mazda3 owners are a very happy lot. It’s a jewel of a small car that exceeds expectations and rarely disappoints. Given the meticulous engineering culture Mazda has established since poring over Felix Wankel’s rotary engine, it’s hardly a surprise.
Typical price range: $12,000-$24,500
Pros: Well-appointed cabin shines, made from Miata DNA, a gas saver that doesn’t punish
Cons: Tiresome road noise, snug back seat and trunk, brakes need attention
Things to Watch Out For: Infotainment connectivity and display glitches, abnormal brake wear, short-lived air conditioner, errant squeaks and rattles, quick-wearing tires.