FIRST DRIVE: Almost all-new Mazda3 improves all over

Fourth generation car a little larger, featuring thoughtful small changes

Published: January 28, 2019, 4:30 PM
Updated: November 21, 2021, 2:56 PM

Mazda3 Sport

HOLLYWOOD—Mazda’s fourth-generation Mazda3 is almost all new for 2019, but instead of throwing out everything that was already working well, the Japanese maker instead made 100s of small changes. You’ll recognize the model right away, and you’ll know something seems different, but it might not click right away.

The compact car will still be sold as both a Mazda3 sedan (the “elegant” car) and a Mazda3 Sport hatchback (the “sporty” model), but it’s a little larger now. From the side, there are no creases or lines, but the metal panels are subtly curved to appear like “an artist’s broad brushstroke”. This is Mazda’s new design philosophy that you’ll see in all its vehicles.

One of the clever little additions that you might not notice at first – but after that, will always notice – is that the slot for the emergency key is hidden behind the door handle. This gives a cleaner design to the door and handle now that it can be unlocked with a proximity sensor in the fob. If the battery fails, though, there’s a neatly hidden failsafe that’s easily accessible.

The whole car is like that. Inside, Mazda wants to keep you safe, and that means not being distracted while driving. All Mazda3s, regardless of the trim level, have the same design to their cabins, and they all have an 8.8-inch central display screen, angled slightly toward the driver.

It’s not a touchscreen, though, and in fact, it’s been moved a little farther away from the driver to remove the temptation to try to touch it. It’s also a little easier for most drivers to be able to focus their eyes on the display after looking at the road. Mazda intentionally did not want a touchscreen, because engineers don’t want the driver to lean over toward the screen, away from the wheel, while operating the car on the road.

Everything on the screen can be controlled by either a large central dial on the console, or newly designed, more tactile buttons on the steering wheel, or by voice command. It remains to be seen, however, how popular this will be. Most drivers like touchscreens, whether they’re safe to use or not. Even BMW, which used to insist drivers should not use distracting touchscreens, eventually caved and began installing them in its cars.

Underneath the hood, there’s basically the same choice of 2.0-litre or 2.5-litre inline-4 SkyActiv-G engines from the previous generation, with the same choice of either 6-speed automatic or 6-speed manual transmission. There are three different trim levels for both the sedan and hatch, but the more expensive trims now offer cylinder-deactivation for the engine: when they’re not needed for power, the car will shut down the fuel supply to two of the four cylinders. Mazda says this can save as much as 5% in gas consumption, though only under specific conditions.

They’re not powerful engines, but they’re not underpowered either. The 2.0-litre still makes 155 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque, while the 2.5-litre makes 186 hp and 186 lb-ft. Mazda will introduce its latest SkyActiv-X engine at the end of 2019 in the Mazda3, but those cars will be sold first in Europe. That engine is more powerful and will consume up to 40% less fuel, thanks to 24-volt mild-hybrid technology, but the company won’t confirm when it will be available in Canada.

The basic sedan starts at $18,000 with a manual transmission, or $1,300 more than that with the automatic. It rises with extra equipment and either leatherette or real leather seats to a top-of-the-line MSRP of $30,400.

The basic hatchback is a bit costlier, starting at $21,300 and rising all the way to $31,400.

The wheelbase is stretched by almost three centimetres, which creates a little more room inside for the driver and passengers. The seats are completely redesigned and are now very comfortable, with support in all the right places to encourage good posture for more relaxing travel. Engineers explained here how it is natural for the spine to slouch but how the seats combat this through improved support at the back and thighs.

Mazda even equipped a third-generation and a fourth-generation car with an exercise chair in the passenger well – just a flat seat on a spring. An engineer drove slowly while the passenger tried to maintain balance, and it was a little easier to balance in the new-generation vehicle. This is thanks to improvements in suspension and in smoother engine response.

Out on the open road, up in the California hills, the Mazda3 was no sportscar but it was certainly no slouch. Automatic models have a Sport button that adjusts the transmission to hold the gears a bit longer, to let it rev higher in the power band, but that’s the only change it makes to the driving mode.

Of course, the modern technology in the Mazda3 is quite remarkable. Active cruise control is an option, as is lane departure assistance and front collision warning. A camera inside the cabin will monitor the drivers’ eyes for both drowsiness and looking-away distraction, and it will either sound a warning to jolt the driver to attention, or just build in some extra time for warning of potential hazards. It’s as if the engineers recognize that it’s a losing battle to fight distraction, so they work both with it and against it.

Even on the concrete highways of Los Angeles, and the ride is very quiet. Mazda says it wanted to create “comfortable quietness” in the cabin. There’s acoustic glass in the windshield and additional sound-deadening materials in the body, but no noise-cancelling technology. The engineers didn’t want the ride to be too quiet. 

There are two sound systems available and the basic system is very good indeed. The eight speakers have been moved and repositioned to not bounce their sound off the glass or the console. A system that sounds this good used to cost thousands of extra dollars in luxury cars. If you want an even better experience, there’s a Bose system with three more speakers that’s available in the GT top-end edition.

The 2019 Mazda3 arrives in Canadian dealerships in February. An AWD version, never before available, will be offered in March. It will cost $1,700 more than the FWD editions of the mid- and top-level trims, starting at $26,000 in the sedan and $27,000 in the hatchback.


Model: 2019 Mazda3 sedan and Mazda3 Sport hatch

Base price: $18,000

Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cylinder or 2.5-litre 4-cylinder

Peak output: 155 hp (2.0L) / 186 hp (2.5L)

Peak torque: 150 lb-ft (2.0L) / 186 lb-ft (2.5L)

Transmission: 6-speed automatic or 6-speed manual

Drivetrain: FWD (AWD available in March)

Suspension front: Independent, McPherson Strut coil spring and stabilizer bar

Suspension rear: Torsion beam axle

Length: 4,662 mm (sedan) / 4,460 mm (hatch)

Width: 1,797 mm (sedan) / 1,795 mm (hatch)

Height: 1,445 mm (sedan) / 1,435 mm (hatch)

Wheelbase: 2,725 mm

Fuel economy (L/100 km)

Sedan 2.0L automatic: 8.4 City, 6.6 Hwy.

Sedan 2.5L automatic: 8.8 City, 6.6 Hwy.

Sedan 2.5L automatic AWD: 9.2 City, 7.0 Hwy.

Hatch 2.0L automatic: 8.6 City, 6.7 Hwy.

Hatch 2.5L automatic: 9.0 City, 6.8 Hwy.

Hatch 2.5L automatic AWD: 9.8 City, 7.4 Hwy.