On the Road Review: Mazda 3 Grand Touring Sedan

During the early years of the Asian invasion of cars to America, small automaker Mazda employed competing powertrain technologies. On one hand, the brand used diminutive four-cylinder engines similar to those utilized by Toyota and Honda, but then Mazda strived for more with a new engine configuration that was quite popular (in theory) during the 1970s. The rotary engine — one large central piston rotating inside a smaller engine case — provided greater power than a multi-piston internal combustion motor of the same displacement. But there were growing pains: engine seals were an issue initially, so oil consumption was higher than the norm of the era (remember, this is before the tight-tolerance of today’s computer-designed engines); and the projected fuel economy was often difficult to attain as the engine’s robust power was often exploited.

The enthusiasm for the rotary engine even reached the halls of Chevrolet, as rumors were rampant that the “next” Corvette would be a mid-engine rotary-powered sports car. Snowmobile builder Arctic Cat also produced a rotary-engined sled — during the era when there were lots more snowmobile makers than today. Its Wankel-engine produced a very deep, rhythmic sound that told everyone within earshot that this was not your usual snow machine.

Mazda continued to use the rotary engine even as doubters decried its functionality. Finding its way into multiple generations of the RX-7 sports car, Mazda’s compact speedster essentially established the brand as the zoom-zoom car company even before the MX-5 Miata and the MazdaSpeed models of the 1990s and early 2000s.

So while that type of motor doesn’t exist in Mazda’s lineup today, the character and the reputation does. Just behind BMW and VW on the American sales charts, Mazda beats Chrysler, Buick and Audi to remain relevant in a crowded marketplace.

The Mazda 3 of 2017 comes in sedan and hatchback models and strives to earn the same kind of driving enthusiasts who embrace cars such as the VW Golf — engaging, fun-to-drive economical small cars that produce a smile on the pilot each time they slip behind the wheel. Not an automatic appliance, just an engaging car. It is a key philosophy that is central to this brand’s mission.

And while the new 3 produces the fluid driving sensations and agile handling that separates the Mazda from Corolla, Focus, Cruze and other small cars, the lineup is missing the top MazdaSpeed hatch-model from years ago that used to breathe excitement in buyers’ gasoline-fueled hearts. Those supercharged Mazda 3 editions were overachievers in their own right despite their proclivity to roast the front tires.

Today, the Mazda 3 is a buttoned-down, grown-up compact four-door sedan, five-door hatchback series that employs a class-leading safety portfolio that clearly illustrates the rapid trickle-down of technologies in the industry. In top Grand Touring trim, $28,230 as shown, our Metallic Gray sedan boasted lane keeping assist, lane departure warning, dynamic cruise control, smart braking assist, adaptive forward lighting, traffic sign recognition, blind spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, as well as rain-sensing wipers, rear camera and the usual traction and braking aids. Short of AWD — which might be considered in this small car looking for market share — this Mazda has a full array of driving aids that is rarely available in this class or at these price points.

Sized precisely between the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic — 180 inches long, 106-inch wheelbase, 2,875 pounds — the 3 comes with two engines; a 155-hp 2.0-liter four is standard, while a 184-hp 2.5-liter SkyActiv four-cylinder is optional, but standard on our Grand Touring. Six-speed manual gearboxes are standard with the base engine, while a six-speed automatic handles the shifting chores with the larger engine. EPA estimates are 27/36/30 mpg; our miles hit the combined rating exactly during the throes of winter.

Drivers will embrace the solid yet fluid feel from the Mazda’s helm. The precise steering feel oozes Miata confidence, while the supple suspension reinforces the “grand touring” image. Fun to drive is paramount at Mazda. Nothing here will discourage you from that effort.

And while the cabin is well-appointed and nicely finished — heated steering wheel, heated leather seating, power sunroof, fluid controls — the car’s upscale Commander console control for the audio, entertainment and navigation panel atop the middle dash is less intuitive than others and actually less rewarding to use than other simpler panels. Lacking any perceived memory to previous settings, the Commander requires you press the mouse-like dial and affiliated buttons with several finger strikes to execute simple changes. Contrasted with the very basic instrument cluster — only a tachometer, digital speedometer and banks of idiot lights — the Commander is trying too hard to be a premium system when simple efficiency makes more sense and is less distracting for the driver.

The 3 is Mazda’s second best-selling vehicle, trailing the CX-5 Crossover. Almost every automaker has a crossover of some type at the top of its sales chart. This dramatic market shift will force the automakers to add more content and raise the prices of their small cars in order to reach buyers enticed by the more functional and roomier crossovers.

This Mazda 3 successfully combines elevated driving aids and interior content to exceed its primary rivals as a value, yet consumers will readily ask themselves if $28,000 compact sedans (or hatchbacks) don’t beg for comparison with larger more mainstream vehicles. With base prices under $19,000 (including destination), the Mazda 3 offers buyers entry-level economy as well as premium compact virtues. Short of the aforementioned AWD potential, the Mazda 3 covers the compact class bases with a solid lineup.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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