2014 Mazda 3

2014 Mazda 3 2014 Mazda 3
First Drive Review

Since its 2003 debut, the Mazda 3 has always left us grinning. We even kept grinning after Mazda’s designers pasted an actual smile on the face of the second-generation model. That stylistic misstep turned out to be one of our biggest gripes with the old 3; others were essentially limited to a smallish rear seat and the so-so fuel economy when equipped with the 2.5-liter engine. Still, a 3 with the 2.5 finished a strong second behind the current Ford Focus and ahead of a Volkswagen Jetta, Chevrolet Cruze, and Hyundai Elantra in a 2011 comparison test.

No Bones about These Bones

The Mazda 3 has been thoroughly redone for 2014, and the result might stand a chance at unseating the 10Best-winning Ford Focus, a comparison-test darling, as king of the segment. Previously, this would have constituted a sibling rivalry, as the 3 shared a platform with the first-generation Focus. But with Ford and Mazda’s divorce finalized, the Japanese company whipped up its own lightweight Skyactiv architecture and slid it under the new Mazda 3. (The Skyactiv name is also applied to the platforms that support the CX-5 and new 6, but the 3’s structure, although conceptually similar, is unique.)

According to Mazda, the new structure boasts a 30-percent improvement in torsional rigidity, and curb weight is down by about 60 and 100 pounds, depending on trim level. We haven’t weighed the 3 on our scales, but Mazda’s numbers are generally within a few pounds of ours, so figure on a weight range of 2800–3050 pounds. Other pertinent numbers: The wheelbase is stretched by 2.4 inches, overall length is down by just over half an inch in the sedan version and 1.8 inches in the five-door, width is up by 1.6 inches, and height is down by 0.6 inch. Rear-seat space is now class competitive and comfortable for six-footers.

But dimensional differences will be the last thing on your mind when you lay eyes on the 2014 3. Mazda has combined elements of the 6 sedan and CX-5 SUV to create a handsome and elegant compact. Notable cues are a relatively long nose and an upright windshield. The proportions are closer to those of a rear-drive car than of the cab-forward designs worn by the Hyundai Elantra and Honda Civic. Even the sedan looks fantastic, which is something that cannot be said of most compacts, including the Ford Focus. That new body is also quite aerodynamic according to Mazda, but the major boost in fuel economy comes from the 2.0-liter and 2.5-liter four-cylinder engines.

Skyactiv’s the Limit

Mazda fans might recognize the 2.0-liter Skyactiv engine, the powerplant in all 3i models. In the previous 3, the Skyactiv 2.0-liter was fitted with a fairly conventional exhaust manifold designed to fit into the old architecture’s smaller engine compartment. But the 2.0-liter was designed to have a bulkier, larger exhaust manifold, which now fits in the new car. Why should you care? Because it delivers more midrange torque. At the 4000-rpm torque peak, the engine is up only 2 lb-ft over last year’s , but it delivers 148 lb-ft at 3000 rpm, as much as the old version did at its 4100-rpm peak. Coupled with the six-speed automatic, the 2.0-liter is expected to return EPA numbers of 30 mpg city and 41 highway in the sedan and 30/40 in the hatchback. Manual versions achieve the same highway numbers but lose 1 mpg in the city cycle.

Acceleration isn’t exactly strong in the base 3 i, but the 155-hp engine has enough muscle to pull itself to freeway speeds without eliciting any worry from the driver. Engine noise is kept distant, and the note doesn’t really change as the revs increase. There’s no waiting for the power to arrive, but rather a smooth, steady stream of pull.

Performance junkies will likely gravitate toward the more powerful 184-hp, 2.5-liter Skyactiv engine offered in the 3. Opting for the 2.5-liter brings quicker acceleration without much of a fuel-economy penalty. What the larger engine will cost is still up in the air; the upcharge to fit a (non-Skyactiv) 2.5 in the outgoing model was $1550.