Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. Whilst there will rarely be universal agreement on the aesthetic merits of any car, there are often broad consensuses which are reached. And one of those is that the current Mazda3 is a good looking car. Indeed, in the opinion of many, one of the most visually appealing in its class, certainly in America which is denied other attractive looking models like the Seat Leon. That’s all very well, but good looks are only one of a series of means to the one end that a car manufacturer really cares about: namely, to sell cars. And it is far less clear exactly what the links are between looks and sales. It used to be thought that an ugly car was much harder to sell, but Honda seem to have proved that this may no longer hold true, as the latest Civic – a car which even a motoring press usually very reserved in passing judgement on the looks of anything, have decried with all manner of criticisms from “challenging” to “overly fussy” and even “downright ugly” – has shot to the top of the sales charts in its class in America. That’s because, not only is it a Honda, with all the good connotations of the brand, but because despite what it looks like, it is by all accounts a good car. So perhaps you can understand why it sells so well. Further proof that intrinsic merit and sales success are not always linked comes from the fact that the latest Toyota Corolla and Nissan Sentra, both of which are beaten in most respects by all their competitors, are not far behind the Honda. Depending on the month, between 4 and 5 of each of these models finds a buyer for every 1 Mazda3. That ratio has not really changed much for several years, and was something that I expressed about in my conclusions of the last Mazda3 I sampled, a previous generation model which I drove back in 2013. It’s taken a while to get one of the current generation cars, first available in 2014, from Hertz, as they don’t have that many on fleet, but finally I spotted one, which, pleasingly was finished in the very attractive Soul Red Metallic which has often featured on Mazda Auto Show stands. It was a 2016 model year car, and it had done about 46,000 miles, but as it seemed to be in pretty good condition, I took it for a day, to see if I could get any insight on why this good looking car fails to find as many buyers as it doubtless deserves.
Every report I have read suggests that the Mazda 3 is one of the best cars to drive in its class, so my expectations were high. I was not disappointed. Although there was a SkyActive badge on the boot of the test car, there was nothing to indicate which of the two petrol engines that are offered to US market customers was in the car, and a look under the bonnet provided no clues, either. Further research suggests that as this was a Sport trimmed car, then this would have been the 2 litre unit, which is rated at 155 bhp. A manual transmission is available, but the test car had the six speed automatic. The combination works well. The engine is very willing, and smooth, though as you work it harder, which you likely will do, given it seems almost to ask you to do so, it does get a bit noisy. Not noisy in a bad way, though with no particularly special exhaust system, and remember this is a 4 cylinder unit, not in an endearing, Abarth-style way, either. It certainly endows the Mazda with a bit of zing, though, and this proved useful as I took it on some roads which were new to me, up in the canyons north of Ojai, where there were plenty of gradients, some steeper than others. These proved particularly good roads for the Mazda, as they were also places to revel in the steering feel and sporty handling. For an ordinary family car with no declared sporting intention, this really is good to drive.
The steering is particularly well-judged, with plenty of feel, and the right amount of weighting, and the handling is equally impressive, with plenty of grip, little body roll and the feeling you can hustle the car around the corners at speeds far faster than you would want to approach them in were you behind the wheel of most of the Mazda’s rivals. It rides nicely, too, with the suspension doing what you would hope it would, in smoothing out the lumps and bumps, ridges and potholes of the roads. The brakes were good, and there is a conventional pull-up handbrake between the seats, an increasing rarity these days. Unlike some cars these days, you can actually see out of it, too. There is a short stubby tail, so judging where it ends is easy enough, and there is a rear-view camera to help you. The door mirrors have a blind spot monitoring alert in them, an unusual feature in a car of this class and price. When the SkyActive technology was first shown, we were told that it offered significantly better fuel economy than previous generation Mazda engines. Like many such claims, the reality did not always live up to what was promised. However, I only squeezed in 6 gallons having driven this car 262 miles, which computes to 43.66 mpg US or 52.1 mpg Imperial, a truly spectacular result, helped by not spending any time in traffic, and plenty of it at a steady speed on the 101 freeway, for sure, but there was also all the stop/start when doing photos. It is not all good news, though. The most serious complaint is of the noise levels. The engine is not the quietest, even when cruising, and when working harder, it does get quite loud, and there is also some wind noise evident. I considered this a small price to pay for the “zoom zoom” exuberance of the driving experience of what is just a regular family car, though.
Mazda have been working hard in recent years to improve the perceived quality of their interiors, something which most critics felt was necessary, as these were increasingly looking a bit sub-par compared to the standards of the class-best. They’ve done a good job with the Mazda 3. The plastics are all very soft touch and they look far better than those used in the previous generation of the model. There’s a refreshing simplicity to the overall dash design, too, which in my opinion helps it to look good. There are some gloss black inlays, but they are relatively small, and the silver highlights around things like the air vents are not overdone, either. The instruments are grouped together under a single cowl, and each sits in a deep separate recess. The speedo dominates the display, with smaller dials on either side of it, a rev counter to the left and on the right a bar-chart style fuel gauge with some trip computer data presented in the dial, above the fuel bars. Although there are lot of markings in the speedo, with km/h as well as mph shown, the dials are easy to read and clear. You cycle between the trip computer data inset in the rev counter by pressing the old-style reset button set in the upper right of the display. That frees up the buttons on the steering wheel for audio repeater functions on the left spoke and cruise control on the right. Twin column stalks operate the indicators and lights, on the left hand one, and wipers on the right. There is a large button to the right of the wheel for the keyless starting. Centrepiece of the dash is the display screen for the infotainment unit. It is mounted on the top of the dash, but unlike a lot of units which look like a stuck-on after-thought., this one looks like it was planned that way. In the entry level of the test car, it does not have that many functions on it beyond being used for the audio system, as I found out when I selected the icon market “navigation” and got a screen which pointed out it was not fitted to the car. There is some service data on here, and there is a traffic alert system, though. You control the system either using the touch-sensitive screen or from a mouse-wheel and a few buttons in the centre console. It took a few minutes to get the system to do what I wanted, and I discovered that, for understandable reasons, you cannot use the touch screen, say to retune the radio, while driving. You can, use the mouse wheel to drive the screen though. Beneath this unit are a pair of air vents and three simple rotary knobs for the air conditioning system. And barring a couple of buttons on the dash above the left knee, for opening the boot and fuel filler flap. That is it. Simple, and easy to use.
The rest of the interior is simple and unfussy, too. The seats were trimmed in a sort of hard-wearing cloth which appeared to have resisted the abuse of 18 months of rental car duty pretty well. You get comfortable in them with a manual bar underneath, for fore/aft movement and levers on the side for backrest rake and seat height. Although the seating position I was able to set was fine, from preference, I would have altered the angle of the cushion a bit, had I been able to do so. The steering wheel telescopes in and out as well as up and down. Unlike the test car of the previous day, in which I sat for many hours, I was in and out of this one a lot, doing photos and admiring the scenery, so there was no really prolonged time behind the wheel, Even the 101 and 405 freeways, when returning back from Ventura flowed freely so that journey was not much more than 75 minutes in one sitting. Everything suggested that were I to sit there for a longer period, I would still have been comfortable.
Clearly, I could only test the rear seats from a brief sit in them, when static, Available leg room will depend on how far forward or back the front seats are. With them set to suit my driving position, there is plentiful leg room, but set them well back, and there is just about enough, but then that is not a potential problem unique to this Mazda. More importantly, there was plenty of headroom, with my head well clear of the rooflining. There is a drop-down armrest, with a pair of cupholders in the upper surface. Occupants here do not do that well for oddments stowage, though, with the doors housing a bin that is basically the size of one bottle and there is only one stowage pocket, on the back of the passenger seat.
The boot is a reasonable size, but the combination of rear-end design and stubby tail means that the opening is quite small, so I can see how getting a rigid and bulky item might be a challenge, even though there is the ultimate capacity to house it. The boot is quite long from back to front, but it is not that tall. Under the floor, you will find a spacesaver in a well which is the size of the tyre, so the only odds and ends you could squeeze in would be in the centre of the wheel. The rear seat backrests, which are split, do drop down to create a longer cargo platform. There is no external boot release. Access is either from the button inside the cabin or by pressing the one on the key fob. Inside the cabin, there is a reasonable sized glovebox, some very pokey door bins, again which are really intended for a bottle and not much else, a cubby under the central armrest and a recess in front of the gearlever.
The Mazda3 is available as a four-door sedan or a five-door hatchback, and there are four trims: Sport, Touring, Touring 2.5 (only available with the hatchback body), and Grand Touring. The advantage of the sedan is a lower starting price (ranging from $17,845 to $24,195). While the hatchback costs about $1,000 more, depending on the trim, it offers much more cargo room behind the seats. Aside from their distinct exterior profiles, there are few other differences between the hatch and sedan. The entry level model is the Mazda3 Sport, which was the spec of the test car. This comes as standard with a rearview camera, push-button start, two USB ports, Bluetooth phone and audio, a six-speaker sound system, HD Radio, and a voice-controlled Mazda Connect infotainment system with a 7-inch touch screen. Powering this model is the 155 bhp 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine. Rear parking sensors can be added for $495. The Mazda3 Touring model starts at $20,445. It features dual-zone automatic climate control, a power adjustable driver’s seat, heated front seats, and leatherette upholstery. Standard pre-collision braking can automatically apply the brakes at low speeds if the car determines a collision is imminent. Also standard is blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert. A $1,500 equipment package adds a moonroof, a nine-speaker Bose stereo system, and satellite radio. The Touring 2.5 hatchback, priced at $22,395, comes with all the features in the Touring model, plus a 184 bhp 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine. Top of the range is the Mazda3 Grand Touring. Priced at $24,195, it features the 2.5-litre engine and six-speed automatic transmission as standard, as well as leather seats and a head-up display. You can add adaptive headlights, a heated steering wheel with paddle shifters, and navigation for $1,600. For h$1,100, a safety package adds lane departure warning, lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, pre-collision braking, and traffic sign recognition. There is a Mazda3 Grand Touring with a manual transmission, priced at $23,145. Whereas there had been no significant changes for 2016 over the 2015 model year cars, with just a few items of equipment added, for minimal extra purchase cost, there were some more notable changes made for both 2017 and 2018.
I end this test rather bemused at the relative lack of sales success for the Mazda3. I’ve not yet driven the latest Civic, and it would have to be very very good indeed for me to forgive its looks, but I have sampled pretty much everything else in the mid-sized class in America, where this Mazda competes. And I can honestly say that given the choice of any of them I would unhesitatingly pick the Mazda, even in its entry level trim. Although the Corolla and Civic have more space in their rear seat, the Mazda is roomy enough, it certainly appeared well put-together, and this teat car had endured 18 months and 46,000 miles of rental car abuse, it has one of the nicest (and unfussiest) cabins among its competitors, whilst beating them all on the road for the pleasure that it is to drive, whilst offering outstanding fuel economy. There’s an awful lot of people out there who are missing out (or just don’t care) as they sit behind the wheel of yet another Corolla, or Sentra. Quite what it is going to take to get them to reconsider, I have no idea. Presumably, nor have Mazda, as building an excellent product, and pricing it competitively, which they have done, is clearly not all it takes.