Review: 2016 Mazda3

Is the Mazda3 still the driver\'s choice in the compact segment?

The Mazda3 bucks many of the industry's most prevalent trends in the name of driving enjoyment. Hybrid? Nope. Downsized engine? Not today.

That might be a safe bet for a company selling large, expensive luxo-barges, but it's a daring proposition for a small carmaker competing in one of the most cut-throat segments of the markets. Has Mazda's bet paid off? Join Leftlane as we take a Mazda3 oot and aboot in Canada to find out if it's still the go-to car for enthusiasts seeking an efficient compact that won't break the bank.

What is it?

Introduced in 2013, the fourth-generation Mazda3 became the Japanese firm's entry-level sedan when the tiny 2 was given the proverbial ax. It stretches 180.3 inches long, 70.7 inches wide, and 57.3 inches tall, dimensions that are about average for the segment. Like the Ford Focus and the Subaru Impreza, two of its closest rivals, it's offered as a sedan and as a spacious hatchback.

Our tester is equipped with the 3's entry-level engine, a naturally-aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder unit that makes 155 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 150 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. If those figures sound familiar, it's likely became the same engine is found between the fenders of the latest MX-5 Miata. A six-speed manual transmission comes standard, but our tester is equipped with the optional six-speed automatic unit.

The second engine offered is better aligned with Mazda's "driving matters" slogan. Buyers who want more than 155 horses can pay extra for a 2.5-liter four-banger that delivers 184 horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 185 pound-feet of torque at 3,250 rpm. In a time when virtually all automakers are downsizing, finding a 2.5-liter naturally-aspirated four under the hood of a compact is practically unheard of.

Life aboard

The materials used in the cabin are at or above average -- well, most of them. The steering wheel feels surprisingly cheap, and we're not fans of the tacky, faux carbon fiber trim that's found on the wheel and on the door panels. Additionally, the interior is a little drab for our tastes. It's all black except for silver trim around the air vents. We're not looking for a bright, body-colored dash like the Fiat 500, but a touch of color here and there would make the 3's cabin a livelier place to spend time in.

Four adults fit comfortably in the 3 without feeling cramped, provided they're not NBA players, and five is doable on shorter trips. Several storage bins scattered across the cabin ensure that the cup-holders don't end up holding loose change, receipts, and a lighter. Trunk space checks in at 12.4 cubic feet, which is a little on the low side for the segment.

The Mazda Connect infotainment system is displayed on a screen that sticks out from the top of the dashboard. The software is navigated using a controller knob and a handful of buttons that are located right behind the gear selector on the center console. The setup is ergonomic, and Mazda Connect proves simple, straight-forward, and responsive to use, there's almost no learning curve involved. We also came away impressed by the screen's resolution; it's on par with what you'd find in a car positioned a segment above the 3.

How does it drive?

In one word: Sharp. Clearly, the genes that have earned the MX-5 Miata the respect of enthusiasts all around the world for the past quarter of a century have trickled down to the Mazda3.

Don't get the wrong idea, the 3 isn't a full-on sports car. But, the steering is quick, and it provides more feedback than you'll find in any other car in the segment. There's some understeer in corners, as you'd expect from a front-wheel drive car, but it's not overwhelming or alarming by any means. The 3 goes where you point it, and it does so with a minimal amount of body lean. The brakes are strong and fade-free. All told, no other compact in this price range is as much fun to drive on twisty back roads. Zoom zoom, indeed.

The 3 is also at home in the city because it's surprisingly speedy off the line, and the quick steering makes maneuvering it in parking garages or around stubborn delivery trucks child's play.

It isn't a straight-line performer, however. The base engine lacks oomph, and the six-speed automatic isn't the most responsive, driver-friendly unit we've tested. Left alone, it's on a mission to get to the top gear as quickly as possible; shift it manually and you sometimes have to wait about a second for the next gear to arrive. That's frustratingly slow, considering we live in the era of dual-clutch automatic transmissions that shift almost instantaneously. Of course, that's a moot point because enthusiasts will more than likely order the six-speed manual, an excellent unit that's crisp to shift.

On the highway, set the cruise control to the obligatory five-over and the four-banger will power the 3 through as many mosquito-flattening miles as you ask for. It's not shockingly loud at freeway speeds, but it's a tad noisier than both the Volkswagen Golf and the Ford Focus. A set of quieter tires would do wonders for buyers who are planning to spend a lot of time on the open road.

Fuel economy checks in at 34 mpg in a combined cycle, according to the EPA, and we averaged approximately 35 mpg. That impressive figure is achieved thanks to Mazda's Skyactiv technology. In Mazdanese, that means boosting both performance and efficiency by optimizing existing technologies -- rather than adding more components --, by decreasing weight, and by improving aerodynamics.

Leftlane's bottom line

The Mazda3 continues to add much-needed spice to the compact segment, even three years after its introduction, and it does so while returning above-average fuel economy. Its good looks help sweeten the deal.

If you buy a compact car like you buy a washing machine, the Mazda3 probably isn't for you because there are much more basic options to choose from. However, if seeing a "winding road ahead" sign brings a smile to your face, the engaging 3 should be at the top of your list.

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