The 2019 Mazda3 comes in GX, GS and GT versions, with the former packing a 155-horsepower 2.0-litre engine under the hood and the latter two offering a 2.5-litre direct-injected mill producing 186 horsepower and 186 lb.-ft. of torque.
This review could have started by pointing out how important the 3 is to Mazda’s sales here in Canada, and how the company should be playing it safe by making only minor changes when introducing a new version.
The first part is true: within the Mazda stable, the 3 compact sedan and hatchback battle it out with the CX-5 compact crossover for top sales within the brand, with the latter edging the 3 in year-to-date results.
But Mazda doesn’t know too much about playing it safe, so you can forget about that happening. The new 3 is a stunning design, and the company’s PR folks pulled out all the stops to prove it: they sent us a Soul Red Crystal Metallic Mazda3 Sport GT AWD.
It’s a bit of a handle, but all parts of this name are worthy of attention. The hue is first: a true candy-apple red, it has a depth to it that brings to life all the car’s curves and creases the way its designers meant it to. At a mere $450 premium over more mundane colours, this one is well worth it.
The “Sport” in the moniker signifies it’s a hatchback, which is positioned higher in the range than the sedan; a premium of about $3,300 and a commensurate increase in standard equipment.
We were dealing with the GT, the top end of the Mazda3 range, which also consists of the GX and GS. The GT is Mazda’s shot across the bow at compact hatches from premium brands, at a deeply discounted price.
And for the first time, the Mazda3 is available with AWD, meaning all four wheels get power, which makes it a unique proposition for those in the market for a new car.
Not only does the option of AWD give the 3 an advantage over its rivals, it also makes a compelling case for choosing this hatch over a compact crossover, because everybody’s buying compact crossovers these days.
The 3 now joins the small ranks of affordable AWD cars, alongside the Subaru Impreza, Nissan Altima and VW Golf Sportwagen.
Mazda is making a concerted effort to clean up the styling of each new model it releases, focusing on design rather than decoration. The Sport is striking for sure, but I’m not sure how well it will age. There’s a lot of sheet metal and not a lot of glass around the rounded rump of this hatchback, and for that reason I prefer the more subdued and upscale styling of the sedan. That doesn’t happen often with me. For the record, I’d still go for the hatch just because it’s that much more useful.
The rest of the vehicle’s look is clean and conveys a sporty aggressiveness none of its rivals can match. The only other criticism I have in that regard is a function of the vehicle architecture: it’s still a front-drive, transverse-engine layout, which means a long front overhang, which upsets the overall proportions a bit.
Our AWD tester had the six-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode. And as automatics go, this is a good one. The shift paddles (GT models only) are tucked in behind the sporty three-spoke wheel, and for the most part, on most automatics, I suspect these remain largely untouched by drivers. But this one is especially responsive and executes rev-matched downshifts in a way that encourages manual shifting.
Similarly, steering response is direct in a way we expect from Mazda, having me searching for the next curve in the road with anticipation.
Mazda has also switched the new 3 from an independent rear suspension to a torsion-beam setup. Such a move causes driving enthusiasts to cringe, but not one time during my drive did the car seem like it wasn’t set up to properly carry out its purpose. And if it can do that with a simpler design, then everybody wins.
Powering GS and GT models is a naturally aspirated (non-turbo) 2.5-litre direct-injected mill producing 186 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque. GX cars get the 155-horse 2.0-litre. The 2.5 is a responsive unit, but lacks low-end grunt and needs to be revved to maximize its potential.
It’s more a reflection of this turbocharged era we’re in than an outright criticism of the engine. We’re becoming accustomed to small, turbocharged mills in our new cars, and those engines have torque peaks between 1,500 and 2,500 r.p.m., where this engine needs to be revved to 4,000 to get to maximum twist. It simply requires a different driving style to get the same performance. The car is also available with a true manual gearbox, though the combination of a stick shift and all-wheel drive is not available.
But the Mazda3 isn’t perfect, and technology is to blame. Our obsession with driver assistance and the march toward autonomous vehicles has tainted the driving experience in a way that is at odds with Mazda’s driver-first axiom. In particular, there is one deal-breaker that goes by the name of “Smart City Brake Support” that is standard on GS and GT trims. It’s designed to avoid low-speed frontal collisions by detecting objects in front of the car and activating the brakes if the driver fails to take action.
Let’s just say that the system is way too sensitive, and when I was crawling along in heavy traffic, the system suddenly slammed on the brakes with no input from me. Not only was this startling for me, but likely for the driver behind me as well. No thank you.
Another gripe: there is an electronic parking brake, which engages automatically every time you park the car. But does it disengage automatically? No. The driver must disengage it by either pushing a button on the console or giving the gas pedal a healthy jab when in gear. Yeah, that sounds safe. It’s unfortunate when technology gets in the way of driving, particularly for a brand that touts driving enjoyment as one of its guiding principles.
Overall, and recognizing styling is always a highly subjective call, I can declare the new 3 is objectively a significant step in the right direction for Mazda. The car holds true to Mazda’s mantra that driving matters, both in terms of driver surroundings and vehicle dynamics.
The six-speed automatic transmission has a manual shift mode, with the shift paddles tucked in behind the three-spoke steering wheel.
The 2019 Mazda3's look is clean and conveys a sporty aggressiveness that none of its rivals can match, especially with the Soul Red Crystal Metallic paint option.