2014 Mazda3
2014 Mazda3
2014 Mazda3 Sport. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Greg Wilson

Hollywood, California – After an exhilarating day carving my way through the twisty mountain roads surrounding Los Angeles in the new Mazda3 Sport (hatchback), I can say without hesitation that this curvaceous little compact now has one of the best combinations of ride, handling and steering in its class – rivalling the class-leading Golf – as well as excellent fuel economy, class-leading safety and in-car connectivity features.

Due here in September, the redesigned 2014 Mazda3 proves that driving fun doesn’t have to be sacrificed for better fuel economy, improved safety and a comfortable ride – something that can’t be said for every vehicle in its class (Corolla, Dart, are you listening?).

Credit Mazda’s corporate philosophy of Jinba Ittai – the ‘oneness’ between car and driver – for making driving enjoyment a priority in the development of the new Mazda3.

The new 3 is now a Mazda-exclusive design that’s no longer shared with Ford and Volvo; and both the 2014 Mazda3 Sport and Sedan incorporate all the weight-reducing, fuel-saving efficiencies of Mazda’s SkyActiv technologies across engines, transmissions, chassis, brakes, steering, and body – some of which were offered on the 2013 Mazda3, but not all.

The car’s curvy new lines were inspired by Mazda’s Kodo design theme also seen in the new Mazda6 and CX-5. The hatchback in particular has a hunkered-down, ready-to-pounce appearance that looks especially pleasing from the rear three-quarter view.

Aerodynamically, the Mazda3’s design is very efficient: the hatch has a Cd of just 0.275 while the sedan has a Cd of 0.255 when equipped with the optional active grille shutter. Photos don’t seem to do it justice though – to me, the hatchback looks much better in person. At this driving event, there were no sedans available, but from the photos I’ve seen, I think I prefer the hatchback design.

Dimensionally, both the hatchback and sedan are lower and wider than their predecessors: overall length is shorter (-45 mm hatch; -15 mm sedan), wider (+40 mm), and lower (-15 mm) with a wheelbase that’s been increased by 60 mm to 2,700 mm.

Notable improvements in the new 3 include a 30 percent stiffer body structure, improved mid-range torque and fuel economy in the base 2.0L SkyActiv engine , a big improvement in horsepower, torque and fuel economy in the 2.5L SkyActiv engine, improved shift feel on the new SkyActiv six-speed manual transmission (the five-speed manual is gone), smoother shift operation in the SkyActiv six-speed automatic (the five-speed auto is gone too), better steering response and feel in the electric power assisted steering, improved ride comfort and more neutral handling.

Most striking about the new Mazda3’s handling is its superb balance and stability at higher speeds – at times it feels like it has the balance of a 50/50 weight distribution in a rear-drive car rather than a 60/40 front-driver. I was also impressed with the Mazda3’s standard Yokohama Avid all-season tires, which gripped the road tenaciously and rarely squealed when driven at the limit of adhesion. Fortunately, the Mazda3’s exceptional handling doesn’t come at the expense of ride comfort: the ride feels supple and well controlled with good damping over sudden bumps. You can go fast without punishing yourself.

2014 Mazda3 Sport2014 Mazda3 Sport
2014 Mazda3 Sport. Click image to enlarge

Also contributing to the fine driving experience is the Mazda3’s electric steering, which offers quick turn-in response and a refined, well-weighted feel with good feedback. It’s probably the best steering in the segment. The brakes too, on this lightweight hatch, were powerful and easy to modulate.

Like a happily married couple, the base 2.0L SkyActiv engine and six-speed SkyActiv automatic transmission worked extremely well together, shifting smoothly and appropriately to keep the little engine in the right rev range for the occasion at hand, whether it was performance driving or highway cruising. Even when it’s revving at 4,000 rpm, this 155-hp 2.0L engine is surprisingly quiet. Still, I suspect with four adults on board, this little engine will feel a bit underpowered heading up an incline.

The six-speed automatic transmissions include a manual mode where you pull back the shift lever to shift up a gear, and push it forwards to shift down. The shifts are quick and smooth, but I still prefer to pull back to shift down and push forwards to shift up. With the 2.5L engine, automatic transmissions come with paddle shifters: pull the left paddle to shift down, pull the right paddle to shift up.

Manual transmission enthusiasts will be happy to know that the standard six-speed manual transmission has easy, direct throws and light clutch effort. But it’s only available with the 2.0L engine.

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