First Drive: 2019 Mazda3 and Mazda3 Sport

In a world where SUVs and crossovers have largely stolen the hearts of most new car buyers, Mazda’s most important models remain a humble compact sedan and hatchback team. The Mazda3 – the brand’s affordable lineup for most Canadians and regularly one of the country’s best-selling cars – has been completely redesigned for 2019, bringing with it sweeping styling updates, the promise of an (eventual) new drivetrain, and a strategic re-think of the vehicle’s place in the compact spectrum.

It’s an ambitious effort from a brand often forced to do more with less, compared to the automotive giants pumping out hundreds of thousands of competitive options in every segment Mazda chooses to enter. It’s also an indication that the gaze of corporate leadership might be shifting ever so slightly towards the higher end of the market – untested waters for a company known best for democratizing driving pleasure via its inexpensive offerings.

Will this be a successful strategy in a world where nearly every automaker feels the need to flirt with the word “premium” in describing its vehicles? I headed to Los Angeles, California, to get some wheel-time with the newest Mazda, and some face-time with its designers and engineers.

Limited but Impressive Drive-Time

My left-seat experience in the 2019 Mazda3 was limited to a quick jaunt up Angeles Crest, and then back down again, swapping between a North American-spec sedan and a Euro-tuned hatchback at the apex of the climb. There’s no doubt that this sinuous strip of mountain asphalt is ideal for testing both the lung capacity of an engine and the resilience of a chassis, and given that the 3 has swapped its multi-link rear suspension for a twist-beam setup, the latter was very much on my mind as I approached the Californian curves at higher than the car’s resting heart rate.

I needn’t have been concerned. With the new rear spec intended to reduce the reliance on unpredictable bushings for compliance, the Mazda3’s poise when pressed to carve like an Olympic slalom skier was near-flawless. In fact, I never once heard the tires complain in either version of the car, an indication of just how far outside of its limits I was able to remain while still effectively pushing into the potential of the suspension tune.

Power-wise, while updates have been made, there’s no extra grunt to be had from the Mazda3’s 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine, which produces 186 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque. Mated to a six-speed automatic, it was sufficient for the uphill climb – and felt significantly more boisterous than the manual-equipped cars featuring a neutered, 120-horse edition of Mazda’s 2.0-litre mill, which ran out of steam before it could get really interesting on longer, straighter sections of road.

Absent from the mix was the SkyActiv-X engine, an efficiency-oriented four-banger that combines characteristics of both diesel and gasoline engines that I drove as a prototype exactly one year prior to my date with the 2019 Mazda3. There’s no confirmed date yet for when this motor might reach Canadian showrooms, but bet on 2020 at the earliest.

Pretty on the Inside

As competent as the 2019 Mazda3 felt when driven in a spirited manner, perhaps the most impressive aspect of the car’s re-think has been its cabin comfort and design. Both versions of the vehicle were surprisingly quiet for such an affordable vehicle, easily shrugging off highway noise and the auditory insults of LA’s infamous bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Even better? A passenger compartment that now feels of a piece, rather than the patchwork of tech and features found in some older versions of the 3. Of particular note is the new horizontal trim under the dash top that cleverly integrates climate controls plus vents, as well as a new infotainment system that trades its restricted touchscreen capability for a much simpler menu system and infinitely better rotary dial as the primary point of interaction. In fact, all of the Mazda3’s switchgear has been laudably improved, pairing nicely with an available LCD gauge cluster in front of the driver and true head-up display projected out onto the windshield.

It’s important to note here that I had no chance to sample any entry-level, lower-spec cars during my time in Los Angeles. Mazda claims that Canadians are drawn primarily towards mid-tier models with a healthy smattering of high-end options, and you’ll in fact have to step up from the $18,000 base Mazda3 GX sedan to at least the Convenience Package ($20,300) if you want to start enjoying active safety gear, air conditioning, and heated seats. All-wheel drive (a first for the 3), comes online at the $26,000 mark with the GS, which is significantly more expensive than the standard-across-the-board Subaru Impreza’s starting sticker. Add extra dollars all around if you want a hatch rather than a four-door.

As for the new-look lines (or lack thereof) that make up the Mazda3’s extroverted sheet metal, the desire to stand out from more homogenous options at its price point is clear. Although the hatchback’s truncated posterior has proven to be polarizing, in person it comes across as more natural – from most angles – than when photographed.

Avoid Tilting at Windmills

The 2019 Mazda3 straddles a kind of crossroads. Dynamically, this is still the fun-to-drive commuter car we’ve been familiar with for so many years, despite the seeming on-paper regression of its rear suspension and the lack of any significant power gains from its initial engine offerings. In terms of presentation, however, the 3 is far more upscale, especially if you’re willing to spend nearly $30,000 on a decked-out GT.

Is it nipping at the heels of luxury? Not exactly, and that’s by design. Program manager Kota Beppu told us that he is “confident that Mazda has performance that is equivalent to premium brands,” but that the company’s focus remained tight on providing value to its customers rather than chasing a specific market segment. In other words, a Signature model of the Mazda3, to match some of its stablemates, is unlikely to be in the works any time soon.

Should this matter? Certainly not. Buyers have plenty of high-priced small car options available from European badges, and Mazda’s bread-and-butter is much better off if it avoids challenging new rivals on unfamiliar territory. Staying the course with better style feels like a winning formula for the 2019 Mazda3.

Pricing: 2019 Mazda3

Below with 2.0L engine and manual transmission, except where noted.

2019 Mazda3 GX: $18,000

2019 Mazda3 GX w/ Convenience Package: $20,300

2019 Mazda3 GX w/ Convenience Package (A/T): $21,600

 

2019 Mazda3 GS: $22,700

Below with 2.5L engine and automatic transmission.

2019 Mazda3 GS: $24,300

2019 Mazda3 GS AWD: $26,000

2019 Mazda3 GS w/ Luxury Package: $26,200

2019 Mazda3 GS AWD w/ Luxury Package: $27,900

 

2019 Mazda3 GT: $26,200

2019 Mazda3 GT w/ Premium Package: $28,700

2019 Mazda3 GT AWD w/ Premium Package: $30,400

Pricing: 2019 Mazda3 Sport

Below with 2.0L engine.

2019 Mazda3 Sport GX (M/T): $21,300

2019 Mazda3 Sport GX (A/T): $22,600

 

Below with 2.5L engine and automatic transmission except where noted.

2019 Mazda3 Sport GS (M/T): $24,000

2019 Mazda3 Sport GS w/ Luxury Package (M/T): $25,900

2019 Mazda3 Sport GS: $25,300

2019 Mazda3 Sport GS AWD: $27,000

2019 Mazda3 Sport GS w/ Luxury Package: $27,200

2019 Mazda3 Sport GS AWD w/ Luxury Package: $28,900

 

2019 Mazda3 Sport GT w/ Premium Package (M/T): $28,400

2019 Mazda3 Sport GT: $27,200

2019 Mazda3 Sport GT w/ Premium Package: $29,700

2019 Mazda3 Sport GT AWD w/ Premium Package: $31,400

Mainstream challenger. 1/27/2019 3:00:00 AM