You probably know by now that we’re smitten with the Mazda3. The third-generation Mazda3 was voted the best vehicle in our 11-car comparison

You probably know by now that we’re smitten with the Mazda3. The third-generation Mazda3 was voted the best vehicle in our 11-car comparison test of compact cars and is a perennial favourite in our individual test drives with a slight edge going to the hatchback (Sport) for its increased practicality and stylishness.

You probably know by now that we’re smitten with the Mazda3.

It’s not a perfect car though: Mark Stevenson’s Long Term Test: 2014 Mazda3 Sport GS revealed a few ergonomic problems that aren’t immediately obvious in a shorter test drive. But really, we’re nitpicking.

Changes to the 2015 Mazda3 were minimal, but it did receive a significant warranty upgrade (as did all other Mazdas): its 3-year basic and 5-year powertrain warranties now come with unlimited mileage, up from the previous 3-year/80,000 km basic warranty and 5-year/100,000 km powertrain warranty in 2014. You can now drive to the Yukon three times a year if you wish and still be covered under warranty! It certainly demonstrates the company’s confidence in the durability and reliability of its cars.

Our ‘Soul Red’ test vehicle is a 2015 Mazda GS sedan. As before, 2015 Mazda3 sedans come in three trim levels, GX ($15,995), GS ($19,795) and GT ($25,995). 2016 Mazda3s add a new base G trim starting at $15,550. The base 2015 GX and mid-level GS trims have a standard 155-hp 2.0L four-cylinder SkyActiv engine while the GT gets a 184-hp 2.5L four-cylinder SkyActiv power plant. SkyActiv refers to Mazda’s new generation of lighter, more advanced and more fuel-efficient powertrains and mechanical components. Personally, I think they could have chosen a better name.

All three 2015 Mazda3 trim levels come with a standard six-speed manual transmission or optional six-speed automatic with manual shifting mode (additional paddle shifters on GT trim). (The 2016 Mazda3 G trim is only available with a manual transmission.)

Equipped with the standard 155-hp 2.0L engine and optional automatic transmission, the Mazda3 GS offers adequate, if not exceptional acceleration. Its 0 to 100 km/h time of 9.0 seconds is about a second slower than the Mazda3 GT with the 184-hp 2.5L engine, according to AJAC acceleration tests. The upside for the smaller engine is better fuel economy: 7.0 L/100 km combined vs 8.0 L/100 km combined (with manual transmissions), as published by Natural Resources Canada. During our week with the Mazda3 GS automatic, average fuel consumption varied from 6.8 L/100 km in suburban/highway driving to 8.5 L/100 km in stop-and-go city/highway driving.

The Mazda3’s SkyActiv-G 2.0L DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder engine with direct fuel injection revs in a smooth, even progression to its redline and has enough power to pull away cleanly from traffic lights and merge comfortably onto the freeway. The engine is a bit ‘buzzy’ on acceleration, but once up to cruising speed, it’s barely audible. At a steady 100 km/h in top gear, the engine turns over just 1,800 rpm. In truth, a manual transmission is better suited to this engine’s torque curve, but the optional six-speed automatic transmission proved just fine for our everyday driving: it responds quickly to kick-downs and changes quickly and unobtrusively. A manual shifting mode is included – just move the shift lever to the left gate and move forward and back to change gears up and down.

Perhaps the Mazda3’s most likeable performance attributes are its steering and handling. With a fully independent suspension (MacPherson struts in front and multilink with coil springs at the rear) and a low centre of gravity, it feels well planted at speed and balanced in switchbacks with a firm but not harsh ride. The independent suspension absorbs bumps and potholes without any of the clunking and banging you’ll find in some small cars (and large cars) leading to the compelling seat-of-the-pants impression that the Mazda3 is a well-made automobile.

While the Mazda3’s standard rack and pinion steering with engine-speed variable power-assist steering feel is a bit firmer than you’ll find in some small cars, it’s also quicker to respond and gives the driver more feedback resulting in a greater feeling of control (and fun). U-turns are made simple courtesy of a tight turning circle of 10.6 m.

Our test car was equipped with Bridgestone Ecopia 205/60R-16-inch all-season tires mounted on attractive alloy wheels. During our week with the car, heavy rain caused streams of water to wash across the freeway, but these tires plowed through it without hydroplaning or loss of steering feel. However, they’re a bit noisy at freeway speeds on dry roads, in part because there is so little wind and engine noise. I think there could be more sound insulation in the Mazda3’s body cavities.

Being a fairly lightweight sedan (1,276 kg) with standard four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, traction control and electronic stability control, stopping distances are short and sweet and the car feels stable in slippery conditions. Really a delightful car to drive.

Unfortunately, Mazda’s new active safety features are not available on the GX and GS trims. Only the GT is offered with the optional Technology Package ($2,500) with Blind Spot Monitoring, Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, Lane Departure Warning, High Beam Control, Smart City Brake Support, Adaptive (swivelling) Front Lighting, i-ELOOP Regenerative Braking System, and Sirius Satellite Radio. Many buyers may not want these safety nannies, but it would be nice to have the choice. (By the way Mazda, what is satellite radio doing in this package?)

While the driving experience is one of the best things about the Mazda3, its interior design and quality of materials are also highly regarded in a car of this price range.

The mid-range GS sedan, probably the best value-for-money in the Mazda3 sedan lineup, has premium black cloth seats with contrasting patterned inserts, supportive thigh and torso bolsters, and a manual height adjuster. A predominately black interior includes soft-touch surfaces, cloth door inserts, piano-black trim on the dash, doors and shift lever, and silver-trimmed door handles and air vents. Our test car had the optional Convenience Package ($550) that includes a leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift knob and handbrake handle with red stitching, heated front seats with three-stage seat heaters, heated mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, and automatic headlights. The meaty leather-wrapped steering wheel feels good in your hands and telephone, audio and cruise controls are at your thumb tips.

The front seats are height adjustable and the steering wheel can be tilted or telescoped to suit a variety of driver sizes. Outward visibility is good, though the rear view is diminished by a tall trunk. The front seats are comfortable with plenty of headroom and legroom while the outboard rear seats are not quite as comfortable but have adequate legroom and headroom. A centre tunnel hump and protruding centre console make the centre rear seat less inviting, although it does offer seatbelts and an adjustable head restraint.

Behind the steering wheel a large central speedo with large white-on-black numerals and red halo is backlit for easy viewing day or night while a smaller tachometer to the left has been given secondary status. To the right of the speedo, a trip computer display can be toggled between useful information (using the Info button on the steering wheel) for average fuel consumption, current fuel consumption, range and average speed. However, the screen is small and a bit cluttered with information.

The most distinctive Mazda3 cabin feature is the stand-up screen on the dashtop. While the Mazda3 is not moving, it can be operated as a touchscreen but while moving (or not moving) it can be operated using the round dial on the console between the front seats. The controller is perfectly positioned for the right hand and requires less effort and concentration by the driver than reaching for the touchscreen. As well, surrounding the dial are quick access buttons for major screen commands, such as Home, Audio, Navigation, and Back. And a small dial for radio volume is located just beside the large control dial.

In the GS, the dash screen includes a Home Screen with round icons for Applications (like smartphone connected music apps such as Aha, Pandora, Stitcher), Audio, Telephone, Navigation, and Settings. The screen is bright with large graphics and letters that are easy to read however it doesn’t have an overlapping hood to prevent glare which sometimes washes out the screen.

Individual functions on the screen are selected by turning, tilting and pushing on the control dial - very easy to do. Our screen showed a Navigation icon even though navigation was not included in our mid-level GS model. However, this navigation screen does show the current latitude, longitude and elevation of the car – it’s always fun to see how far above sea level you are.

The centre screen is also used to display the area behind the car when the transmission is in Reverse. The standard rearview camera shows guidelines that indicate the recommended stopping point when backing into a parking space and guidelines that display the outside dimensions of the car to avoid striking other cars or walls. It makes parking much easier.

Something you might not expect: voice-activated telephone and audio controls are included in every Mazda3. After pressing the ‘Speak’ button on the steering wheel, the system will respond to specific commands that allow hands-free operation of your cell phone and audio system while keeping your eyes on the road. This is the only way to send and receive calls while driving. Wireless Bluetooth audio is also included, allowing drivers to play their favourite songs stored on their iPod or phone without having to use a cable.

Another standard feature in every Mazda3 is remote door locking/unlocking and push-button ignition. Using the key fob, the driver can unlock or lock the doors from a distance and start the car simply by pushing a button on the dash. However, as Mark Stevenson commented in his long-term test, this is not a fob-less system: the driver must fumble in their pocket to find the key fob to unlock the doors then put it back in their pocket before pushing the Start button. Other proximity keyless systems allow the driver to leave the key fob in their pocket while unlocking the doors (by pressing a button on the door handle) and while starting or stopping the engine. The fob always stays in the pocket.

Storage spaces in the Mazda3 are good enough for smaller items but don’t plan on putting your iPad in the console storage bin. Under the centre armrest, the small storage bin includes a lift-out coin tray, 12-volt power outlet, 2 USB ports and an SD card slot. There’s also a small open bin at the bottom of the centre console and a seatback pocket at the rear of the front passenger seat. There are four cupholders, two between the front seats and two in the folding rear centre armrest but none of them have flexible cup grippers. (MacGyver Tip: use your Starbucks paper napkin to stuff into the cupholder beside the cup to keep it steady…)

With a volume of 350 L, the Mazda3 sedan’s trunk isn’t the biggest in its class, (eg. Corolla has 369 L, Sentra has 428 L, Civic has 344 L) but it’s nicely shaped with protective lining on the floor and side walls, and includes 60/40 split-folding rear seatbacks (GX trims have a single folding seatback) which can be dropped using levers inside the trunk. There is a temporary spare tire and a jack under the trunk floor. I’d recommend an optional bumper guard to prevent scratching the body-coloured rear bumper when loading.

As compact sedans go, the Mazda3 scores well on most fronts: practicality, fuel efficiency, drivability, affordability, warranty, and a reputation for reliability. The 2.0L SkyActiv engine could use a little more power, noise insulation could be better, and there are some interior quibbles, but overall it’s a car we’d recommend without hesitation.

2015 Mazda pricing and standard equipment

Standard equipment in the 2015 Mazda3 GX includes most ‘must-have’ features except air conditioning and split folding rear seatbacks: remote keyless unlocking/locking doors, pushbutton ignition, black cloth seats and height-adjustable driver’s seat, single folding rear seatback, tilt/telescopic steering wheel, AM/FM/CD audio with four speakers, Bluetooth wireless phone and audio capability, USB and auxiliary inputs, 12-volt powerpoint, power windows with driver’s auto up/down, variable intermittent wipers, power mirrors, automatic-off headlights, 205/60R16-inch all-season tires with steel wheels and wheel covers, and dual exhausts, If you order the optional 6-speed automatic transmission ($1,300), you also have to take the optional Comfort Package ($1,700) which adds air conditioning, tachometer and trip computer.

To the standard features in the GX ($15,995), the GS ($19,795) adds everything in the above Comfort Package plus alloy wheels, rear spoiler, turn indicators in the side mirrors, premium cloth seats, silver interior trim, split folding rear setbacks, colour touch-screen in the instrument panel and HMI Controller dial on the console, rearview camera, HD radio and 2 additional speakers, cruise control, outside temperature display, overhead console with sunglasses holder, rear centre armrest with cupholders. Optional in the GS is a Convenience Package ($550) with heated front seats, heated mirrors, leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift knob and handbrake handle; rain-sensing wipers, and automatic headlights. Also optional is a power moonroof ($1,700).

The top-of-the-line Mazda3 GT includes the Convenience Package and Moonroof plus the larger 184-hp 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine, paddle shifters and Sport mode (with optional automatic transmission), 215/45R-18-inch tires and alloy wheels, larger front disc brakes, bi-xenon headlights and LED lighting, front fog lights, LED tail lights, voice-activated navigation system, Bose audio system with nine speakers, dual-zone automatic climate control, Active Driving Display, and bright finish interior trim.

The GT is available with an optional Luxury Package ($1,500) that adds leather seats, artificial leather door trim and console lid, 6-way power driver’s seat and manual lumbar adjustment, garage door opener and automatic dimming rearview mirror. Also available only on the GT is a Technology Package ($2,500) with Blind Spot Monitoring, Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, Lane Departure Warning, High Beam Control, Smart City Brake Support, Adaptive (swivelling) Front Lighting, i-ELOOP Regenerative Braking System, and Sirius Satellite Radio.

2016 Mazda pricing and standard equipment

Soon-to-arrive 2016 Mazda3 sedans will come in four trim levels, a new base G ($15,550) that’s similar to the 2016 GX but comes exclusively with a manual transmission and doesn’t have a 7-inch colour touch-screen, Bluetooth phone and audio, internet radio apps, tachometer, trip computer, rearview camera, rear child-seat anchors, and alarm system; GX ($18,350) basically a G trim that’s available with an automatic transmission and adds standard air conditioning, tachometer, touch-screen and HMI controller, Bluetooth, trip computer, rearview camera and cruise control; GS ($19,850) which adds alloy wheels, premium cloth seats, heated front seats, split folding rear seatbacks, leather steering wheel, shifter and parking brake handle, heated mirrors and turn signals, automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, and GT ($25,350) which adds the 2.5-litre engine, 18-inch tires and alloys, bi-xenon headlights, fog lights, power moonroof, voice-activated navigation, proximity keyless entry, and Technology Package.

Warranty:
3 years/unlimited distance; 5 years/unlimited distance powertrain; 7 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 3 years/unlimited distance roadside assistance

Competitors:
Chevrolet Cruze
Dodge Dart
Ford Focus
Honda Civic
Hyundai Elantra
Kia Forte
Nissan Sentra
Subaru Impreza
Toyota Corolla
Volkswagen Jetta

Specifications

Model Tested 2015 Mazda3 GS sedan   Destination Fee $1,695
Base Price $19,795   Price as Tested $24,940
A/C Tax $100  
Optional Equipment
$3,350 (SkyActiv-Drive 6-speed automatic transmission w/manual shift mode $1,300; Convenience Package $550: heated front seats, heated mirrors, leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift knob and handbrake handle; rain-sensing wipers, automatic headlights; Moonroof Package $1200: power glass moonroof with power sunshade, front fog lights; ‘Soul Red’ exterior paint $300)