When Mazda introduced its 3 model in 2003, it had a winner. Almost right out of the gate, it sold like hotcakes, and it was so far ahead of its predecessor, the Protegé, it might as well have come from a different manufacturer.
It’s not hard to see why. It was driver-friendly, refined, comfortable, and lively; it featured world-class styling; and it was arguably the best-handling model in its class. It also heralded a change in fortune for the company, which launched the 3 worldwide. Once the ball was rolling, Mazda could hardly keep up with global demand. The Sport model, in particular, was particularly sought-after; it had a level of refinement that was a cut above all of its rivals.
Things went swimmingly until 2008, when the next generation appeared. Not quite as sexy, it featured a cute front-grille treatment that looked like some sort of mechanical smiley-face. I always thought it resembled the spaceship in the animated movie Heavy Metal. Still a nice package, but not as iconic or distinctive as its predecessor.
So here we are with the third generation, which has shed its cuteness and ill-conceived front grille and comes with a little more gravitas than generation number two. Not as purposeful-looking as the first generation, but better.
It comes in three versions: GS, GX, and GT. The first two put the emphasis on economy, with a thrifty 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine and good—but not exceptional—fuel economy. The GT Sport, meanwhile, which is what I drove this time around, has a lively 2.5-litre four-cylinder that develops 184 horsepower, giving the 3 a higher level of performance and a significantly greater fun quotient. It can be had with either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. My tester had the manual, and a smoother, more agreeable shift mechanism doesn’t exist in this market. Couldn’t ask for a nicer gearbox.
The 3’s other traditional attributes are in evidence as well. It still has a high level of drivability, with excellent peripheral visibility, easy ingress and egress, and decent storage. With the back seat up, there’s 350 litres of room back there, which is comparable to the Ford Focus or VW Golf.
A couple of points. First up, fuel economy is definitely not what it should be. In town, the 3 Sport devours 9.3 litres per 100 kilometres, which is what you’d expect from a V-6 engine. On the highway, things are a little better: 6.4 litres per 100 kilometres, but still, competitive fuel economy, which has always been one of this car’s shortcomings, is an issue. Interestingly, the six-speed automatic delivers slightly better fuel consumption: 8.4 and 6.1 litres per 100 kilometres, respectively.
Second, Mazda’s entertainment/communication display is really, really annoying. A screen located mid-dash displays things like Bluetooth, Yelp, AM/FM radio, and GPS, if the car has it. But it’s all controlled by a knob located behind the shifter, and navigating your way around simple things like volume control, tone, and station presets is distracting and frustrating. This setup is used throughout Mazda’s model lineup, and it’s arguably the most poorly designed of its kind in the industry.
On the other hand, the “Active Driving Display”, which projects speed and navi directions onto the windscreen in front of the driver, is a nice touch and is actually useful. This is also known as heads-up display and is utilized by lots of other manufacturers. And Mazda has adopted regenerative braking to replenish the vehicle’s battery charge. This setup is usually found in hybrids, but it’s a good idea here as well. Mazda calls it the i-ELOOP system.
Last, but hardly least, is price. After the dust settles, my 3 GT Sport goes out the door for just over 30 large. The optional Luxury Package—which includes leather upholstery, a garage-door opener, and a power driver’s seat—adds $1,500, but even so, this is a pricey little number, with base price just a titch under $27,000. All things considered, the GS/GX might be the way to go here. Yes, you’ll give up some 30 horsepower, but the GS, for example, starts at about 17 grand, with another three large on top of that if you want air conditioning and an automatic transmission.(They come together in this trim.) Still no bargain, but easier to take than the GT.
That said, the third-generation 3 is an agreeable vehicle to spend time in. It has less road noise than a Civic, is sexier than a Corolla, and has a greater sense of refinement than a Nissan Versa or Sentra.