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2021 Mazda3 Turbo First Drive: A Rare Breed

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Auto123 gets in a first test drive of the 2021 Mazda3 Turbo.

OK everyone, quick: how many compact all-wheel-drive compact sedans from non-luxury manufacturers can you buy in Canada today?

Think about it. Take a second.

The answer to my question is an emphatic “two”: the Mazda3 and the Subaru Impreza/WRX/STI triplets, which are really just variations on a single theme.

Of course, Mazda may be a mass-market carmaker, but since they don’t have a luxury arm like Honda does with Acura or Toyota with Lexus, they need the top trims of their models to hopefully steal a sale or two away from the other guys’ luxury brands.

So it goes that for 2021, Mazda is releasing a turbocharged AWD version of the top GT trims of their venerable Mazda3, both in sedan and Sport hatchback forms. GT-spec means it gets just about every feature Mazda currently has at its disposal: leather seats, Bose audio, moonroof, heated steering wheel, navigation and the latest in Mazda infotainment tech which includes a great new high-definition backup camera, Android Auto and wireless Apple CarPlay support.

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2021 Mazda3 Turbo, profile
Photo: D.Heyman
2021 Mazda3 Turbo, profile

The Mazda3 Turbo comes in three flavours (six if you count the Sport version), all with AWD and a 6-speed automatic transmission: GT ($32,900/$33,900 for the sedan/Sport), GT Premium (pictured; $34,600/$35,600) and 100th Anniversary edition ($36,100/$37,100). These numbers mean you’re never going to hit 40 grand, and that’s a very good thing.

NOT a Mazdaspeed3
Of course, Mazda has done the turbo 3 thing before, though for that you do have to look all the way back to the Mazdaspeed3 last seen in 2013. Mazda, however, is adamant that this latest take on turbocharging the 3 is not to be taken as the rebirth of the Mazdaspeed3.

“The Mazdaspeed has a very intense characteristic,” said Jay Chen, manager of powertrain and performance at Mazda R & D. “We are trying to deliver a driving experience that’s more appreciable every day. You don’t have to wring it out to get some driving pleasure. You’ll have that most of the time.” Indeed, it’s Acura and Audi that Mazda has in its sights with this, not VW or Hyundai. So they say.

2021 Mazda3 Turbo, rear light
Photo: D.Heyman
2021 Mazda3 Turbo, rear light

This 3 Turbo is actually a more refined take on the genre, which is why you don’t see huge aerodynamic add-ons (the Sport, however, gets a slightly more aggressive front fascia and rear wing option), and you don’t have the massive hood scoop the Mazdaspeed3 did. Really, the main stylistic differences between the Turbo and other Mazda3 models are some slightly larger tailpipes, black 18-inch wheels and black wing mirrors.

The 100th Anniversary model, meanwhile, adds special badging on the fenders and wheels, body-coloured wing mirrors and red interior. It looks handsome enough on the outside, though not flashy; most of the flash comes in the form of that red interior found in 100th Anniversary models.

So what about the competition, then?
The Audi A3 makes less power but costs more, while the S3 still makes less power for even more money. Then there are the Mercedes-AMG CLA 35, Cadillac CT4-V and BMW M235i Gran Coupé. In order to get a compact equaling or besting the Mazda3 Turbo’s 227 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque (250 and 320, respectively, if you fill up with premium), you’re into the high-$40,000 or low-$50,000 range; even the Volkswagen Golf R - the gold standard when it comes to turbo’d AWD compacts - won’t be leaving the showroom for much less than 50 grand when its new edition arrives next year.

2021 Mazda3 Turbo, three-quarters rear
Photo: D.Heyman
2021 Mazda3 Turbo, three-quarters rear

It takes some time to come around to the notion of the Mazda as a cultured product above all else, though, because this is one seriously fast, able-handling and altogether ultra compact sedan. Power is dispatched lickety-split from tip-in, with peak torque arriving at a lowly 2,000 RPM and peak power arriving an additional 3,000 revs past that. So, you get some great low-end grunt as you ride that torque wave, with peak hp arriving a little later on to give that extra oomph when the turbo comes on boil.

The car gets a pair of paddle shifters, with each tug resulting in a quick cog-swap. No question, this 3 is monstrous in a straight line and makes itself heard while it’s at it. The exhaust note’s a nifty cross between the off-beat burble of the WRX’s flat-four and the Golf R’s straight 4-banger. What’s that about this not being a Mazdaspeed model? Sure sounds like one to me.

That said, to make it sound like something a little more manic than advertised, you have to make it happen. Otherwise, the word I kept coming back to was “refined”, because beyond all that full-throttle whizz-bangery, Mazda’s intentions for the 3 model begin to shine through. The ride is way more predictable and insulative than the power and its compact digs suggest, while the handling manages to be sharp and precise without necessarily feeling too sharp-edged.

A lot of that boils down to Mazda’s clever G-Vectoring system. Essentially, what G-Vectoring does is as soon as the system senses some steering input, a little power is taken away, which moves the weight forward and provides more grip to the front wheels. So, turn-in is quick but at the same time, body roll is controlled and energy put to better use spiriting you down the road.

2021 Mazda3 Turbo, three-quarters front
Photo: D.Heyman
2021 Mazda3 Turbo, three-quarters front

The steering, though – and I’m as surprised to be writing this as I was when I first experienced it – could use a little more feel. I I found myself guessing how much lock to input for certain turns and having to adjust mid-turn more than I’d like. Indeed, it behooves Mazda to ensure a little off-centre dead zone exists because any “refinement” they’ve worked to achieve would take a bit of a hit if the steering were too nervous. That’s fine, but I just think they went a little too far.

There’s little else to complain about here, though. Sure, the lack of a third-pedal option does stick in my craw a bit, especially considering that Mazda’s reasoning for that is basically that a manual gearbox would be a little too hardcore – a little too Mazdaspeed-like – for the 3 Turbo. I’m sure there are plenty of potential buyers out there who would love a manual option, but according to Mazda, not enough for a business case to be made. So that ship has sailed and there’s no point in lamenting too much about it.

Rather, you’d be better off to just take the Mazda3 Turbo for what it is, and that’s an extremely powerful and fun-to-drive little runabout that punches way above its pay grade. Hard not to love it.

The 2021 Mazda3 Turbo, in red and in grey
Photo: D.Heyman
The 2021 Mazda3 Turbo, in red and in grey

2021 Mazda3 GT Turbo pricing

Sedan

GT: $32,900
GT Premium: $34,600
GT 100th Anniversary Edition: $36,100

Sport

GT: $33,900
GT Premium: $35,600
GT 100th Anniversary Edition: $37,100

We like

Great turbo grunt
Well-priced
100th Anniversary package a nice touch
    
We like less

Some numb steering
Tight back seat
No manual option

The competition

Audi S3
BMW M235i Gran Coupe
Cadillac CT4-V
Honda Civic Type R
Hyundai Veloster N
Mercedes-AMG CLA 35
Subaru WRX
Volkswagen Golf R

2021 Mazda3 Turbo, badging
Photo: D.Heyman
2021 Mazda3 Turbo, badging

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Photos:D.Heyman
2021 Mazda Mazda3 Turbo pictures