Many driving enthusiasts appreciate Mazda’s approach to producing sporty yet practical cars that won’t break the bank but provide all the luxury possible for the price. But not that many; the automaker is becoming, half by design, a niche brand, in the sense that its focus is not on grabbing the biggest market share at the expense of all else, but on building machines that deliver a lively experience at the wheel.
So what you get is a Mazda3 that lags far behind the Honda Civic, for example, when it comes to North American sales in the compact car category. And yet many people swear by it, and it’s easy to see why.
The 2018 Mazda3 GT, for Grand Touring, is available both as a five-door hatchback and a four-door sedan. The two versions sit atop the Mazda3 range, above the base Sport model and the Touring version. My tester for the week was a GT sedan, which Mazda has stuck a $25,910 starting price on.
Simple yet sculpted with skill
In terms of styling, the 2018 edition stays virtually the same as the 2017, which had gotten a light redesign; but it’s worth noting that the basic design of the Mazda3 is now four years old, and still the others are struggling to catch up. It is probably the prettiest, most well-proportioned model in its category. Its look is athletic without appearing like it’s trying hard to be. The front end tapers pleasingly to the nose without the whole thing being too “pointy”, and the lines stretch back from there in sleek fashion, along the long hood through to the rounded back end. Mazda engineers managed to make this front-wheel drive car look like a rear-wheel drive, and the 2018 Mazda3 sedan is all the better for it. The overall effect is of simple lines, really well drawn.
The Grand Touring distinguishing marks include black metallic front grille, a subtle decklid spoiler, sharp 18-inch dark silver alloy wheels and LED lights across the board: headlights, running lights and taillights.
Mazda manages to make the interior of the 2018 Mazda3 a driver-focused environment without imprisoning said driver in an overly claustrophobic cocoon of a space. Which means, leg-, elbow- and shoulder-space are ample enough, and the instrument cluster behind the steering wheel doesn’t encroach out and down from where it’s meant to be. The Grand Touring version comes with a mighty fine 9-speaker Bose audio system, dual-zone climate control, a colour head-up display, and a regulation-size moonroof. Now, a larger panoramic roof would have taken this already excellent interior to a whole other level of awesomeness, but at the price the Mazda3 is going for that’s probably a totally unrealistic wish. Oh well.
That head-up function displays on a plastic screen that flips up from the top of the dash when you turn the engine on. It works just fine, though the screen itself is a little on the small side, so it helps to know that you can adjust the height of the displayed data via the display screen at the top of the central console. But I have to admit it scared me a bit, right from the get-go; it seemed a little on the flimsy side, as if it was one careless toss of an object from the back row away from snapping off. Maybe I’m just paranoid; in any case I had no desire to test out its sturdiness.
On a more positive note, I loved, LOVED, the turn-knob down by the gear lever that allows for navigating through the menu on the main screen. In fact, that screen is not touch, you HAVE to use the knob, and it’s great and intuitive and well-located so you don’t have to stretch your arm to the screen, taking your eyes off the road in the process to avoid accidentally switching to your teen’s favourite metal station when all you wanted was to change the nav map. Any car that has that knob, placed there, is immediately in my good books.
My tester also included the Premium equipment package, which brings with it heated and leather-wrapped steering wheel, paddle shifters, Mazda’s integrated navigation system and heated front seats, as well as a number of drive assist systems (lane departure warning, smart brake support, lane keep assist, etc.). It also includes an adaptive cruise control system, which Mazda dubs the Radar Cruise Control. I heartily appreciated this system when on the highway in light-to-medium traffic. The system automatically adjusts the car’s speed when it detects a vehicle ahead in the same lane, and resumes the set cruise control speed when the coast is clear.
As well put-together the Mazda3 GT is on the outside and in the cabin, so it is in its guts. The Grand Touring, like the Touring, gets the bigger of the two available engines for the model, a 184-hp 2.5L SKYACTIV-G 4-cylinder that delivers 185 lb-ft of torque. A manual gearbox is, surprisingly these days, the default transmission for all three versions of the Mazda3, but my GT tester had the SKYACTIV-DRIVE automatic.
What these components do is provide the driver with a crisp, responsive powertrain that makes driving even during the daily commute a pleasurable experience. Of course, this car is not a sporty creature on the same level as pocket rockets like the Golf Type R, Ford Focus ST or Subaru’s WRX’s models, but it is far above average compared to many other models in its category and price range. Remember that Mazda is one of the few manufacturers not to have a separate performance sub-banner; it just makes all of its cars fun to drive. Zoom zoom, and all that…
So what’s fine about the drive? For starters, the steering is pleasantly weighty but not overly tough, so you instantly have a feel for leaning the car precisely where you want it to go, and be confident in the result. Acceleration, while not particularly explosive, is smooth and consistent as the transmission moves through the gears. Change to Sport mode and everything tightens up just a little, revs going higher before the gearbox moves things along, the steering getting tighter, etc. Though I suppose I could have done with a more radical change when flipping that mode switch to take full advantage of winding roads and cornering opportunities. Just a little more bite, please…
The 2018 Mazda3 GT sedan is a really attractive package on the outside, with its proportions near to perfectly weighted; its front end in particular is just dynamite, in my opinion. Inside, quality of construction is close to irreproachable and the layout is ergonomically sound.
The driving dynamics, meanwhile, are crisp and sporty-ish and designed to make the daily commute comfortable but also zoom-zoom fun. Crank up the sport on the Sport mode, Mazda people, and you’d have a pretty-near unbeatable set-up for a compact car in this price range. I must say that the bigger 184-hp engine really helps the GT perform as well as it does. Those considering the base Sport version of the new Mazda3 should keep that in mind.
Category-best driving dynamics
Gorgeous front end, beautiful, well-proportioned shape
Comfortable, ergonomically sound interior
A lot of performance and quality for the sticker price
Well-equipped with safety, drive assist systems
That moonroof seems almost puny nowadays
Space a little tight in back row
Sport mode could be sportier