First drive: Nimble, efficient 2014 Mazda3

Redesign brings more space, more tech, nicer interior

Published: November 18, 2013 02:15 PM

The all-new 2014 Mazda3 looks well positioned to take on such direct rivals as the Ford Focus, Honda Civic, and Subaru Impreza. We’ve been fans of the Mazda3 for ages, impressed with its agile handling, good ride, and excellent fuel economy. The redesign, available as either a sedan or hatchback, continues this tradition. It is a little larger and roomier, more stylish, and brings tons of new technology. Most 3s sold will be "i" versions, with a 155-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder, but "s" versions, with a stronger 184-hp, 2.5-liter four are available, as well.

We’ve bought two examples: a high-trim 3i Grand Touring hatchback with a six-speed manual transmission and a mid-trim 3i Touring sedan with a six-speed automatic. Each is fitted with just the standard trim line equipment and yet both have stacks of gear.

The hatchback’s $24,040 sticker price looks high, but it includes lots of stuff not present in the one-step-down Touring trim, such as heated and powered faux-leather seats, rear camera, seven-inch touch screen, and navigation system. Priced significantly lower, our $21,740 Touring sedan still brought keyless ignition, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert. These goodies are available standard or optional on other trims, as well.

Driving impressions: After a few brief experiences, both cars feel agile and corner neatly, but the electric power steering doesn’t seem as communicative as in our last Mazda3, and it feels a bit light at highway speeds. The six-speed manual is a pleasure to row, with short throws and easy, smooth, clutch-pedal action. The automatic also shifts smoothly, but it seems a bit slow to downshift, no doubt to save fuel. As expected, the auto is not as much fun as the stick.

Though the "i" version is no rocket, engine power is more than adequate. You may have to riffle through the lower gears for good pickup, but it does move right along. The ride is mostly steady and well isolated, but on less than pristine roadways, some muted pitches still poke their way through. One thing that’s improved is road noise—or the lack of it—in the new car. At highway speeds the main noise source is wind rush, which is pronounced, but engine hum and tire noises are better suppressed.

Inside the cabin: One of the best things about the Mazda3 is the front seats, which are well shaped and very comfortable. The powered leatherette chairs in the costlier Grand Touring are a good deal nicer than the manual-adjust cloth seats in the Touring. Even so the cloth thrones are pretty darn comfortable. We only wish they had a lumbar adjustment like the top-tick seats do.

Drivers will also find ample leg and head room, and everything you need comes neatly to hand. The lower-level sedan has a basic infotainment system with simple control knobs.

The more complex up-level control layout, with a 7-inch display, takes some getting used to with its multiple menus. You can manipulate the various functions—audio, navigation, communications—with either a central control knob or by poking the touch screen. The graphics are clear, bright, and legible, which helps, but the screen itself, atop the center dash, looks like an add-on. (Read: "What the heck, Mazda. Only automatics get the analog tach?")

Visibility is just OK—the sloping roof, wide rear pillars and upswept body lines make it tough to see over your shoulder or straight back. Rear-seat space is a good deal more accommodating than before. There’s plenty of head room, and two adults can sit there without pain.

Once our formal tests get under way we’ll have a better idea how the new 3 stacks up.

—Gordon Hard

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