2016 Mazda 3: Does It Zoom-Zoom?

Mazda claims that every car they make has the soul of a sports car. The Mazda 3 is their bread and butter compact car, a segment that tends to emphasize fuel economy, comfort, and an affordable price – pretty much the opposite of most sports cars. The old Mazdaspeed 3 is a barrel of laughs, but what about the lower grade rental car spec?

My wife and I took my Subaru BRZ to Montréal. We soon discovered that the combination of my stiff (stock) suspension and the cratered Montréal roads were a recipe for frustration and lower back pain. That, plus my wife being on a different travel schedule than me, led to us picking up a rental car. We were given a choice of a wide variety of compact cars, and went with the Mazda 3 since it had low miles kilometers, and to put Mazda’s claim to the test.

Mazda 3

Ours was the Mazda 3 GX, one notch up from the bargain basement model. This is equivalent to i Sport, the lowest spec US model. It still comes with many features that you’d never find on a “low end” car just a few years ago – push button start, for example, and an infotainment system with Bluetooth, a backup camera, and both touchscreen and button/dial controls. More on that later. Being a rental, our car had the 6-speed automatic transmission, and the smaller of the two available engines, the 2.0 liter litre (we’re in Canada, after all) Skyactiv four cylinder. That’s the same engine that sits under the hood of the ND Miata, which means this car really does have the heart of a sports car, despite being the smaller of the two choices. How much like a Miata will the 3 feel on the open road?

Mazda 3 stuck in traffic

We spent about a week in Montréal, during which time the Mazda 3 felt like just another bland economy car. The constant traffic on Boulevard Décarie never allowed the small Miata engine to get into the powerband, making it difficult to squeeze into small gaps. The automatic transmission sucked some of the fun out of the Miata motor, but it did save us from riding the clutch and cramping up the left leg. The suspension was firm, but not harsh like my BRZ. We felt the bumps but only the worst of them actually jostled us uncomfortably, even on the Boulevard. It also handled the sudden lane changes when finding parked cars blocking the right lane quite well. Brakes are good, which is useful for the short yellow lights with attached red light cameras.

The Mazda 3 blended in just a little bit too well for my tastes. I lost count of how many times we had trouble finding it among all the other white sedans in a parking lot. We kept having to ask each other “Is this one ours?” before letting ourselves in, which we almost did with a previous generation white 3 that parked next to us. Let’s face it, you don’t get a car like this to stand out in a crowd. The 3 is a perfectly good looking car. After losing the ridiculed “anime grill” it’s the right blend of edgy, round, and smooth – just like every other car in the class these days. It’s really hard to tell this apart from a Kia Forte, Chevy Cruze, or pretty much any other car in its class.

Mazda 3 interior

Inside, the economy car roots are clear, but it’s still a nice place to be. There’s no leather or soft touch plastic, but the controls are well laid out and easy to read and use. An analog speedometer (calibrated in kilometers, because Canada) dominates the gauge cluster, with a digital tach to the left and a digital gas gauge with fuel economy display to the right. In the center is another one those infotainment displays that looks like someone crazy glued a cheap tablet to the middle of the dashboard. I hate this trend, but that’s a personal pet peeve, and Mazda is far from the only offender. The system itself is intuitive and easy to operate, either by the touch screen or using the dial and surrounding buttons similar to BMW’s i-Drive. A few years ago who would’ve thought such a thing would be available on a $25/day rental car? Yet here we are.

Mazda 3 lack of nav

The only thing I don’t like about this system is the “teaseware” of the navigation system. Despite being available on the menu and by its own dedicated button next to the control knob, all I got when I pressed it was the world’s largest digital compass and a nag saying “If you want navigation you can buy it at your local Mazda dealer.” It’s such an obvious case of crippling a feature that the car is otherwise equipped for, just to make some extra money off you. Mazda has already done such a great job in offering features previously available only in high end cars. Why don’t they improve that reputation by including navigation as standard equipment if all it takes is a software upgrade?

After our week in Montréal, we headed up to the Laurentian mountains to visit my wife’s family’s country house in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts. This gave us our first chance to open the Mazda 3 up on the highway a bit. Once we were able to get the engine up to speed, we found it to be adequately zippy. We’re not talking heart stopping acceleration. I think my BRZ would beat the 3 in a drag race. But if you plant your right foot down and rev the snot out of the Skyactiv motor, it’ll get up and go just fine when you need it to. It’s rather like the Miata that way, actually. When using cruise control, it also displays the precise speed you have it set to, enabling you to maintain precisely 117km/h in a 100 zone to keep the Sûreté Du Québec off your back.

Mazda 3 at Mont Royal

Then we set course for Ottawa to see some old friends of hers. Soon we were off the highway and on twisty two-lane roads through the mountains. I dropped the transmission into manual mode, downshifted to keep the revs up through the corners (and to get around one particularly slow moving Prius), and that’s where the Mazda 3, automatic and all, really came alive. Body roll was present, but handling was sharp, and it was quite easy to fling the car from one turn into the next. My wife had to point out to me that going more than 30km/h over the limit is a Big Deal (TM) in these parts, the 3 handled so well. It’s no Miata, of course, but for a good sized family sedan with no obvious sporting pretensions, it was still quite fun, even with the automatic transmission.

At one point we pulled off the autoroute for gas and found ourselves on 1km of dirt through a construction area. I wasn’t able to push nearly as hard as a certain Mustang because it was a construction area, but here, too, the 3 was quite competent. Where my BRZ would’ve beat us up, the 3 took us with ease, and left foot braking was quite effective for pointing the car where we wanted it to go.

Back on tarmac, we accidentally followed Waze straight into the Ottawa River. Fortunately, there was a ferry there to catch us.

[brid video=”39212″ player=”4063″ title=”An Unexpected Ferry Adventure”]

A few short minutes later we were in Ontario. The Mazda 3 handled the boat perfectly, without falling into the river even once.

After a week and a few hundred miles kilometers in the 3, what do I think of this basic rental car version? This was no press loaner, and wasn’t optioned up to the gills like most of them are. But for $21,480 Canadian, it would make a great daily driver, even for an enthusiast on a budget. I’d stick with the stick – for fun, to save a few bucks, and for the extra zoom-zoom – but the automatic shifted smoothly, fairly quickly, and chose its gears well. Soul Red would work for me rather than Everyday White. I’d choose a hatchback rather than the sedan (the sedan’s trunk did easily swallow all of our belongings), and though the Miata’s 2.0 motor was sufficient, I’d jump up to a 3 S Grand Touring for the more powerful 2.5 Skyactiv motor and many more standard features for $25,445 American buckaroos.

Mazda 3

So does the Mazda 3 genuinely have the soul of a sports car? Yes, I think it does.

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