Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: June 3, 2020
Motoring journalists don't often have the luxury of spending an exorbitant amount of time living with a test vehicle. We are constantly flopping back and forth between the latest and greatest, to the point where our biggest concern is finding which car we left our sunglasses in. Was it the Honda Civic we had last week, or the McLaren 720S from the week before that? First world problems, we know. But when we’re not utilizing our butt dyno, we’re racing to submit articles in time, debating whether or not a title is too click-baity, or updating our Instagram with our newest photoshoots. That makes it tough to juggle between jobs and accurately evaluate a car the way an actual owner would experience it. Fuel economy, total driving range, daily livability, and instances of maintenance or repair should they unfortunately arise, tend to go unreported.
Well, these days there are no shortages of articles mentioning the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis on the automotive industry: factories closed, layoffs made, and auto shows cancelled. It was a lose-lose case for everybody, enthusiasts included - we don’t believe empty roads and their subsequent street races to count. Just one day before Ontario announced it would close all non-essential businesses, manufacturer head offices included, we had picked up a 2020 Mazda3 Sport GT AWD, a fully-decked out, five-door, all-wheel drive, hatchback wearing a deep shade of Soul Red Crystal Metallic paint. Rather than return it the following day, Mazda Canada went over and above and allowed our team to keep the vehicle to evaluate on a long-term basis until all of this pandemic nonsense would blow over. And if there were any positives to come out of this trying time, it would be that it allowed us to spend a solid two months living, driving, and caring for this Mazda as if it were our own, an opportunity that hardly happens outside of our own personal vehicles, and gives us a shining path to evaluate this car in a new, prolonged, and more detailed light.
The Mazda3 underwent a refresh last year, donning new sheetmetal, a more rigid platform, and a brand spanking new interior flourishing with all the latest in gizmos and top-shelf materials. We could not stop praising the Mazda3 when we first drove it. Not only did the interior’s fit and finish exude an upscale vibe, but it down right embarasses actual entry-level luxury vehicles from Cadillac, Lincoln, and Genesis. The 8.8-inch infotainment display is neatly perched on the dashboard and offers crisp and high-definition graphics, black plastics are cleverly dressed up as smooth piano black surfaces, and there aren’t any of those grainy, scratchy, hard textures found littered all over a Honda Civic. The volume dial is something lifted straight out of a Mercedes, not just in the way it looks but in the way it clicks without any looseness or wiggling. The feedback noise is satisfying, and the same goes for the sleek window switches. From a craftsmanship perspective, it’s not too far off from the similarly-sized Mercedes-Benz A-Class hatchback, and that’s as good of a compliment as it gets.
Ergonomics are ace as well, an area where a two-month-long evaluation really comes into play. Ingress is not difficult or tough on the back despite the car’s low stance. The seats are more than supportive - we always walk out of the vehicle feeling fresh rather than lethargic. All the controls are within easy reach, and though the infotainment unit isn’t as user-friendly and a bit more convoluted than Hyundai’s or Ford’s touchscreen examples, the rotary dial gave us effortless access to the screen without having to lift off the seatback to reach. The rear seats aren’t bad either, though sitting behind my six-foot self can get a little cramped in headroom, and the hatchback trunk offered more than enough space for my pandemic-panic grocery hauls.
The more you drive a vehicle, the more you tend to notice the smaller quirks, both good and bad. Like the Mazda3’s automatic door locking feature, where leaving the vehicle and walking a few feet away will automatically trigger the doors to lock, saving you the hassle. We also greatly appreciated the optional Bose audio system, which delivered plenty of bass and crisp acoustics to keep us entertained on our long, empty, destination-less drives. That, and how the windshield spray nozzles are embedded into the wipers, just like they are in more expensive Mercedes models. “All this for under 30-grand?” was the question that kept popping into our head.
There are times when I grow weary of a new test vehicle after just one week of driving it - the Nissan Altima and Mitsubishi RVR are the first to come to mind - but even after sixty solid days with this bright red Mazda3, it looks just as refreshing as when I picked it up. It’s elongated stance, butch but awkwardly beefy C-pillars, and hunched rear end do wonders in making it appear easy on the eyes, yet sporty enough to tug on the budget-friendly heartstrings.
Keeping with Mazda tradition, the new 3 is a pleasant driving partner. Even on winter tires and a heavy AWD system, the stiff platform, eager front end, and tight body control make it a welcome companion on short backroad bursts. The 2.5-litre naturally aspirated flat-four doesn’t produce prodigious amounts of power, and even though the six-speed automatic shifts quickly, it never seems to be in the right gear for last-second bouts of acceleration on corner-exit. Flooring the throttle nets you a 50/50 chance of a downshift, and we did not find the Sport mode triggered by a switch on the center console to be of much use either - the gears are tuned to be held longer with pokier throttle mapping, but it did little to add to the experience. Still, better than the buzzing and droning CVT found in the Honda Civic and Subaru Impreza. Once it’s in the proper gear to exploit the powerband, the Mazda3 offers more than enough propulsion. Just don’t expect the seatback wallop of a turbocharged unit.
Sadly, we didn’t achieve the fuel consumption numbers that we were initially expecting from a small economy-based hatchback. Over 1,000 kms of city driving, we netted 10.3 L/100km, which is slightly worse than Mazda’s claimed city average of 9.8 L/100km, possibly explained by our vehicle wearing 18-inch Michelin X-Ice winter rubber. Summer or all-season tires should fare better, as would FWD variants. At least it only requires regular 87-octane fuel.
That being said, as long as you have a proper set of winter tires, I don’t think the i-ACTIV AWD system is an imperative option for Canadians. It adds weight, $1,700 in costs, and an uptick in fuel consumption. We didn't notice that big of a difference when it comes to low-speed cornering grip, but then again we did not have enough snow to test that on either. The ride quality is exceptional, and the Mazda3 AWD proved to be a comfortable companion on the daily drive, hardly disturbing passengers when dancing over bumpy surfaces. I wouldn’t say it’s more fun or more engaging than the equivalent Honda Civic Hatchback with its peppier turbo motor, and triple digit speeds do elicit some wind noise into the cabin, but it’s not nearly enough to warrant a complaint.
And then there’s the price. With such a stunning interior design, fit and finish, and calm road manners, you would expect the Mazda3 to nudge itself into the next price bracket but $27,050 is all you need for this top-spec GT trim. The bells and whistles push it just over $31,000. Of course, going down the price ladder does strip it of its temptatious leather seats and dashboard, and nifty tech features, but there’s value to be found. The GS would be our prime choice with a nice balance of features and the larger 2.5-litre engine. The more conventional four-door sedan variant of the Mazda3 is even cheaper.
The most interesting part about this long-term test was that it only took a week for us to fall in love with the Mazda3. The subsequent days and drives only made the attraction stronger as we learned about its nifty features, quirks, and molded our affection towards this little hatchback. We took advantage of the low fuel prices, but even that only amounted to a relatively cheap fill up every time. The takeaway is this: skip the AWD, we don’t think it’s necessary. Spend that extra coin and buy yourself a nice set of winter tires. That, or upgrade to the GT trim instead - the interior quality will blow you away even if you’re coming from a premium product. Otherwise, the GS will suffice. The 2.5-litre engine is not necessary but a welcome addition for joining highways and emerging from busy junctions with a bit more vigour. Compounded with the light steering, superb ride quality, and standard unlimited mileage warranty, it’s a hatchback that will keep you entertained for not just a few honeymoon weeks, but for years to come.
Model: 2020 Mazda3 Sport GT AWD
Paint Type: Soul Red Crystal Metallic
Base Price: $27,050
Price as Tested: $31,500
Curb weight (kg): 1,486
Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder
Horsepower: 186 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 186 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway ) L/100km: 9.8 / 7.4
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 10.3
Tires: Michelin X-Ice; 215/45R18