• Car Review

Driven: 2019 Mazda3 review

By David Undercoffler | September 12, 2019

Autolist rating: 4/5
But would we buy it? Yep
Price range: $21,920 - $29,820, including destination but before options

Key takeaways:

  • Redesigned for 2019, the compact 3 comes in sedan or hatchback form.
  • It offers AWD on most trims and a manual transmission on one version.
  • The 3 comes with class-leading style, refinement and handling.
  • On the small side for this segment.
  • We would recommend it to buyers looking for something sleek, fun and upscale.

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What is it?

The 2019 Mazda3 is a compact sedan and hatchback from Japanese automaker Mazda.

It’s the smallest car Mazda makes (the CX-3 crossover is its smallest crossover) and it slots below the Mazda6 sedan in the brand’s U.S. lineup.

The new Mazda3 was completely redesigned for the 2019 model year. Mazda updated the car in an effort to move it more upmarket from most of its mainstream competitors.

As with its predecessors, the 3 is available in hatchback or sedan form.

The sedan starts at $21,920 and the hatchback starts at $24,520.

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The hatchback has additional standard features that the sedan doesn’t have, thus causing the price difference. These additional features include faux leather seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and start, 18-inch alloy wheels (the sedan has 16-inch) and other smaller upgrades.

Both the sedan and hatchback have the same powertrain: a 2.5-liter naturally-aspirated (non-turbo) four-cylinder engine that makes 186 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque. The engine is matched with a six-speed automatic transmission; on the top hatchback trim (Premium) a six-speed manual transmission is a no-cost option on front-wheel-drive models.

The 3 sedan is front-wheel-drive only; the hatchback comes standard with FWD but offers all-wheel-drive as a $1,400 option.

The 3 competes against a wide variety of compact cars, including the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza, Kia Forte, Hyundai Elantra and Elantra GT, Volkswagen Jetta, Golf and GTI, Mini Cooper and the soon-to-be-discontinued Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Escape.

What’s good?

TLDR: Style for days, available AWD, fun to drive on a daily basis

Style. Mazda is in the middle of reinventing its brand in an effort to become more upscale than most of its mainstream competitors. With this move has come a focus on the style of Mazda’s vehicles, inside and out. The new 3 is perhaps the best expression of this yet. Both the interior and exterior are sleek, sophisticated and stylish, and combined with upscale materials and construction, the effort makes the 3 look like it should cost way more than it actually does. Yes, it still plays in the economy car space, but it’s easily the best-looking car in this segment.

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All-wheel-drive. Most of the 3’s competitors in this segment are front-wheel-drive only so it’s nice to have the option of all-wheel-drive for buyers in snowy climes or for those who appreciate the additional grip for enhanced performance. Our test model was indeed AWD and we were impressed with how it handled.

Fun to drive. Mazda has a well-earned reputation for building some of the best-handling vehicles in their respective segments. This 3 is no different. The steering is firm and responsive, the car feels agile but also well-planted and the brakes were well-tuned. Too many cars are losing the joy of driving as they grow larger and more laden with (admittedly necessary) safety tech so it’s nice to see that Mazda is working hard to avoid this.

What’s bad?

TLDR: Needs more top-end power, has huge blind spots, lacks space of rivals, wonky infotainment

Runs out of power. The 3’s 186 horsepower is on par with most of its segment and while we liked its power off the line, it definitely runs out of grunt when you push the engine closer to redline. This means drivers will need to leave themselves plenty of time for passing on the highway.

Huge blind spots. One of the key drawbacks to the hatchback’s sleek exterior styling is the rather enormous blind spot drivers will notice over as they look over the shoulders when changing lanes on the freeway. It easily blocks out even large vehicles, especially on your right. This took considerable time to adjust to, so make sure you test drive the Mazda3 on a highway if you’re shopping for one.

Tidy size. Many buyers in this compact car segment equate the vehicle’s size with its value; this could be a problem for some potential Mazda3 shoppers. It’s definitely smaller than many of its peers, particularly in the rear seats. This doesn’t mean it’s not a good value, it’s just evident that this car’s appeal is in its styling and materials rather than its size.

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Wonky infotainment setup. Mazda has said it deliberately moved away from touchscreen infotainment systems to ones controlled with buttons and knobs in the center console. While the setup in the 3 looks good, the system has some frustrating and confusing menus that took some time to figure out. It left us missing the easier-to-use touchscreens.

5 stars of execution

Safety Features? YES

  • On the Mazda3, all hatchback trims and most sedan trims (except the base version) come standard with a wide array of active safety features.
  • These include blind-spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking, rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist.
  • The 3 is also rated by the independent IIHS as a Top Safety Pick, its second-highest rating). The car has yet to be crash-tested by NHTSA.

Value? YES

  • The Mazda manages to pack both value and style into the 3 sedan and hatchback.
  • The lower-trim levels offer an impressive amount of amenities and safety gear for the money.
  • The higher-end versions aim for a luxury experience without the European-level price tags.

Efficiency? NO

  • While the Mazda3 gets reasonable gas mileage, it can’t keep up with its ultra-efficient rivals, even in the more fuel-efficient front-wheel-drive trim level.
  • It trails behind the likes of the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Chevy Cruze in EPA fuel economy numbers in both sedan and hatchback setup.
  • We averaged 26 MPG in a week of testing in a mix of city and highway driving. We were testing a loaded AWD hatchback model.

Driving experience? YES

  • This is why people buy Mazdas -- because they’re the most fun-to-drive models in each of their respective segments.
  • Hands-down the Mazda3 is the most fun model in this segment of compact hatchbacks and sedans. The handling, suspension and steering are all excellent, and the combination reminds you that it’s possible to have a sensible, every-day car that’s also engaging.
  • The main downside to its driving experience -- as we’ve already noted -- is the fact that it seems to run out of power earlier than we’d like when accelerating.

Execution? YES

  • Overall we came away impressed with the Blazer’s savvy mix of driving dynamics, packaging and style.
  • Buyers prioritizing these three elements will find a lot to like in the new Blazer.
  • However, we were dismayed by the pricey options and the lack of active safety tech.

Total Rating: 4 stars

What’s it gonna cost me?

We’ll start with the sedan lineup.

The base Mazda3 sedan starts at $21,920, (all prices listed include destination). It comes standard with the same 2.5-liter, 186-horsepower four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission that all Mazda3s have.

This base sedan also comes with front-wheel-drive, 16-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights and daytime running lights, 60/40 split-folding rear seats, keyless entry, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, backup camera, 8.8-inch infotainment screen with Bluetooth connectivity and HD radio.

The Mazda3 sedan with the Select Package starts at $23,520 and adds 18-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control, faux-leather seats, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, the aforementioned suite of active safety tech (automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist) and various exterior trim upgrades.

The next trim is the Preferred and it starts at $25,120. This version adds eight-way power driver’s seat with lumbar, heated front seats, a 12-speaker Bose sound system, Sirius satellite radio and power-folding side-view mirrors.

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The top-end sedan trim is the $27,420 Premium. It adds to the other trims things like color heads-up display, unique LED headlights and taillights, adaptive headlights, leather seats (as opposed to the lesser trims’ fake leather seats), power moonroof and paddle shifters.

Sedan shoppers can add all-wheel-drive to the Select, Preferred and Premium trim levels for an additional $1,400.

The base version of the Mazda3 hatchback starts at $24,520. Though it’s the base hatchback, it comes with nearly identical features as the mid-grade Select sedan. So look for things like 18-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control, faux-leather seats, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, the aforementioned suite of active safety tech (automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist) and push-button start.

The Hatchback with the Preferred trim package starts at $26,120 and adds to the base hatchback things like eight-way power driver’s seat, heated front seats, 12-speaker Bose sound system with Sirius satellite radio, various body-color exterior trim pieces and power-folding side-view mirrors.

The Premium is the top-end trim of the hatchback and it starts at $28,420. Though a six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters is standard, this is the only Mazda3 (sedan or hatchback) that offers a six-speed manual as a no-cost option on front-wheel-drive models.

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Other goodies on this model are black 18-inch alloy wheels, color head-up display, unique LED headlights and taillights, adaptive headlights, leather seats (not faux leather) and a power moonroof.

As with the sedan, all-wheel-drive is optional on the hatchback for an additional $1,400.

If it were our money on the line, we’d choose a base front-wheel-drive Hatchback (for $24,520) or if we were particularly spendy and thrill-seeking, we’d opt for the $28,420 Premium Hatchback with the free manual transmission.

Also consider:

The Mazda3 competes in a class with some nameplates that have been around for decades so they put up stiff competition. Still, almost none of them will be as much fun to drive as this Mazda so if that’s your priority, then go for it.

The Honda Civic hatchback was lightly refreshed for the 2020 model year and the sedan and coupe were updated for 2019. While the Civic doesn’t offer all-wheel-drive (few do in this segment) it is a supremely well-rounded car that will suit a wide variety of buyers. It’s reasonably fun to drive for this segment, though not on par with the Mazda. Nevertheless, we heartily recommend it.

Toyota’s Corolla is all-new for the 2020 model year and it comes in sedan and hatchback configurations. While it’s not as much fun as the Honda or Mazda, the Corolla is a refined, highly affordable and incredibly reliable model.

Volkswagen’s Jetta sedan was all-new for the 2019 model year. It packs a lot of value and offers a level of European refinement that no other competitor matches. It’s also larger than most cars in this segment. We’d recommend it too.

VW’s Golf is pretty dated at this point, as a new one is due within a year. Still, like its Jetta sedan cousin, the Golf offers a nice level of European refinement. But if you’re really into that sort of thing, it might be best to wait for the next generation.

The Subaru Impreza (and its more rugged Crosstrek twin) comes standard with all-wheel-drive and hearty build quality and impressive safety features. It’s also worth a look.

Mini’s Cooper is a probably the Mazda’s biggest competitor when it comes to handling. It’s available in basic and Cooper S versions, the latter of which we’d heartily endorse. It also packs high-end build quality but it’s on the small side.

Hyundai’s Elantra is nice but a bit dull, regardless of whether you choose the hatchback or the sedan. Kia’s Forte -- a corporate cousin of Hyundai -- is a little more upscale but won’t be more fun to drive than the Honda, Mazda or Mini.

We’d skip the aging Nissan Sentra; it’s not inherently bad but no matter what you’re looking for in a car in this segment, something else does it better. A new generation should go on sale in 2020. We would also skip the Ford Focus and Chevy Cruze, since they’re outdated at this point and aren’t due to be updated.