A bit of spice

From the February 2021 print edition

When the fourth-generation Mazda3 was released in 2019, the positive reviews and awards began arriving not long afterward, including one declaring it the 2020 Cana­dian Car of the Year. It even had all-wheel drive on the option sheet for the first time, making it an affordable and viable alternative for Canadians looking for traction at both axles in something other than an SUV.

Images: Stephanie Wallcraft

But at the time, I wrote that just one thing was missing that could truly launch this mainstream compact car into serious competition with the luxury segment: a derivative with a little more power to up the entertainment value while carving through twisty roads. In other words, it just needed a bit of spice.
Mazda listened and added a dash of cayenne pepper for the 2021 model year by adding a 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder to the mix. This new engine is now offered on both the sedan and hatch body styles, as an option on the top-of-the-line GT grade and as standard equipment on the limited-release 100th Anniversary Edition.

This engine, paired with a six-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive by default, is just what the Mazda3 needs. It adds a healthy amount of low-rev torque to a car with handling performance that has no trouble keeping up. If you’re looking for an attractive, functional, fun-to-drive and well-equipped car for under $40,000, you’ve just found it.

Listing the power numbers is a little complicated. Mazda publishes figures for 93 octane fuel – which is richer than the 91 octane most stations list as premium, making it harder to find but certainly not impossible – and also with 87 octane, or regular fuel. With the latter, this engine makes 227hp and 310lbs-ft of torque that’s available from 2,000rpm; with 93 octane, it makes 250hp and 320lbs-ft that peaks at 2,500rpm.

Fuel efficiency
Either way, you’ll use more fuel in this car than you would in one of the lower-powered versions. The most fuel-efficient Mazda3 configuration is the front-wheel-drive sedan, which Natural Resources Canada rates at 8.4L/100km in city driving, 6.6 on the highway, and 7.6 combined. For this larger engine with all-wheel drive, an owner can expect to use 10.1, 7.3, and 8.8L/100 km respectively.

The interior approaches luxury in the Mazda3, with multi-tone finish options and an available premium sound system.

Yes, it’s an investment to equip this engine and to fill with premium fuel all the time, and no, it’s not strictly necessary to do either of those things. But for performance, longevity and overall driving enjoyment, these are worthwhile choices all around.

The interior approaches luxury in the Mazda3 just as much as the driving experience with premium materials, multi-tone finish options and an available premium sound system that rivals those of much more expensive counterparts. My young back-seat reviewer brings up one quibble: there are no rearward vents in the Mazda3, which leaves her wanting air circulation and feeling colder for longer in the winter. This isn’t unusual in mainstream compact cars where budget is a primary concern, but rear vents are commonly found in premium compact cars. As Mazda’s development moves more intentionally into that space, this is an upgrade worth considering.

The Mazda3 sedan offers 965mm of headspace in the front row and 947mm in the rear when no moonroof is equipped. With the moonroof, those figures are 954mm and 931mm respectively.

One thing Mazda does exceptionally well is infotainment ergonomics and usability. The brand has put an intense amount of study into where to position the screen and controls to keep the driver’s focal plane and attention as close to the road as possible. This means that the infotainment screen is set farther back than most and is not touch-operated, meaning that it’s operated exclusively through the rotary dial and buttons on the centre console. For the most part this works well, including integration with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but there is one function that could use a rethink: getting to a setting that allows for changing radio stations sequentially requires clicking several menus deep, and this needs to be done every time the vehicle starts up. For a serial station flipper like me, this gets annoying quickly.

In the grand scheme of things, these are minor criticisms. Overall, the 2021 Mazda3 GT Turbo offers one of the best value propositions on the market as a luxury-level product at a near-mainstream price. For owners who value the joy of a great drive above all else, it might just be the best experience for your dollar on four wheels.