When I turned off my Mazda 3 tester at 10 p.m., the last thing to fade into darkness was the tachometer.
That was fitting, because I had been rowing the terrific 3’s gearbox all day.
Finding fun driving opportunities in the middle of winter isn’t easy. The weather doesn’t cooperate. The Mazda arrived in my driveway the morning of an ice storm. Walking across the asphalt to the 3 was more treacherous than Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. But even in such conditions, the 3 begs to be driven aggressively.
Start with design. Like all Mazdas these days, the compact hatch is gorgeous. Since its jack-o’-lantern crisis (designed by a kid with a crayon and carving knife as I recall) of the mid-2000s, Mazda visited a proper stylist and cleaned up its act.
My hot-hatch preference is for the Volkswagen GTI (for reasons to be detailed later), but there is no better-looking compact car out there than the 3 — even when painted gray to match the weather. It has a shark nose, flowing lines, slit headlights. The 3 is a front-wheel driver with the expected long front overhang — yet with its long hood, the Mazda hatch sits back on its haunches like a rear-wheel-drive BMW Z4 coupe.
Mazda calls its design philosophy “Kodo” — which translates to “soul of motion.” That is, Mazda’s designers look at their cars as living creatures. They have soul, all right. Even on the biggest car Mazda makes, the CX-9 crossover (a finalist for 2017 North American Utility of the Year), the design stands out.
For 2017 the 3 has been lightly tweaked with Kodo-rific exterior detail and a quieter interior. The Mazda brand is all about the joy of driving. Zoom-zoom-zoom go the ads. Where other brands add a sporty car as a brand halo, Mazda starts with its MX-5 Miata and grows from there. Every vehicle shares the MX-5’s drivable DNA. As my colleague Ron Sessions likes to say when we do Mazda test drives: “I don’t think we’ll be talking autonomous much today.”
Yet, Mazda is also building a reputation for rich content — part of its philosophy that cars should make the time we spend with them enjoyable.
I approach my 3 with key in pocket and depress a small, door-handle button to unlock the doors. That’s a slick detail for an entry-level vehicle.
Inside, the Japanese car speaks with a German accent: It has a tight, predictable stick shift with short throws. Closely placed pedals for double-clutch downshifts. Tablet infotainment display controlled by remote rotary dial (happily, for this touchscreen fan, it can also be controlled by fingertip when the car is stationary). Gauges accented by chrome like Porsche-Audi premium models.
It’s the little, fussy details that impress: Head-up display. Push-button start. Dual-climate control. Auto-adjust high beams. The sticker price says $28,450, but these are touches you expect (and often don’t find) on luxury mules costing twice as much.
The high-beams are particularly useful this wintry day because my schedule will take me through the pocked, wet streets of Detroit well after dark.
Over Motown’s dreadful roads, I probably should have brought a right-seat rally navigator. Google Maps would have to do. Driving I-94 to the Grosse Pointe War Memorial is a stage on the Dakar Rally. But the predictable, balanced 3 makes every rut and slick patch manageable.
It’s a landscape that needs maximum lighting, so I flick on the high beams — and leave them there. With the auto high beam feature, they smartly read oncoming traffic and turn off when another car comes into view. That’s one less thing for me to worry about as I negotiate streets that are rougher than Normandy Beach.
I turn off the traction control for maximum fun, and here I pine for my favorite GTI for the first time.
The 3 may shout zoom-zoom, but it lacks limited slip-limited slip. The limited-slip differential, like the one on the GTI equipped with its performance package, is a clever bit of engineering that distributes torque to help maintain grip under hard acceleration. It is particularly useful in front-wheel drivers, especially when the roads are 40 degrees and slick as David Beckham’s hair. For the same price as the 3, the GTI will deliver its performance package — limited-slip differential and all. So will the Honda Civic Si for that matter. If you plan on having fun (and isn’t that why you buy Mazda?) the lack of this feature will be missed.
Until 2013, Mazda made a direct GTI competitor called the Mazdaspeed 3 properly equipped with the feature. Bring it back, pretty please?
Happily, the 3 does come equipped with an independent rear suspension like the VW, Honda and Ford Focus. Which is a good thing when you are humming along at 60 mph and hit an unexpected Detroit road defect. On a solid rear-axle Hyundai Elantra or Chevy Cruze this might send your head through the roof. The Mazda just shrugs.
The 3’s sculpted rear-hatch looks cool but would appear to offer less headroom for rear passengers than the squared-off — if less pretty — Golf. But inside, the 3 was surprisingly roomy for your freakishly tall reviewer. Even with moon roof, I could sit up straight in the 3’s rear seat.
Need cargo room? The rear seatbacks neatly flop flat with a pull of a latch at the seats’ top.
Fortunately, I wasn’t carrying delicate cargo this night as my briefcase slapped back and forth across the rear hatch like a pinball. Rowing the box with abandon to 6-grand, the front tires howling under too much torque, I kept the revs up for maximum response.
Mazda has thus far resisted the industry stampede to turbo engines, opting instead for a less-torquey, 2.5-liter four-banger.
I emerged from the Mazda 3 at the end of the evening refreshed. It’s a high I always feel after driving a fine hatch — but for all I know it might have been enhanced by something Mazda calls “G-vectoring control,” a subtle, computer-assisted coordination of engine inputs and steering to make for smoother cornering.
It’s this obsessive, Jeeves-like care for driver comfort that rewards Mazda customers. From Kodo to G-vectoring to seats that hold you like a mother’s arms, the Mazda is about enjoying every minute of driving time.
Even on roads fit for the Dakar.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2017 Mazda 3
Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger
2.0-liter, inline 4-cylinder; 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder
Six-speed manual or automatic
2,875 pounds; 3,046 pounds (with manual transmission)
$19,970 ($28,450 as tested)
155 horsepower, 150 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter);
184 horsepower, 185 pound-feet of torque (2.5-liter)
0-60 mph, 7.4 seconds (2.5-liter, Car and Driver)
EPA 27 city/37 highway/31 combined (2.0-liter manual)
EPA 25 city/33 highway/28 combined (2.5-liter manual)
Sculpted styling; upscale features
No limited-slip differential; bring back Mazdaspeed 3
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★