From 1977 through 1985 Mazda’s subcompact car offering in North America was the GLC aka. Great Little Car. It came with one engine, a 1.5 liter inline four producing 68 horsepower and was available in three or five door format. The GLC name was dropped in 1985 and North America adopted the 323 moniker used in the rest of the world until that was replaced by Protege in 1989. The name stuck for 14 years before Mazda once again decided it was time for a change and gave us the 3 starting in 2004. I bring all this up not to reminisce, though there are certainly models from the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th generations worth waxing poetic about, but rather to draw a line from that first front engine, rear drive subcompact hatchback to the current entry level model in the North American Mazda family. While compact segment entries from many competitors have become shells of their former selves in the past two decades, Mazda has been steadily refining theirs. The current 3 is indeed worthy of the title Great Little Car, especially in the Grand Touring spec that I drove it in.
That Mazda offers the 3 in the top trim level with three pedals and a 6 speed manual gearbox is a testament to how much stock they put in their current tag line “driving matters”. While the take rate might be small, they clearly believe that it’s important to offer an upscale product with a manual transmission, even if they are the only ones doing it. In that respect, and a few others that I’ll get to, Mazda has more in common with the European automakers than their fellow Asian outfits. The mere existence of this car proves that they recognize their customers might want premium equipment like LED headlights, a lane departure warning system, lane keep assist, a heated steering wheel and a transmission that allows the driver to squeeze every ounce of fun out of the car. One should not have to sacrifice maximum driving enjoyment for comfort and safety or vice-versa. I know this, you know this, Mazda knows this.
The 3 is one of the last compact cars to feature a naturally aspirated engine and as you might imagine, it is not a sprinter. However, Mazda has this uncanny ability to bring balance to their vehicles and so the SKYACTIV-G 2.5 liter inline 4 cyl is perfectly enjoyable when paired with the smooth shifting 6 speed. A peak horsepower figure of 184 is reached at 5,700 rpm, but more importantly all 185 lb-ft of torque comes on at 3,200 rpm. If you keep it in the powerband, the 3 is genuinely fun to drive. It’s an exercise in being smooth, one made easier by knowing exactly what the front wheels are doing at all times courtesy of truly great steering feedback. It’s a good thing that gear changes are minimal when driving the 3 hard because the chunky steering wheel just felt so damn good in my hands. Again, evidence that Mazda knows their audience. There are far more expensive cars that would be lucky to have a wheel like this and frankly a few that should be embarrassed they do not.
The gauge cluster consists of a large round center mounted tach flanked by two raked pods for digital information display. It’s mighty aeronautic in appearance, a point driven home by the heads up display unit atop the dash that folds up when the car is turned on. No doubt Wedge Antilles would find himself quite at home in the driver’s seat.
As for the rest of the cabin, it’s all fully sorted without being overwrought. The ergonomics are on par with cars of a higher pedigree and there wasn’t a phantom rattle or squeak that reached my ears. Sure, a little more padding here or less gloss black plastic there, but overall fit and finish is excellent. The little rotary knob that you use to operate the sharply designed infotainment system has a satisfying click when turned, the kind of detail that is typically only considered by luxury automakers. The dual zone climate control system is operated via buttons and dials contained in a clean layout that eliminates confusion. Turning on the seat heaters or heated steering wheel requires no hunting around either, the buttons are all right where they should be on the dash. One could almost review the interior design of the 3 by simply saying “it’s all just the way it should be”. Hell, you could apply that to the entire car.
At $24,730 the Grand Touring trim level offers a heck of car for the money. Tack on $1,600 for the Premium Equipment package (nav, heated steering wheel, LED lights all around) and $1,100 for safety equipment(lane departure warning, lane keep assist, radar cruise control and more) plus a few other little options and you arrive at the grand total of $28,030 including the $835 delivery fee. Still think it’s a lot of car for the money? I certainly do and the tactile elements are only part of the reason why.
If you survey the current automotive marketplace you’ll find good vehicles everywhere, in every segment, from every automaker. However there is no reason to settle for good when you can have great and make no mistake, the Mazda3 Grand Touring hatchback is great. It’s made great by the intangibles that are the foundation of each Mazda vehicle. Many automakers boast of a deep seeded brand philosophy and I can count on one hand the ones that I think actually believe in what they say. Mazda is one of them because they’ve demonstrated that empty promises won’t be tolerated, nor will half measures. The only other automaker to continually refine a product over the course of many years without veering away from what made it great in the first place is Porsche and though you can hardly cross shop a 911 and a Mazda3. However that would be a pretty wonderful two car pairing wouldn’t it? I’ll take a ‘83 SC and ‘18 Grand Touring Hatchback in my garage any day, preferably both in white.
All words and photos by Andrew Maness. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Instagram @theroadlessdriven