2021 Mazda 3 Review

2021 Mazda 3 - New engines breath new life into sporty and refined Mazda compact.


Most recently redesigned in 2019, the Mazda 3 gets a power infusion for 2021 via an available turbocharged engine. A five-passenger compact, the Mazda 3 is unusual in the class as it is offered with front- or all-wheel drive and can be had as either a 4-door sedan and 4-door hatchback. In addition to the new turbocharged engine option, the base model reverts to a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder as its powertrain. Competitors are many and include the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Corolla and Volkswagen Jetta.

Trim levels include the 2.0, 2.5 S, and 2.5 Turbo. The 2.0 comes with front-wheel drive. Standard on the 2.5 Turbo and available on the 2.5 S is all-wheel drive. Prices start at $21,935 and climb to nearly $35,000 on the 2.5 Turbo. The 2.0 gets 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that makes 155 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque. The 2.5 S comes with a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine that offers 186 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque. 2.5 Turbo models get a turbocharged 2.5-liter four that makes 227 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. Standard transmission on all models is a 6-speed automatic.

Safety features include forward-collision warning with braking assist, blind-spot monitor with cross-traffic alert, lane-departure waring, adaptive cruise control and a driver attention alert system, which is designed to detect driver fatigue and decreased attentiveness. The infotainment system supports both Android Auto and Apple Car Play and is controlled by a jog dial in the center console.

Offering three different engines, Mazda has covered all of the bases with the 3. Though most buyers will be fine with the standard 2.5, those looking for a frugal and affordable, but fun-to-drive, compact can opt for the 2.0. On the flip side, enthusiasts have been screaming for the return of the MazdaSpeed3 and it's back, at least in spirit, with the addition of the potent turbo 2.5.

Does this plan work? Yes and no. The base engine is underpowered for all but the most conservative drivers. It does provide a lower price point and reasonable fuel efficiency, at least. The mid-tier normally aspirated 2.5 provides acceptable acceleration from a stop and good passing punch. The engine can feel sleepy unless it set to SPORT mode. Most peg the 0 to 60 MPH time at about 8.5 seconds -- smack in the middle for the class. The new turbocharged engine is a literal breath of fresh air. It provides plenty of scoot, posting a 0 to 60 MPH time of about 5.7 seconds.

All engines engine mate well to the 6-speed automatic. No continuously variable automatic here, the conventional stepped-gear transmission provides a good balance of both spirited feel and smooth day-to-day operation. The all-wheel drive system quickly transfers power to wheels with the most grip when the road is compromised. Thankfully, it's standard with the powerful turbocharged engine.  

EPA fuel economy estimates for the Turbo are 23 MPG city 32 MPG highway and 27 MPG combined.  The 2.5 S with all-wheel drive nets 25 MPG city and 33 MPG highway. The new base engine rates at 28 MPG city and 36 MPG highway. In all cases, the 3 is slightly less fuel efficient than its competition, but within a MPG or two and all engines run fine on regular-grade fuel. In routine suburban commuting with the mid-tier 2.5 S, expect to average close to 28 MPG, perhaps as high as 32 MPG if you throw in some gentle highway cruising. The smallish 12.7-gallon fuel tank in the AWD model limits highway range.

For a generation now, Mazda has leaned toward the sporty spectrum when it comes to the ride-and-handling equation. So, it's no surprise that the Mazda 3 sports a firm ride that's both capable and athletic. That comes at a bit of a compromise and some might find the suspension too firm on top-line trims with the 18-inch wheels.

Steering response is quick and precise if a bit light at times. Brakes provide adequate stopping power and no more. Turning circle is tidy, making the 3 very easy to drive in an urban environment. Regardless of model, the Mazda 3 remains composed and confident on the road and should be genuinely enjoyed by those that favor a twisty back road over a board-straight stretch of highway.

For the class, the Mazda 3 has a quiet cabin. There is some road and wind noise on the highway, but that's to be expected. The engine remains quiet and subdued in all but maximum acceleration. In general, this plays well with Mazda's desire to place the 3 as a premium compact.

That premium feel immediately carries over to the interior where Mazda has gone to great lengths to disguise the fact that the 3 is really a compact sedan with a sub-$30,000 price point. The overall design is clean and uncluttered, materials are a clear step up from competitors -- especially on top trims -- and the switchgear exudes a level of polish that's normally found in offerings from more expensive luxury brands.

Drivers face a traditional analog gauge cluster with a large speedometer flanked by a tachometer and fuel and temperature dials. There are a couple of programmable information screens in the instrument panel. A head-up display is offered. The infotainment screen is placed well-forward in the center of the dashtop. Due to that placement, it's controlled by a jog dial rather than being a traditional touch screen. It's an unfortunate setup that takes some getting used to and isn't entirely suited to the Android Auto or Apple Car Play interfaces. Below, there's a smattering of buttons and dials for the dual-zone climate control that provide only a modicum of functions if you don't set it to AUTO.

The front seats provide good leg, head and shoulder room. Comfort is adequate, but some might find the seats a bit firm on longer trips. Sedan or hatch, rear leg room is tight unless the front seats are moved well forward and rear head room is compromised by the low roofline.

The seating position is a bit low compared to most competitors save the Civic, meaning it's a bit of a stoop to get in and out. In addition, the front door openings aren't very wide. Visibility to the front and sides is adequate, but directly aft and to the rear quarter's visibility is limited by the sloping roofline and thick rear pillars.

Offering just 13.2 cubic feet of cargo volume, the Mazda 3's trunk trails class leaders. However, it does offer a wide opening. The hatch isn't much better offering a mediocre 20.1 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats. As per the class norm, the rear seatbacks fold down in a 60/40-split. Interior storage is quite good with lots of open and covered bins throughout.

Bottom Line - The Mazda 3 continues to be one of the most refined and athletic compact cars. It also offers a wide range of engine choices and lots of standard safety and tech equipment. That combined with a high level of fit-and-finish provides a class-above experience. Still, pricing is slightly higher than most competitors, putting it beyond what buyers in this segment expect. This conscripts the 3 to find a niche among enthusiasts and those looking for a bit more than your standard compact fare.

Mark Bilek

Mark Bilek is the Senior Director of Communications and Technology for the Chicago Auto Trade Association and the General Manager for DriveChicago.com. He is also responsible for developing and maintaining the Chicago Auto Show Web site.

Mark has been reviewing vehicles for more than two decades. Previously, he was associate publisher at Consumer Guide, where he oversaw publication of Consumer Guide Car & Truck Test, Consumer Guide's Used Car Book, and ConsumerGuide.com. He was also responsible for publication of "Collectible Automobile" and various hardcover automotive titles. In 2001 and 2002 he served as president of a Midwest Automotive Media Association. Mark has appeared on NBC TV, ABC TV, Fox News, WGN and MotorTrend TV as an automotive consultant. He hosts the Drive Chicago radio show on WLS 890 AM and was a regular guest on WGN Radio's Steve & Johnnie show. Mark lives in the northwest suburbs with his wife and three sons.