Kiawah Island S.C. - Tis the season of the diminutive Mazda and driving never handled this good.
In early fall of 2023, an iconic MX-5 Miata two-seat roadster got dropped off at my Chicago-area headquarters during a welcome stretch of dry, summer-like weather tailor-made for open-top travel. The following week found me and a long-time significant other in the Charleston, South Carolina region for a week of much-needed rest and relaxation with the assistance of a 2024 model year compact Mazda3.
The peppy yet preppy Mazda3 entered the lexicon one score years ago in the 2004 model year, a notable upgrade from the preceding, more pedestrian Protégé, Mazda’s prior compact. Both Mazda3 and MX-5 Miata remain key to corporate success with MX-5 Miata ranking as the best-selling two-seat roadster in the world for the past 30 years (at least according to the folks at Guiness World Records…Cheers!) while Mazda3 ranks as the diminutive Japanese automaker’s best-selling offering of any shape or size worldwide.
It’s refreshing Mazda continues promoting a compact sedan as U.S.-based automakers General Motors, Ford and Stellantis (parent company of Chrysler and Dodge) all have quietly foregone this segment desirable to first-time car buyers and budget-conscious folks.
In fact, while larger automakers churn out pricey full-size pickup trucks and body-on-frame sport utility vehicles, Mazda’s portfolio includes none of these behemoths. Instead, Mazda perfects small and mid-size mainstream products with most influenced by fuel-friendly four-cylinder engines with lightweight, uni-body, car-like underpinnings. No V-8s in the bunch with the three-row, mid-size 2024 CX-90 crossover offering a newly developed inline six-cylinder turbo engine.
While the MX-5 Miata offered exuberating open-air travel, it’s low-to-the-ground stance provided problematic when entering and exiting for those with aging skeletal systems or mobility issues. Not so with our Mazda3 hatchback tester. Mazda’s wide selection of crossovers include higher ground clearance than Mazda3’s 5.5 inches, but all supply comfortable entry points.
Miata MX-5 offers a choice of two retractable roof designs (soft top and power hard top). Mazda3 goes in a different direction with a solid roof and two body styles: sedan and hatchback. While Mazda MX-5 comes standard with rear-wheel drive, Mazda3 offers the choice of front wheel or available and recommended i-ACTIV all-wheel drive depending upon the selected trim level.
Mazda’s i-ACTIV technology doesn’t quality as full-time all-wheel drive (powering all four wheels whenever the engine hums) but ‘active,’ all-wheel drive, sending power to front tires during normal situations and summoning the rear tires to join in the charge when sensing slippage.
Standard i-ACTIV all-wheel drive teamed with the turbo engine came in handy when entering the sizeable (11,000 acres) rustic, ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuse south of Charleston with miles of slippery, white-stoned gravel roadways and few humans or ranger stations with which to interact; an unexpected but rewarding self-guided tour.
Mazda3 offers two four-cylinder engine choices: a standard 2.5-liter naturally aspirated version delivering 191 horsepower, or for those seeking extra punch, a recommended 2.5-liter turbocharged four sending horsepower up to 250 when utilizing 93-octane premium fuel when filling the 12.7-gallon tank. Regular 87-octane gas delivers 227 horses. Turbocharged trims exclusively feature all-wheel drive.
The 2024 Mazda3 remains part of a fourth-generation effort introduced in 2019. Changes in 2024 remain minimal with a larger 10.25-inch flat screen standard inside models with the turbo-charged four and slight content adjustments to selected trims.
Just about all Mazda products offer a goodly number of trim levels each adding more standard content from the notch below, with few stand-alone options or option packages, in effect simplifying the buying and dealership experience.
Sedan body styles offer six trims with four promoting the naturally aspirated engine: Base, Select Sport, Preferred and Carbon Edition. All power via front-wheel drive save for the all-wheel drive Carbon Edition. Two turbocharged versions with standard all-wheel drive include the Carbon Turbo and Turbo Premium Plus.
Hatchbacks also arrive in six trims, four powered by the naturally aspirated four: Select Sport, Preferred, Carbon Edition and Premium. Only the Carbon Edition offers all-wheel drive with the other three front-drive. Two all-wheel drive Turbo charged editions include Carbon Turbo and Turbo Premium Plus.
The all-wheel drive Carbon Turbo (available in both sedan and hatchback with exclusive Zircon Sand metallic exterior paint) represents an all-new 2024 trim.
All team with six-speed automatic transmission save for the front-wheel drive turbo hatchback, the sole version available with a six-speed manual transmission.
Both the MX-5 Miata and Mazda 3 testers adorned with a visually tasty Sour Red Crystal Metallic exterior paint, falling somewhere between Wild Cherry and Fire-Engine Red. It’s a vanity color adding a bit more to the bottom line ($595) but it’s a conversation starter with passerby’s providing positive commentary.
For our Sun and Fun coastal getaway, the fine folks at Mazda provided a top-of-the-line Turbo Premium Plus all-wheel-drive hatchback with a $36,650 entry point. The only extra was the aforementioned metallic red paint bringing the bottom line to $37,245 with $1,165 destination charge added. The lowest-priced Mazda3, a 2.5 S sedan checks in at $24,170 representing both ends of the Mazda3’s pricing spectrum.
While MX-5 Miata looks the part of a sports car, don’t be fooled by Mazda’s 3 initial appearance. It’s unassuming good looks undersell one of the industry’s best mainstream compacts supporting an athletic driving experience and superb handling characteristics felt most effectively with the higher horsepower turbo engine.
Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control Plus, a staple in all Mazda3 trims since its fourth-generation redesign in 2019, better stabilizes the vehicle through intricate weight transfer when exiting a curve. This ‘Plus’ technology builds upon Mazda’s basic G-Vectoring Control adjusting engine torque in response to steering input. The bottom-line result: balanced control when cornering, a hallmark of all Mazda’s and a value added bonus not found within most rivals.
Compact dimensions also eased parking in and out of tight multi-level garage spaces while taking advantage of ‘Compact Only’ parking options. Barrier islands surrounding the peninsula city of Charleston include narrow two-lane roads ideal for compact-sized vehicles. Responsive steering required little movement of the wheel to guide this car in the desired direction. The predictable brake pedal offered enough play without ‘grabbing’ too early.
Entry editions include an 8.8-inch multi-function flat screen interacting with Mazda Connect Infotainment system steered by a chrome ‘Commander Knob’ located between front buckets just aft of the easily greppable vertically sliding automatic transmission shifter. The large knob, more of a tactile dial motivates an in-screen curser. Find the desired command within the screen and push down on the knob’s top to select.
A second smaller twist column to the right controls volume and on/off functions. Four quick select push buttons surround the Commander Knob for selecting audio, map, home and back. It’s relatively easy to master with minimal practice. Our Premium tester featured the larger 10.2-inch size extending up above the top dash.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto Smartphone interplay comes standard in all trims with a wireless charge available only in the Carbon Editions and Premium Plus trims. Two up front USB ports support Type C inputs.
For an entry-type choice, interior materials (leatherette and leather) nicely boast a modern, friendly approach rather than a bargain basement environment. Our tester’s modern yet easily interpreted three-dimensional instrument panel includes three orbs with the center circle highly animated and defaulting to a speedometer with a traditional analog design while displaying gentle warning messages if required (door open, lane departure warning, etc.). The side orbs include bright white needles with a left tachometer outer ring numbers and right-side fuel and temperature gauges.
The lower center dash includes HVAC controls with our Premium trim featuring dual zone temperature twist dials with digital readouts flanking a row of push tabs assisting fan speed and direction. To the left and down, the circular, electronic, push-button start/stop button.
The cargo region behind second-row seatbacks checks in at 20.1 cubic feet, average for this segment. Fold down the 70/30 split backs onto cushions below and the hatch area expands enough to handle a rented wheelchair, which came in very handy during our stay. With seatbacks prone, two adults fit with maximum comfort. Three would stretch everyone’s patience.
The hatchback’s rear door combines practicality and artistry with the pull-latch built into the center M logo. To open the back, just turn your palm upside down to disengage the latch.
For the time being, Mazda3 and MX5 Miata are both internal combustion engined all the time. During the 2024 model year Mazda debuts a CX-90 crossover available with Mazda’s first PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) option, a practical portal for those wishing to drive greener, but not quite comfortable diving headfirst into all-electric all the time. The CX-90’s PHEV design continues with a traditional internal combustion engine under hood, but adds a smallish rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack welcoming 26 miles of pure electric driving before the IC engine takes control.
Consider both Mazda3 and MX-5 Miata bargains in their own right. While some two-seat roadsters top $200,000, the $28,000-to-start Miata provides more thrills for the buck. Mazda3, following through as a spicy option in the usually tame compact hatchback/sedan class, promotes sporty handling characteristics. Both qualify as hoots to drive. 2024 Mazda3 hatchback
Price as tested: $38,410
Engine: 2.5-liter turbo four-cylinder
Wheelbase: 107.3 inches
Overall Length: 175.6 inches
Overall Height: 56.7 inches
Overall Width: 70.7 inches
Curb weight: 3,255 pounds
Fuel Economy: 23 mpg city/31 mpg highway
Powertrain warranty: Five years/60,000 miles
Assembly: Hofu, Japan