The 2021 Mazda 3 Saved My Ass During A Winter Disaster
A review week took a massive detour, filled with challenges, and this Mazda was a hero.
Last summer I tested the all-new 2020 Mazda 3 AWD hatchback, but it was still equipped with the outdated 2.5-liter four-cylinder. Mazda's reliable and practical compact 3 got a nice update inside and out in 2020, and for 2021, the power plant got a much-needed upgrade in the form of turbocharged power.
Excited to see if the new engine was a great update, I got the keys to this 2021 Mazda 3 sedan the day before a historic winter weather disaster struck Texas. My usual review plans turned into much different ones.
The Important Figures
The notable update for the 2021 Mazda 3 is under the hood, now packing a turbocharged 2.5-liter four, with a healthy 227 horsepower and a whopping 310 lb-ft (420 Nm) of torque on regular pump unleaded. Opt for 93-octane at your local petrol station, and the Mazda 3's Skyactiv-G engine adjusts its tune to crank out 250 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque. The 2020 3's naturally aspirated 2.5-liter provided 186 horsepower and 186 lb-ft, so the new engine is a massive improvement.
The Mazda 3 is offered with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. With standard with front-wheel-drive, Mazda also offers the option for all-wheel-drive, with body styles including a four-door sedan or hatchback. EPA fuel economy estimates are 23/32/27 (city/highway/combined) MPGs. Competing with the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and VW's Jetta and GTI, the class is packed.
Base price for the 2021 Mazda 3 Sedan starts at $29,900, and going the hatchback route will cost you $1,000 more. As the upper trim level, my Premium Plus tester was delivered in Machine Gray Metallic with white leather and piano black interior, at a total MSRP of $33,890.
The Decent Daily Sedan
As daily drivers go, the Mazda 3 is good. Not as bland as a Toyota, and not as exciting as a Volkswagen, the 3 gets the job done. The compact packaging doesn't translate to great cabin space, with a tiny rear seat that adults won't love. Trunk space is massive for a compact sedan, and if you opt for the hatchback model, you'll get even more usable cargo space.
Mazda's new Skyactiv-G turbo engine provides plenty of power across the rev range, with gobs of horsepower and torque for a car in this class. Ride quality is smooth around town, with the slightest firmness in sport mode. Electric power steering is light and crisp, but not as fantastic as its MX-5 sibling that I loved throwing around last summer. There are drive modes to give the 3 a bit more pep, tighter handling, and better response in the corners. There's only a hint of understeer from the all-wheel-drive setup, with good help from what Mazda calls G-Vectoring Control Plus, but this is no sport sedan. I wish the Mazdaspeed model would make a comeback.
Styling outside is above average, but the Kodo interior styling language is cool. I'm not a big fan of piano black plastic trim, as it's prone to lots of tiny scratches, but the look is nice against the white leather trim. Technology is plentiful in the 2021 Mazda 3, with all the safety systems you expect in a practical car. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto help make a not-so-wonderful infotainment system--which lacks a touchscreen--more usable too.
The Pros And Cons
Mazda makes a more attractive package than most compact cars in the 3. It's hard to get excited about the looks of most cars in this class, but if you had to get stuck with one, you wouldn't be mad. The white leather seats are cool for a press car, but your jeans are going to stain those suckers in less than a week. The clean look of the instrument cluster might be boring to some, but at least the gauges are easy to read.
Bose audio sounds fantastic, and I dig the metallic speakers incorporated into the door panels. Rather than a tacky screen slapped atop the dash, Mazda did a good job smoothly working the infotainment screen into the 3. The lack of a touchscreen in 2021 is a big gripe from me. Especially when paired to cheaper-looking puck and buttons and not wonderfully intuitive software setup.
The Winter Soldier
My test week with the 2021 Mazda 3 happened as a tragic winter storm affected much of the country, hitting Texas particularly hard. Power and water outages were the result of some truly horrific utilities and power grid management, and single-digit temperatures on several days put Texans in deadly conditions. Grocery and fuel supply chains came to a halt, and when things were reopening, shortages from panic shoppers left many scurrying around cities to get the most basic staples.
Met with icy roads and no infrastructure to cope with the conditions, the Mazda 3's all-wheel-drive and Bridgestone Turanza all-season tires came to my rescue. I'm no regular winter driver, as Central Texas and LA--where I've spent the past two decades--aren't exactly places that get snow or ice regularly. I'm more than capable behind the wheel in most conditions, but having all four wheels working underneath the Mazda helped me carefully make several stops to get non-perishable groceries and water to survive nearly a week without reliable power and running water at home.
Heated front seats and steering wheel were great in the frigid conditions, which barely crept above freezing during my test week. Fortunately the last 36 hours of my extended test had good sunlight and temps crept into the 40s. After the icy bits melted, I was finally able to safely give the Mazda 3 some playtime.
As the ice and snow melted away
It Still Doesn't Add Up For Me
Mazda's new turbocharged engine is a nice performance upgrade over the outgoing 2.5-liter in the 3 I tested last year, but the rest of the car is a bit simple to me. At the end of the day, the new Mazda 3 is decent to drive, and got me through a disaster, but it's not a fantastic value at nearly $34,000. The driving experience is improved, and while the engine is more punchy, the total package just doesn't add up as a winner.
While its competition is stuck with front-wheel-drive, Mazda is unique to offer all-wheel-drive in the 3, but honestly it isn't really needed. If you live in a winter climate, you're likely to have a set of winter wheels and tires that will cope just fine. Even in FWD trim, the 3 is a couple grand more expensive than the better--yet less powerful--Honda Civic Touring, and is playing at the price point of VW's better Jetta and GTI. It kept me out of trouble during some horrifying weather, but I can't justify putting a new Mazda 3 in my garage.