Let’s take moment to appreciate the Mazda 3’s beauty. Just look at it. I know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this beholder is absolutely smitten by the Mazda 3’s design.
And I’m not the only beholder, it was recently crowned as the 2020 World Car Design of the Year and the judges were some of the most renowned figures in car design. But the Mazda’s 3 beauty isn’t just skin-deep, oh no, we’ll get into those a little later.
If you haven’t had any preconceptions on how much the Mazda 3 should be priced, what you probably want to know is – is the Mazda 3 worth the premium over its competitors like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla Altis? Well, let us dive in.
Exterior – Handcrafted with Japanese finesse
The design speaks for itself really. Plenty have likened to the Italian marques such as Ferrari and Alfa Romeo, and I can see why. It’s the flair, the sculptured finesse that reminds people of the Italians.
Unlike many of the contemporary German brands, there are no creases or excessive sharp body lines. It’s all handcrafted goodness. If you happen across a Mazda 3 on the road, observe the reflections on the side. The way the curved panels manipulate light and shadows is simply mesmerizing.
When I first saw the liftback on pictures, I wasn’t sure about the thick C-pillars so I preferred the sedan version. The more I started looking at the liftback though, the more it grew on me and now after seeing it in the flesh, I’d pick the liftback.
The way the rear quarter panels extend outwards, making the rear fenders look wide and gives it a nice stance. You don’t get that in the sedan, which is less polarizing and pleases most people.
And while the sedan and liftback may share the same name, only the bonnet is shared between the two, every other panel is unique to each version. Mazda has pretty much made two cars here and it’s one of the many reasons why it’s so expensive.
Paint quality is top notch and its thickness averaged in the 80s of μm, which is a little thinner than the majority of cars averaging in the 100s of μm. Build quality is Japanese precision at its best with panel gaps measuring at 2.5 mm on average, and deviated by no more than 0.5 mm from each side.
Panel gaps on most other cars typically measure at around 4.0 mm, which goes to show how tight the tolerances are for the Mazda 3.
Interior – Compromised on space, but you’d want to forgive it
If what you’ve been reading so far sounds like an advert, I promise you it is not. So I’ll start with the negatives.
Space in the rear is borderline unacceptable for a car of this segment. You’ll either go, “Oh, it’s pretty alright, not too bad” or “This is tight” depending on your height. While legroom is identical for both versions, it feels more claustrophobic in the liftback because of the black headliner and tiny rear windows.
On that thought, I’d like to see a 2-door Mazda 3 Liftback since the rear passengers feel no where near as special as the front passengers.
Secondly, I wish there was a choice to opt for a different colour interior like the red colour combo for the liftback because at the moment, both versions have the same monotonous grey interior.
And my last gripe with the interior is the almost ideal sound system. A lot of effort has been put into the speaker placement location and it has paid off. The imaging is bang on with great clarity.
However, the 8-speaker system lacks a subwoofer, which becomes apparent once you start listening to bass-demanding music. It just doesn’t go low enough in the frequencies nor does it dig deep.
The 12-speaker Bose system, which is designed specifically for the Mazda 3 and is available in other markets, does have a subwoofer and should solve this gripe I have. Plus, the silver speaker grilles on the upper door panels does look rather good.
The 8.8-inch infotainment display is a non-touchscreen unit because Mazda believes it would’ve been a distraction otherwise. It also saves the screen from a lot of fingerprints.
Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity comes as standard across the range, though it’s not very well integrated. It won’t switch between sources when Android Auto is running, so you have exit it to switch to FM radio for example.
Apart from those, this interior is sublime. The driving position is fantastic with plenty of adjustments on the seats and steering wheel for individuals of all sizes to get comfortable.
Materials used are among the best, if not the best in class. You get soft leather across the middle of the dashboard and door panels as well as parts of the centre console.
Then you start paying attention to the little details. The instrument cluster for example, has a 7-inch digital screen at the middle to replicate analogue dials and it blends perfectly with the dials surrounding it.
There are also the LEDs used throughout the cabin and every single one of them matches in colour temperature. All the buttons have this damped and tactile feel that gives the impression of premium-ness.
I could go on about the interior, but really, you need to drop by the nearest Mazda showroom to feel it. If you have already done so, let us know in the comments section on what do you think about the Mazda 3’s interior.
Driving experience – The premium-ness continues
Immediately after setting off, you’ll notice the serenity of the cabin and how the outside world feels shut out. At first turn of the wheel, you’ll feel the firmly weighted steering, striking a fine balance between sportiness and comfort. The floor-mounted accelerator makes operating the pedal a more comfortable affair, particularly on long journeys.
Both the sedan and liftback share a very similar driving experience. Power from the 2.0-litre naturally aspirated engine is rather decent. It feels punchy enough at lower revs and will happily climb up to the redline, with a smooth and linear power delivery. The 6-speed automatic transmission deserves a shout-out as well, it feels direct and shifts are crisp.
More than that, the transmission is intuitive. Let’s say if you’re approaching an uphill and your throttle position is constant, the transmission will shift down a gear–if necessary–to maintain the car’s momentum. Or when you’re in corners, it holds on to a gear. Sometimes to its detriment as the transmission does have a tendency to hold onto gears even if it’s not in sport mode.
Compared to the turbocharged Honda Civic, the Mazda 3 is no match for its punch and acceleration, especially with the CVT that will keep the engine churning out its peak power. When it comes to sound though, the Mazda 3 trumps the Civic for aural pleasure.
As for the brakes, it may divide opinion. For those who prefer a linear response from the pedal will appreciate the Mazda 3’s braking feel. For those who are accustomed to highly-assisted brakes that are rather sensitive to braking inputs, may feel that it lacks stopping power.
But it’s definitely not short on stopping power as it comes to a standstill from 100 km/h in 38.3 metres, one of the shortest distances we’ve recorded thus far. It just requires a little more effort if you need to stop quickly and in return, it makes day to day driving a smooth affair since the brakes are easy to modulate.
Mazda has actually toned down the steering response because they discovered that many drivers tend to dial in too much steering input and applies correction through the corner. But the highlight here is despite the slower steering, there’s almost no on-centre vagueness and the body reacts naturally to your steering inputs.
In the corners, the Mazda 3 feels right at home. The way it sits through the bends, keeping body roll in check and letting the GVC+ work its magic, makes tackling corners a joy. When the car exits a corner and straightens up, there are no back and forth lateral movements, it just goes back to the neutral position and settles quickly. That’s GVC+ for you.
Ride comfort – Firm, yet sufficiently pliant
There’s no two ways about it, the ride is firm. So you do feel the road a little more than say, the Toyota Corolla Altis, particularly at low speeds. But the Mazda 3 is by no means uncomfortable as it maintains a reasonable amount of pliancy over broken roads, and gets better as the speed climbs.
It isn’t helped by the relatively low profile tyres from the 18-inch wheels. Lower rung variants with 16-inch wheels and higher profile tyres do take the edge off a little, although the firmness remains.
Then there’s the torsion beam rear suspension. We’ve talked about it several times on how it isn’t like other torsion beam suspensions and in practice, most drivers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Some may feel that the rear hops about slightly through bumps, but that is likely down to the firm suspension.
Moving on to the seats, Mazda talked about how it supports the natural ‘S’ shape of our bodies amongst other things and I have to say, it feels great and provides all the lumbar support you'd need. Long journeys in the Mazda 3 are be a bliss. Plus, the rear seats are supportive as well.
As mentioned earlier, you’ll notice the quietness of the cabin upon setting off and it is apparent on the sound level meter. At 110 km/h, it recorded an average of 67 dB. For reference, the Proton X70 and Toyota Camry, which are known for having a well-insulated cabin, also recorded a similar reading of 67 dB.
Fuel consumption - Not far off the claimed figure
In mixed driving conditions (60% highway, 40% city), the Mazda 3 2.0L returned a calculated average of 7.6L/100 km. It should be noted that the stop/start system was disengaged and driving style was as per normal Malaysian driving behaviour, which is to say not very sedate.
A more frugal manner of driving should achieve Mazda's claimed fuel consumption figure of 6.3L/100 km.
Conclusion - Is it worth the premium?
The Mazda 3 certainly has its flaws; space in the rear is rather tight and boot space isn’t the largest despite having torsion beam.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to pass is the price. At RM 160,059, the Mazda 3 2.0 High Plus is about RM 20k pricier than the Honda Civic 1.5 TC-P which features a more powerful turbocharged engine, has a more spacious interior and a bigger boot at 519 litres.
If you apply logic and rationale into choosing between the two, the Honda Civic will come out on top. But if you’ve tested both of them, you’d know the Mazda 3 feels infinitely more special and appealing than the Honda Civic. And yes, it is worth every ringgit over the Honda Civic or the Toyota Corolla Altis if you include the intangibles.
Therein lies the dilemma – your mind says it’s a bad idea, but the Mazda 3 just pulls on your heartstrings. So where does that leave the Mazda 3?
If you’re a family guy or about to start a family and this would be your only car, the Mazda 3 isn't the perfect car for you. Even in the sedan form with a larger boot, the Honda Civic is a more convincing overall package and fits better to your requirements.
However, if you’re a bachelor or you and your other half do not intend to start a family soon, or perhaps you’re looking to add another car to your household and the Mazda 3 is within your means, then I implore you to listen to your heart.