Review: 2023 Mazda 3 Liftback 1.5 - Is the base variant an overlooked ace?
CY Foong · Aug 24, 2023 09:35 AM
Very few cars age as gracefully as the current generation Mazda 3. The fourth-generation BP was first unveiled at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show though sales began in 2019 which was also the year Bermaz introduced the model in Malaysia.
Four years later, the Mazda 3 is still admired even by those who aren’t into cars. Whenever I introduced it to my friends who view all cars as four wheels with a metal body and an engine underneath, they too find the Kodo design to be gorgeous.
There is a bit of caveat though as the Mazda 3 I took for a review is the base variant so it isn’t powered by a naturally-aspirated 2.0-litre SkyActiv-G petrol engine (162 PS/213 Nm) and interestingly enough, it doesn’t even come with parking sensors. For a car that starts from RM 143,000.
From my query in the title, you might think it's contradictory to call it an ace car. However, I believe that sometimes, even good things come in unexpected places and for the base variant of the fully imported from Japan (CBU) Mazda 3, you do find plenty that makes it a considerably better choice than the more powerful variants.
Exterior and interior
The Mazda 3 in Malaysia is available in either 4-door sedan or 5-door hatchback (Liftback according to Mazda) variants and whichever body style you choose, the features, specifications, and price are mostly similar.
That goes for the base variant though I only spent my time in the 5-door hatch…I mean Liftback. My colleagues over at WapCar BM have made a proper comparison between the two. However, I’m partially biased toward the Liftback in terms of looks and much prefer it over the sedan.
Don’t get me wrong, Mazda truly aced the design of both the sedan and the Liftback, especially with the latter which stands out more even to my non-car enthusiast friends. The Liftback’s design is largely carried over from the Kai concept car that was shown at the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show and that sexy design is definitely more apparent here compared to the sedan.
The base Mazda 3 sits on 16-inch alloy wheels along with bulb-type DRLs which on a RM 143k car sounds a tad bit lacking but don’t sweat too much on the details. It leaves an impression from the outside straight away that you wouldn’t even know it’s the base model.
Inside though are certain things that immediately shout kosong base like the manually-adjustable fabric seats, lack of sunroof, and traditional A/C control knobs. Just by looking at those, you might scoff at its six-figure price, but that’s where you’re wrong. In fact, I call the lack of certain features to be pretty humbling.
The seats are magnificent to be in with just the right support for comfort and the fabric seat quality is superb. Plus, there are leather trims on the dash and doors which feels just as good as any Mazda would. There is an air of high-class quality in the way the buttons feel to the touch and the dials all click with precision.
There is a head-up display and the 8.8-inch central infotainment display has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity though it isn’t a touchscreen unit. Controlling the infotainment is only via the MZD Connect rotary dial which takes some getting used to but this is also seen on the CX-30 which is more than a jacked-up Liftback.
Overall, the base Mazda 3 Liftback is just as good as the higher variants in terms of feel and your non-car buddies would still be swooning over its looks even if some things are clearly lacking.
The base variant of the Mazda 3 is powered by a naturally aspirated 1.5-litre Skyactiv-G 4-cylinder petrol engine that makes 118 PS and 153 Nm. This is paired with a 6-speed automatic transmission that drives the front wheels.
On paper, losing 44 PS/60 Nm feels like a lot but the 1.5-litre unit impressed us in the real world with how it responds so effortlessly. That fear of underpower is not very apparent when you hit the throttle.
The lighter engine helps to make the Liftback feel darty when you're on the go compared to the more powerful, yet heavier 2.0-litre unit. The front doesn't feel as heavy nor did the engine struggle against the overall weight of the car (around 1,400 kg) and in fact, that makes it more enjoyable to drive.
All of that is experienced even when the Liftback is in Normal mode and switching to Sport mode only increases the gear ratio. There are no complaints with the 6-speed automatic transmission as it is precise with every upshift taken in stride.
Besides, the lighter engine also helps in upping the nimbleness of the Liftback around a corner. Yes, the Jinba Ittai philosophy of man and horse/machine is felt just like in any other Mazda but here it's simply more apparent compared to the 2.0-litre variant.
While the 2.0-litre is obviously the more powerful of the two - 0-100 km/h in the 1.5-litre variant was 12.6 seconds while the 2.0-litre did the century sprint in 9.9 seconds - the base engine has just the right amount of push to get you through the daily traffic like overtaking.
In essence, the 2.0-litre is a professional track athlete who is trained to run laps or sprint as fast as they can while the 1.5-litre is a parkour runner who is nimble on their feet and would go through obstacles easily.
While the Mazda 3 excels in the handling department whichever engine you choose, one thing remains constant throughout almost every Mazda that we reviewed; the comfort is just not up to snuff.
To rephrase a certain uncle of a web-slinging superhero: With great handling, comes great firmness. The base Mazda 3 is still firm when compared to the likes of the Civic or Corolla Altis though it is a smidge better than the 2.0-litre variant thanks to the thicker profile tyres.
Practicality and features
But when it comes to practicality, especially for the rear passengers, the Mazda 3 Liftback gets a few points off with the thick C-pillars making the back feel a bit too claustrophobic.
The sloping roofline also hampers rear headroom, especially for taller folks; true story, a cousin of mine who is around 190 cm tall chose the sedan over the Liftback because of this issue. Too bad he really preferred the Liftback’s shape.
The smaller engine does come with the benefit of paying less annual road tax than the 2.0-litre variants but it isn't exactly fuel efficient. During our time with the Mazda 3 Liftback 1.5, we recorded an average of 8.7 L/100 km after driving for around 116 km (50% highway, 50% traffic).
Granted, we were driving quite briskly during our time and though the engine does pull effortlessly, there were some periods during our review where we had to push the 1.5-litre unit a bit harder.
Shift the gear to reverse and you realise something is audibly missing – the familiar beeping of the reverse sensors. While there are no sensors, the base Liftback variant has a very crisp and well-positioned reversing camera which is enough for you to gauge how close you are to whatever is behind you.
The absence of certain features on a six-figure car might seem unacceptable to some but then again, this is still a more premium car in terms of quality and looks compared to the more feature-packed usual suspects that cost around the same price.
Just to recap, the Liftback is available in 3 variants, the base 1.5 which we tested here starts from RM 143,000, the 2.0 High+ from RM 160,000, and the 2.0 Ignite Edition which is priced from RM 169,000. The Ignite Edition only adds a few visual upgrades to the 2.0 High+ variant.
The Mazda 3 Liftback is and will always remain a beauty. The base variant is indeed overlooked simply because of a lack of features - some of which are deemed essential - while the more powerful 2.0-litre variants receive a lot more attention from those looking to get Mazda's C-segment offering.
But if you're scoffing at the price to pay for a Mazda 3 that comes without reverse sensors and other advanced safety features, clearly the base variant is not for you.
In terms of sheer driving pleasure with extremely good looks to boot though, the base 1.5-litre variant of the Mazda 3 is simply ace. It's definitely worth considering if you want an engaging car that is in some ways, back to basics.