2017 Mazda Mazda3 Sport GT

Ted LaturnusFor at least the past five years, the Mazda3 has been an unbridled success story. Check out “Best Of” lists and it’s bound to be either at the top of the heap, or near it. For example, in 2014, it was named best new car under $21,000 by the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), an award it also collected in 2013, and it has been tagged as one of the “10 Best” for five years in a row by the U.S. magazine, Car And Driver. Not to mention numerous accolades by various agencies (NHTSA, IIHS) and plaudits from auto journalists around the world. People like this car and Mazda sells it by the boat-load.

Why? What is it that appeals to people? Why buy it when there’s so much to choose from at this end of the market?

In a word: useability. Like another perennial best-seller, the Honda Civic (which, IMHO, has devolved into one of the ugliest cars on the road), the Mazda3 is easy to get along with and doesn’t throw any curves or silly surprises at you when you slide behind the wheel. All the controls and switchgear (with a couple of exceptions that I’ll get to shortly) are easy to get at and understandable and the car has a kind of mechanical affability that is instantly appealing and accessible.

It’s also reasonably good on gas. The 2017 Sport GT model, which I drove this time around, delivers 9.0 L /100 km in town and a thrifty 6.7 on the highway. Not the best in class, but certainly competitive.

The GT incidentally, is also a bit of a pavement-burner. With a 2.5 litre four cylinder stuffed under the hood, it puts out some 184 horsepower, which is enough to get it up to highway speed in around six seconds. This is the hot rod of the Mazda3 line-up, and is surprisingly lively.

But it also stays true to Mazda’s quest for mainstream appeal. For example, it’s a four door hatch, and with the back seats folded, it features over 1300 litres of cargo area. That’s more than Mazda’s CX-3, which is also selling like gangbusters. And I can vouch for the roominess of the Mazda3 because I have used both it and the CX-3 to schlep my drum kit around, and the former is definitely easier to get along with than the latter. The CX-3, despite its huge popularity right now, is a cramped automobile, with less elbow room by far than its conventional hatchback stablemate.

About those controls. My biggest beef is with Mazda’s touchscreen display / driver interface set-up. It’s just too convoluted and cumbersome. A simple task like changing radio stations, for example, involves scrolling through the screen to find the “tune” function, bringing it up and then finding what you need. Not terribly complicated, I agree, but distracting. It takes your attention off driving and forces you to focus on the screen….only for a few seconds or two, true, but that’s all it takes to get into deep shit when you’re driving. Mazda has decided to utilize this arrangement on most of its offerings and I’ve encountered it in the MX-5, Mazda6, and CX-3, and it pisses me off every time. Perhaps one would get used to it eventually, but it is still a dumb arrangement and strikes me as change for its own sake. Harrumph.

My GT did have some nice touches, including heated steering wheel, very efficient three-setting heated front seats, back-up camera, and tastefully done leather upholstery. This latter feature was an option….part of the Premium package, which also includes radar cruise control and lane keep assist. This last feature was also pretty irritating and I disabled it almost instantly. I don’t need a car to tell me when I’m straying into the other lane….unless I’m futzing around with the radio, of course. The Premium package adds some $2900 to the car’s $25,000 base price and is, in my opinion, kind of unnecessary.

But that won’t matter to most buyers. This one is a hot seller, guaranteed.

Engine: 2.5 litre four cylinder
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Drive: Front-wheel drive
Horsepower: 184 hp @ 5700 rpm
Torque: 185 ft. lb. @ 3250 rpm
Price: $25,000 (base); $29,595 as tested.
Fuel Economy: 9.0 L /100 km (city) & 6.7 (hwy.) Regular fuel.

Alternatives: Ford Focus SE, Honda Civic Hatchback, Chev Cruze Hatch,  Hyundai Elantra GT, Kia Forte Coupe, Toyota Corolla iM.

Ted Laturnus has been an automotive journalist since 1976. He has been named Canadian Automotive Journalist Of The Year twice and is past president of the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).

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