2016 Mazda3 S Grand Touring 4-Door
Ready for premium primetime yet priced like its mainstream peers
If you asked me to name an auto brand that might best be able to transition from the mainstream volume sector to premium status I’d have to put Mazda on top of the list. Certainly Volkswagen would be up there too, but VW already owns Audi, not to mention Bentley, Lamborghini and Bugatti, amongst others, so moving the brand much further upmarket would hardly make sense. Mazda is already a niche seller in most segments, however, and therefore wouldn’t be losing much ground if it decided to shoot for profits instead of overall market share. What’s more it wouldn’t have to do much to qualify its model lineup for the luxury class.
As a bit of a luxury brand 101 overview, premium auto brands need a highly identifiable image, good performance chops, higher than average refinement, high tech mechanicals and electronics, plus of course luxurious appointments, and Mazda has all of the above covered as well as all-important standalone dealerships renowned for excellent service. The Japanese brand’s new Kodo design language makes their cars and crossover SUVs some of the most attractive in the industry, ideally balancing sporty elements with an understated elegance that punches way above its models’ various price points, while they not only offer one of the most loved and respected sports cars in the MX-5 Miata, not to mention have historically built some of the more desirable Japanese collector cars, most of which are rotary-powered, and may soon add a future collectable to that list if the recently unveiled RX-Vision is any indication, but infuse much of that performance DNA into the rest of their lineup. Along with a go-fast attitude that Mazda has long dubbed “Zoom-Zoom” its vehicles get many of the same types of fuel-efficiency technology used by the top German brands such as auto start-stop and regenerative braking, their infotainment systems could be right out of an Audi or BMW, and even their smallest cars and SUVs offer leather-lined, aluminum intensive interiors with soft-touch surfaces that put some premium brands to shame. Mazda is ripe for the transition.
Take this Mazda3 S Grand Touring as an example of doing most everything right. First off, its styling is spot on, looking every bit as classy as its bigger mid-size Mazda6 brother yet smaller and sportier, with its own version of Mazda’s bold trademark trapezoidal grille up front, bending a chromed lower trim element right into its sophisticated set of bi-xenon HID headlamps with signature LEDs. A simple set of circular fogs sit below, 18-inch multi-spoke alloys at each corner, a discreet body-color spoiler atop the rear deck lid and stylish LED taillights at back, the 3 sedan making a sharp visual statement from front to back, especially in my tester’s grayish-brown Titanium Flash Mica paint.
Proximity-sensing keyless access gets you inside where ambient lighting shows you the way to its aluminum ignition button, my top-line loaner replacing the model’s standard six-speed manual gearbox with a six-speed automatic featuring driver selectable Sport mode and sequential shifting via steering wheel paddles. Settle into the comfortable six-way power-adjustable perforated leather-clad driver’s seat that comes standard, press the start button and witness the 3 come alive. A standard head-up display unit powers a translucent screen up out of the dash top to receive key projected info, while just below are Mazda’s elegant trademark wing-style digital and analog primary gauges, lit up with TFT displays to each side, all framed by a comfortably thick tilt and telescopic red-stitched leather-wrapped multifunction sport steering wheel.
Atop the center stack, the 3 GT fixes a standard tablet style color high-resolution infotainment screen filled with navigation, a backup camera, audio controls, phone connectivity and more, all controlled via a large rotating dial on the lower console surrounded by various go-to buttons and audio volume control knob, whereas a stylish dual-zone auto HVAC interface hovers just below two backlit three-way seat heater toggles back up on the center stack. The standard nine-speaker Bose audio system with Centerpoint 2 surround, AudioPilot 2 noise compensation plus SurroundStage signal processing is very good as well, the type of system you’d normally find in a pricey premium sport-luxury sedan. Additionally, a nice tidy overhead console features a handy sunglasses holder, map lights, and controls for the standard powered glass sunroof.
There are plenty of soft-touch surfaces throughout too, including pliable plastics across the entire dash top as well as the front door uppers, while the door inserts are soft and padded both front and back, as are the armrests that get red contrast stitching like other key trim around the cabin, whereas eye-catching metallic trim highlights other surfaces. I know, I could be describing any Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz, let alone a Lexus or Infiniti, but the almost as well equipped base Mazda3 GT starts at $24,745 plus freight and dealer fees for the six-speed manual equipped model or $25,795 for the as-tested six- speed automatic with paddles.
A $1,300 Appearance package can be added, which basically adds a gloss black aero kit for a sportier look. My tester’s metallic paint was a no-cost option as are five additional colors, while Mazda also offers Snow Flake White Pearl for $200 and Soul Red Metallic for $300. Additionally you can get a two-tone Almond and black leather upholstery option at no charge, while my loaner included the $2,600 Technology package that added active grille shutters, adaptive cornering headlamps with auto leveling and auto high beams, adaptive cruise control, aforementioned i-ELOOP regenerative braking, with the model’s standard blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert further enhanced by lane departure warning, forward collision warning, and Smart City Brake Support that uses a near infra-red laser sensor to detect and react to a vehicle up to 20 feet ahead before applying the brakes automatically to avoid a potential accident. So equipped the Mazda3 earns the IIHS’ best Top Safety Pick + rating, whereas all 3s get the NHTSA’s 5-star seal of crash test approval.
The confidence of knowing you and your family are well protected is comforting, especially considering how quick and nimble the car is in GT trim. Its base trims are already strong performers in the compact class with a direct-injection 2.0-liter Skyactiv four-cylinder capable of 155 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque plus EPA claimed fuel economy of 29 mpg city, 41 highway and 33 combined with the manual or 30 city, 41 highway and 34 combined with the auto, but the GT’s more potent 2.5-liter Skyactiv mill puts a wider smile across its driver’s face thanks to 184 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque and doesn’t turn that smile upside down due to fuel economy equaling 25 city, 37 highway and 29 combined with the manual, 28 city, 39 and 32 with the auto, or 29, 40 and 33 with the auto and as-tested i-ELOOP brake regeneration, while the engine is really responsive to throttle input and the Skyactiv six-speed automatic a joy to row through the gears with nice quick shifts, especially when in Sport mode.
The Sport button is down on the lower console beside the shift lever, and now that we’re on the subject of the transmission you can pull that lever to the left to engage manual mode for even greater performance feel. The 3 is ultra-fun through the corners, with very impressive handling, while it’s braking is also strong and overall balance confidence inspiring. This is the compact car to get if you are a driving enthusiast, as it really likes to wind through the curves yet it doesn’t beat you up during the process. Its ride is smooth and comfortable, the 3 and excellent all-rounder.
You may have noticed the term Skyactiv mentioned a moment ago, and if you’re not already familiar this is the coined name Mazda uses for its various fuel-efficiency focused technologies and overall approach to engineering. Skyactiv is more of a philosophy than a collection of parts, mind you. Certainly there are components to meet its highly efficient ends, such as lightweight yet rigid Skyactiv body structures (providing better handling and improved crash protection); lightweight but strong Skyactiv-chassis designs (ditto, due in part to rpm-sensing variable electric powered rack and pinion steering); Skyactiv-G (gasoline) and Skyactiv-D (diesel, not available in the U.S.) low friction and high compression engines (with a lofty 14.0:1 compression ratio achieved by using 4-2-1 exhaust, cavity pistons, multihole injectors, and yet more technologies, resulting in up to 15 percent better fuel economy and torque); the compact and lightweight Skyactiv-MT (manual transmission: with no reverse idle shaft and a shorter secondary shaft); compact and lightweight Skyactiv-Drive (automatic transmission: which Mazda claims incorporates the benefits of all competitive transmissions including the conventional automatic, continuously variable and dual-clutch automated types, due to a “dramatically widened” lock-up range that improves torque transfer efficiency resulting in a “direct driving feel that is equivalent to a manual” as well as a “4-to-7 percent improvement in fuel economy” compared to the previous automatic); and with the Mazda3 GT, the availability of i-ELOOP regenerative braking. A driving enthusiast will immediately notice that the technologies listed not only improve fuel economy and emissions, but also performance, which is perfectly in tune with Mazda’s longstanding adherence to fully engaged driving enjoyment.
Important for a performance-oriented car, the 3 GT’s driver’s seat is quite supportive with decent side bolstering plus good inherent lower back support and therefore wonderfully comfortable throughout my weeklong test, whereas the car’s overall ergonomics are excellent. The rear seats are also spacious and well designed with good overall comfort. They fold flat 60/4, expanding on an already accommodating 12.3 cubic-foot trunk.
Only a lack of fabric-wrapped roof pillars and soft-touch rear door uppers disqualify the Mazda3 GT from Tier 2 premium status, and such shortcomings could easily be remedied by adding a bit more to the car’s bottom line, plus of course the reality that with a total of 107,885 3s sold throughout the U.S. last year Mazda delivers more of its compact models than the top-selling BMW 3 Series and many times more than most Tier 2 compact luxury models due to a well-equipped base model that starts at just $17,845. Such sales might look great compared to pricey luxury models, but they don’t stack up well against most peers with Mazda only capable of placing 9th out of 12 competitors, or in other words it wouldn’t have much to lose if it chose to position the car at a more profitable price point.
Moving the 3 and other Mazda models upmarket might be exactly what the brand needs, and after yet another week with the fabulous 3 GT it certainly wouldn’t be much of a stretch to imagine it competing directly with the Acura ILX, Audi A3, Buick Verano, Mercedes-Benz CLA and other premium four-door models. That we can buy it for such a great price right now is the shocker. Make sure you put the Mazda3 on your list when shopping for your next compact, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate what I’m talking about after spending a little time with it. Its combination of high style, great interior design and superb quality, strong performance, wonderful handling and myriad features raise it far above most mainstream competitors. The Mazda3 GT gets my highest recommendation.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press; Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press; Copyright: American Auto Press Inc.