The last time I spent more than a few minutes behind the wheel of a Mazda was in the mid-90's when I briefly drove a Protege. Admittedly, words like exciting, standout interior and fun to drive did not enter my mind. But the same can't be said for my recent stint with the 2018 Mazda3, a compact sedan that delivers more than you expect it to. In fact, if cars could talk it would probably be saying I told you so.
My top-of-the-line tester is the four-door Grand Touring trim, but it also comes in the base Sport and mid-level Touring trims and also as a hatchback. Its sleek and sophisticated styling is the first thing that lifted my eyebrows in pleasant surprise. Never mind it's due for a redesign in 2019, this compact car is anything but boring as it is. Last year's mid-cycle refresh bestowed it with Mazda's updated signature grille. Add to that my Grand Touring's 18-inch alloy wheels, gloss black grille and rear deck lip spoiler and it’s sharp-looking. The premium Snowflake White Pearl Mica color is also a worthy $200 add-on in my book. The Grand Touring comes standard with Bi-LED headlights with auto-leveling, LED combination tail lights and LED fog lights.
An Interior That's Better Than You Expect
It gets even better when you move to the inside. Opening the door revealed a near-luxury interior you don't expect in this class. The Grand Touring's perforated parchment leather-trimmed 6-way power adjustable seats offered seat bolstering and were comfortable even with just manual lumbar support. The Grand Touring comes standard with a leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control with a pollen filter, an advanced keyless entry system, rain-sensing wipers and a moonroof. A tech feature worth pointing out is the optional color head-up display. It displays speed in a driver's line of sight and recognizes traffic signs. On the other hand, Mazda's Connect infotainment system with a 7-inch color touchscreen is currently short on some features like Wifi, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. But controls are simple and easy to use via buttons on the steering wheel or the rotary controller on the console. Though I have to warn you the controller is unexpectedly hot to the touch if it sits in the sunlight long. Also, the navigation system is fairly basic and limited to the $1,600 Premium Equipment package offered on the top model which also gives you cruise control, heated steering wheel, auto-dimming rearview mirror, paddle shifters, adaptive front lighting, cruise control and traffic sign recognition. My Grand Touring ditches the standard 6-speaker sound system for a 9-speaker Bose set-up, which helps drown out noticeable cabin road noise, though Mazda improved interior quietness last year with revised dampers and by adding more sound insulation. In terms of space, the Mazda3 is roomy in the front, but legroom is a bit cramped in the back where there is also a lower roofline. The rear seats have a 60/40 split. Trunk space is good. One thing I didn’t expect was the sizeable dark-lined rear defogger grid on the back window. I found the dark lines distracting while trying to see out the back.
Surprising Performance and Handling
The biggest surprise for me is the Mazda3’s performance and handling. You just don't expect it to be as good as it is. It delivers an engaging driving experience with sharp steering thanks to Mazda's clever G Vectoring Control which is now standard across the lineup. It's a technology which uses the engine to put a small amount of weight on the front tires for greater grip, responsiveness, and stability. Mazda's Skyactiv 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine is good for 184-horses and 185 pound-feet of torque. My tester had the optional 6-speed automatic transmission but a 6-speed manual is standard. The optional paddle shifters - which to me are a must to get the best performance from this car - click through the gears sharply and quickly.
Note: The fourth-generation Mazda3 coming in 2019 is expected to have Mazda’s breakthrough new combustion engine technology called SkyActiv-X. It’s an engine that can burn gasoline without a spark plug firing, the way a diesel motor does. Mazda predicts the new technology will be 20- to 30-percent more efficient than its current Skyactiv engine.
The other plus is that the Mazda3 is fuel efficient (I averaged 29.1 combined in highway/city driving) without sacrificing preformance.
Keeping You Safe on the Road
The Mazda3 lineup adds more safety for 2018 and Smart City Brake is now standard on all three trims. The system will automatically hit the brakes in emergencies if you're going 19 mph or less. All Mazda3 trims also come with a rearview camera, Hill Launch Assist, Anti-Lock Brakes and Dynamic Stability Control. The Touring adds Advanced Blind Spot Monitoring with Rear Cross Traffic Alert. But the Grand Touring gets the full safety suite with its optional Premium Equipment Package which includes High Beam Control, Lane Departure Warning System, Lane-Keep Assist, Mazda Radar Cruise Control, and Traffic Sign Recognition for the head-up display.
If you're familiar with Mazda you know the automaker loves its add-on packages:
The $1,600 Premium Equipment package, available only on the Grand Touring, gives you the leather-trimmed sport seats, paddle shifters, self-leveling LED headlights, adaptive front lighting, heated steering wheel, navigation system and traffic sign recognition along with Lane Departure and Lane Keep Assist.
The $1,500 Bose/Moonroof/Satellite Radio Package is available on the Touring trim.
The $1,300 Appearance Package available on the Sport, Touring and Grand Touring trims adds front air dam, side sill extensions, rear bumper skirt, and door mirror caps.
The $1,000 Preferred Equipment Package available on the Sport model gives you rain-sensing wipers, Blind Spot Monitoring with Rear Cross Traffic Alert, and premium cloth sport seats.
At the end of the day, my top-of-the-line tester equipped with the Premium and Appearance packages (the two others were standard) came with a $28,000-plus price tag, which I consider a good value for the great handling, safety technology, and above-its-class interior.
2018 Mazda3 Grand Touring
What I liked most: Stylish looks, exceptional interior quality for the price point and unexpected precise, sporty handling.
What I would change: Give me a better infotainment system.
MSRP: Base price $24,195. As equipped $28, 370.
Fuel economy: 27 City / 36 Highway / 30 Combined.
Odometer reading when tested: 1140 miles.
Official Color: Snowflake White Pearl Mica ($200 add-on).