First Drive: 2017 Mazda3

A lot of new car launches are held in unfamiliar locations (to us journalists testing the cars), on perfectly smooth roads on a prescribed drive route that may or may not have been selected in order to avoid concerns or promote certain aspects of a cars handling, NVH or composure out on the public roads.

Although this is a mild mid-cycle refresh, the small changes are a large step forward on an already well-sorted and great-looking compact car, both sedan and hatch.

So here we are, an hour north of Montreal, on typical Quebec roads that wind through the hillside and over a wide variety of terrain from somewhat smooth to unbearably not-smooth to sand and even washboard gravel. And that's okay because Mazda wanted us to drive their Mazda3 in real-world conditions to get a feel for the new suspension and NVH updates as well as their newest SkyActiv technology G-Force Vectoring Control (GVC).

But wait, there’s more! The 2017 Mazda3 has been updated both on the inside and the outside as well. Although this is a mild mid-cycle refresh, the small changes are a large step forward on an already well-sorted and great-looking compact car, both sedan and hatch.

For 2017 Mazda has returned to their three-level trim methodology that they have been using for many years, with the both sedan (Mazda3) and hatch (Mazda3 Sport) available in GX, GS or GT trim. A lot of content has moved downward from the GT model into the GS while reducing the GT pricing by $1,500 over the 2016 model.

The “G” trim is now defunct and as a result the GX trim becomes the base 2017 Mazda3 model with a starting price of $15,900. The GX offers a new Comfort Package (which requires automatic transmission) that includes: air conditioning, trip computer, tachometer, and steering-wheel audio controls for an additional $2,650. Meanwhile, the Convenience Package includes all model-year 2016 GX equipment. Also new for 2017 is an Electronic Parking Brake (EPB), an updated console design, new cloth upholstery and a drive-selection switch added to the SkyActiv-Drive automatic transmission.

The mid-trim GS model is where things really get interesting. As mentioned, many features from the 2016 GT Technology Package are now standard equipment on the GS with a starting price of $20,300. Those features include: an upgraded blind-spot monitoring system called Advanced BSM (with enhanced range), Rear Cross-Traffic Alert (RCTA), Smart City Brake Support (SCBS) – now with increased detection distance and expanded detection angle. The much-loved heated steering wheel is also now included as standard on the GS trim along with a redesigned side-mirror turn indicator, new premium-grade cloth upholstery and the SkyActive-Drive automatic transmission drive-selection switch.

The GT, with a starting price of $24,000, is now equipped with redesigned LED headlights with automatic levelling, replacing the 2016 ni-Xenon HID lamps. LED fog lights are also standard on the GT along with redesigned 18-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control and an available automatic transmission previously unavailable on the base GT trim. Notably, the choice of an automatic transmission or manual transmission on the GT trim incurs no extra cost. 

A GT Premium Package model (formerly Luxury Package) offers buyers the following new features: voice-activated navigation, an upgraded colour Active Driving head-up display (HUD), advanced keyless entry, lane-departure warning, high-beam control, radar cruise control, smart brake system, front obstruction warning and lane-keep assist. This is in addition to the features previously included in the Premium package including: leather upholstery, six-way power driver's seat with manual driver lumbar support, CD player with MP3 capability, Bose audio system with nine speakers and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. All this for an additional $2,900.

A loaded GT model with Premium Package, Technology Package and automatic transmission also includes: i-ELOOP regenerative braking system, active air shutters, Adaptive Front-lighting System (AFS), SiriusXM Satellite Radio, HomeLink wireless control system and Traffic Sign Recognition (TSR) which can display speed limits, stop signs and no-entry signs in the head-up display unit. 

The Mazda3 Sport packages are essentially exactly the same as the sedan with a premium of $1,000 for the hatch. The base Sport GX model comes standard with the features in the GX Comfort package and has a starting price of $19,550.

For the 2017 Mazda3, Mazda concentrated on further polishing the design so it more strongly expresses the Mazda brand’s commitment to quality and ongoing evolution. The exterior design places importance on the physique of the car by emphasizing its form on a horizontal plane to instill a greater sense of width. This accentuates the body’s wide stance and creates dynamic, dignified proportions that convey a mature sense of composure.

On the outside, a new front grille and signature wing design combines with the adoption of LED headlamps to create a bolder expression. The previous model emphasized the sense of vertical movement and rhythm for the overall V-shaped design of its front face to present a more emotional and dynamic look. In contrast, this update focuses on the horizontal plane, so called for the perception of a wider and lower stance with a lower center of gravity. The rear of the hatchback pursues the same expression as the front in conveying an axis running from front to back through the body, a low centre of gravity and a wide stance.

Numerous interior tweaks have also been employed with the 2017 Mazda3. Starting by replacing the parking brake with an electronic one and then creating a new floor console design that takes advantage of the space opened up from where the parking brake lever previously existed. A new steering wheel design is used, matching the one from the 2016 CX-9. The Active Driver Display (ADD), otherwise known as a head-up display, is now crisper and multi-coloured, making it easier to read. A new available white leather replaces the more off-white colour previously offered, providing a more upscale and sophisticated feel to the cabin.

But this refresh does not stop there – Mazda also worked on the dynamics of the Mazda3 despite having a vehicle already at the top of its game. Canadian drivers will get their first taste of Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control technology through the Mazda3. G-Vectoring Control reduces engine torque dynamically in order to add load to the front tires to offer a more linear response to steering. The result is a better-handling and easier-to-drive car that is less fatiguing on long drives. Also revised are the front and rear dampers as well as stabilizing mounts and bushings, done to improve the dynamics and reduce NVH. 

Mazda has been listening to the critiques about their vehicles being on the noisy side and have also put some effort into the Mazda3 in the form of further sound-deadening materials and better seals to reduce that noise volume.

But what have all these changes done for the Mazda3? After my extended drive it was obvious that Mazda has created a quieter, better handling, more composed Mazda3 that is still fun to drive while being less “twitchy” and easier to drive. This makes the Mazda3 more appealing to both driving enthusiasts and drivers who just want something quiet and comfortable for their commute.

When we hit the road in this new Mazda3, most were in agreement that the new suspension changes were very positive. The vehicle now eats up horrible bumps and pot holes from the road and spits them out. The ride quality is impressive over even the worst broken pavement and I had to be reminded by my drive partner (a local Montreal journalist) that the roads we were travelling would not feel as smooth in most any other vehicle. My initial impression was that the roads around the area seemed better than a typical Quebec road, when it turned out that was the Mazda3's updated suspension fooling my senses.

The updates to improve NVH are also extremely noticeable; although some tire noise can be heard on certain pavement types, on others the vehicle was nearly silent while we cruised at around 100 km/h.

The upgraded seats are comfortable and more substantial-looking and the interior as a whole feels much more upscale and refined than a compact car should be.

The Mazda3 accounts for nearly 50% of Mazda's total sales in Canada and, previous to the introduction of the CX-3 and CX-5, was closer to 75% of total sales in our country. 

With the improvement Mazda has made to this vehicle, it has solidified the Mazda3’s place in my mind as one of the top compact cars money can buy. The additional safety features and equipment, at a very competitive price, make this vehicle a force in our market.

G-Force Vectoring Control benefits enthusiasts and commuters alike 10/6/2016 7:00:00 AM