Best Compact Car: Mazda3

You don’t hear the term “economy car” much anymore. Decades ago, it commonly referred to a compact car chosen largely for its low price, and for the most part, you got what you paid for, which was usually not much.

The Mazda3, which has been voted by our experts as’s Best Compact Car for 2020, illustrates just how much small cars have matured. Our jury of more than 20 automotive experts across the country considered and evaluated every compact car available today to Canadian new-vehicle shoppers and voted for the Mazda3 as the one we would confidently recommend to friends and family and the one the best represents what a vehicle in this segment should be like.

Our jury evaluated the Mazda3 against 12 criteria – value, innovation, technology/features, user-friendliness, performance, engineering excellence, driver satisfaction, design, safety, quality, efficiency, and overall excellence. The Mazda3 won over five other worthy finalists that our jury voted to shortlist: the Honda Civic, Volkswagen Golf, Hyundai Elantra, Subaru Impreza, and Toyota Corolla. These are all excellent compact cars, but the Mazda3 excelled the most in our judging criteria.

Our dozen criteria were weighted according to the vehicle class being considered. For compact cars, our jury focused on value, efficiency, safety, design, quality, technology and features, and user-friendliness when evaluating the six finalists.

The Mazda3 has a sub-$20,000 starting price and efficient engines designed with the company’s SkyActiv fuel-saving philosophy in mind. The starting price might be cheap, but the car feels like it could cost thousands more. The fourth-generation model that arrived in 2019 is a truly upscale design. The Mazda3 Sport hatchback looks more Italian than Japanese, especially with the GT trim’s 18-inch wheels filling the fenders.

In considering the Mazda3’s interior design and quality, our jury noted how its minimalist secondary controls follow trends set by German luxury cars. Optional contrasting leather upholstery is an obvious upscale nod, but the car feels classy even without that treatment.’s Justin Pritchard, in his review of a 2019 Mazda3 GS sedan with the standard black cloth interior, wrote: “If design, style, delightful touches, and a beautiful cabin are important to you, put this one on top of your test drive hitlist.”

Mazda also emulates pricier expensive European cars with its latest infotainment system, a well-sorted setup that uses a console-mounted control dial to provide more tactile feedback and user-friendliness than a strictly touchscreen-based arrangement. The Mazda3 also includes the technology and features that buyers expect, like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration, push-button engine start, and LED lighting. Mid-range GS models add heated side mirrors, automatic climate control, and heated front seats.

Performance and driver satisfaction were not top considerations here, but the Mazda3’s dialed-in dynamics still gave it a distinct advantage over the other finalists. Mazda has found an admirable balance between efficiency, power delivery, handling, and ride comfort, and created a car that satisfies both enthusiastic and budget-oriented drivers.

Mazda’s engineering chops shine through in SkyActiv-branded 2.0L (155 hp/150 lb-ft torque) and 2.5L (186 hp/186 lb-ft) engines that deliver smooth power without the added complexity of turbocharging. The 2.5L’s cylinder deactivation, a feature normally reserved for six- and eight-cylinder engines, lets drivers enjoy that motor’s extra power while nearly matching the 2.0L’s fuel economy estimates.

Meanwhile, a slick chassis that combines sharp handling and a compliant ride prompted’s Jeff Wilson to describe a 2019 Mazda3 GT Sport as “a car that feels more German than a Volkswagen.” Indeed, the Mazda3 feels tidy, composed, and confident on the road.

One of Mazda’s most notable innovations is something you will probably never notice. The Mazda3 comes standard with the company’s G-vectoring control, which subtly improves the car’s handling accuracy and its occupants’ comfort by briefly reducing engine power when the car enters a turn. When it was first introduced in 2016, the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) named G-vectoring control the Best New Innovation Technology.

Safety-wise, the mid-range Mazda3 GS comes with pedestrian detection, automatic collision avoidance, lane-keep assist, radar cruise control, and blind-spot monitoring for less than $23,000, items that helped the car earn the IIHS’s Top Safety Pick rating. Rear-collision detection and automatic braking and traffic-sign recognition – features uncommon in compact cars – are available too.

If you want a manual transmission, the Mazda3 only offers its six-speed stickshift with the 2.0L engine. Pritchard describes the shifter and clutch as “sports car-esque, with a heavier, notchier shifter than the norm delivering a smooth and solid action, and a clutch that’s got just enough springiness and bite to feel athletic, but not labour-intensive.”

If you prefer to let the car do the shifting, Mazda bucks the continuously variable transmission (CVT) trend with a more traditional six-speed automatic that does its job unobtrusively and offers a modicum of manual control via the shift lever or, in GT trim, steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles.

Mazda3 drivers who go for the 2.5L engine can also add all-wheel drive for the first time, a new option for the 2019 model year. The Mazda3 is only the third mainstream compact to offer AWD, after the Subaru Impreza and the Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen.

Although the Mazda3 was not the most affordable, the best equipped, the most efficient or the roomiest model up for this award, it still has a lot to offer. It nailed the overall excellence and important value criteria for looking, feeling, and driving like something that’s more expensive and high-end, helping this stylish car win the 2020 Award for Canada’s Best Compact Car.