First Drive: 2019 Mazda3 and Mazda3 Sport AWD

So, you’re looking for something with all-wheel drive and have finally resigned yourself to the fact that you’ll have to buy an SUV. After all, that’s what all the neighbours are doing.

The drive dynamics are very smooth, the interior is exceptionally quiet, and it all carries an air of luxury befitting a much more expensive vehicle.

But it’s got to be something small, modest, and good on gas though, right? Something that demonstrates some care for the environment while showing signs of quality and being reasonably priced?

How about a new 2019 Mazda3?

That’s right: Mazda is adding an all-wheel drive option to its Mazda3 compact sedan and Mazda3 Sport hatchback for the fourth-generation 2019 model, bringing the list of choices in the segment delivering power to both axles to a whopping two: this, or the Subaru Impreza. (If you want to expand the circle outward a little more then you could lump the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack in here, too. But it’s a wagon, while the Mazda3 and Impreza are decidedly not.)

Why do this, though? Isn’t the small car segment a lost cause?

Well, maybe not. Mazda pointed out a couple of interesting statistics. Yes, there are definitely people leaving mainstream compacts behind for SUVs. But some of those who have left have actually stayed in small cars – they’ve just moved up-market. According to data from MaritzCX’s 2018 New Vehicle Customer Study, the number-one reason why luxury compact car buyers are choosing those vehicles is to access all-wheel drive, and the ones who do are equipping it at an extraordinarily high rate: 96 percent on the BMW 2 Series, for example, and 82 percent on the Audi A3.

It’s not hard to extrapolate, then, that making the feature available at a lower price point is likely to reap rewards. Mazda hasn’t gone full Nissan and made it standard equipment – there are still people out there who want a sub-$25,000 small car, and Mazda is quite happy to continue serving those customers – but even the most expensive 2019 Mazda3 Sport tops out at a price below the starting point for most luxury competitors, a fact that’s likely to stop a few shoppers in their tracks.

Small but Four Times Mighty

With a set of winter boots on, the all-wheel-drive-equipped Mazda3 made quick work of a somewhat-melted hard-pack snow course set up in the mountains near Lake Tahoe – and made good fun of it, too. With some strategic torque delivery and the help of Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control Plus stability control system – which uses an imperceptibly light drag on the outside front brake to aid in cornering – the car actually lets its back end hang out just enough to get turns done quickly and in control, without turning off any of the nanny systems. (And thank goodness for that: it turns out that GVC Plus can’t be turned off at all, unless you happen to have a Mazda engineer sitting in the right-hand seat with a computer on his lap as we did in our demonstration.)

While past iterations of the system pushed torque backward only when a lack of traction was detected, this one will do it under acceleration even on dry pavement.

One thing that raised a fair number of eyebrows when the new Mazda3’s specs were announced is the move from a multilink to a torsion beam rear suspension – and that becomes an even more pertinent discussion with all-wheel drive added to the mix.

On this point, Dave Coleman, Mazda’s California-based Manager of Vehicle Dynamics, offers some frank insight.

“Take a look under the CX-3,” he says. “We’ve already done it.

“What was happening with the multilink suspension, completely intentionally, is we had a lot of passive steering going on in there just to stabilize the car. You turn into corners, you want the car to do something, it starts to move, and then you get compliance steer that takes some of that away. You have to add a little bit more, and then the roll comes in and takes some more away.

“All of this happens over a fraction of a second, but this feedback loop between you and the car is really complicated. We’re trying to simplify that and make the feedback really simple.

“The fact that we did this on the CX-3 and no one noticed shows that we did it right.”

That being said, some changes have been made to the version of it on the Mazda3. Rather than being a straight beam, the one used here has something closer to a bowtie shape, which Mazda says has made it 78 percent stiffer than in the CX-3 and has let them tune it such that they report having no deflection at all in the rear wheels, resolving one of the torsion beam’s key weaknesses.

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As for fitting it with the all-wheel drive system, there’s a curve in the beam to get it around the driveshaft, but it’s otherwise the same as in the front-wheel-drive cars. I can’t speak to the performance of the latter, but in the former, the car’s smooth handling performance on the snow course speaks to the success of the engineering solution.

One final note on all-wheel drive: you can have it on the GS and GT grades on both the sedan and the hatch, and you can have a manual transmission on the GS grade sedan and the GS and GT grade hatch – but you can’t have both at the same time. It’s not that Mazda couldn’t have done it; they just didn’t think enough people would buy one to make it available.

Canada Still Has Powertrain Options

Unlike our neighbours to the south, the Canadian market retains the 2.0-litre four-cylinder SkyActiv-G engine for the 2019 model year with its 155 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque from 4,000 rpm. This is mostly to keep entry-level pricing on the sedan below $20,000 and a variety of grades below $25,000.

The larger 2.5-litre four-cylinder SkyActiv-G engine, available with and without cylinder deactivation (CD), makes 186 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque from 4,000 rpm.

With such a variety of powertrain configurations, there’s a long list of Natural Resources Canada fuel consumption figures to peruse.

2019 Mazda3 Fuel Consumption (L/100 km city/highway)

2.0L, M/T, FWD: 8.7/6.4

2.0L, A/T, FWD: 8.4/6.6

2.5L, A/T, FWD: 8.8/6.4

2.5L w/ CD, A/T, FWD: 8.8/6.6

2.5L w/ CD, A/T, AWD: 9.2/7.0

2019 Mazda3 Sport Fuel Consumption (L/100 km city/highway)

2.0L, M/T, FWD: 8.7/6.6

2.0L, A/T, FWD: 8.6/6.7

2.5L w/ CD, M/T, FWD: 9.2/6.6

2.5L w/ CD, A/T, FWD: 9.0/6.8

2.5L w/ CD, A/T, AWD: 9.8/7.4

The reason that the 2.5-litre with cylinder deactivation and front-wheel drive ends up with the same city figures and higher highway usage as the cars without is because cylinder deactivation is only available on the GT grade, which has 18-inch wheels and a different final drive ratio (3.626 versus 3.850 on the transmissions with the other setups, for the car nerds in the room). Translation: going to cylinder deactivation doesn’t automatically net fuel savings between the GS and GT front-wheel drive models, so don’t let that be your only reason for choosing one over the other.

One option we don’t have yet in Canada is the SkyActiv-X engine, which is being prioritized for Europe due to its stricter emission regulations. That doesn’t mean we’ll never see it, only that nothing has been confirmed either way. A diesel looks more likely to land, but that’s still under study.

Leaving an Impression

There’s already a lot of information here, so let’s simplify the next part. Here’s a quick breakdown of the points that stood out in testing both the sedan and hatch on Northern California’s valley and mountain roads.

  • The cars we drove were fully decked out in GT trim with the Premium Package – the sedan in Soul Red Crystal Metallic, the hatch with the five-door-exclusive Polymetal Grey Metallic exterior and red leather interior (which is more of a muted maroon than a true red but is still very attractive). The sedan, for its price, is hard to find much fault with. It wouldn’t hurt to give it a bit more power, and I’d skip the 2.0-litre engine if I could afford to, given how low the fuel economy penalty is. But the drive dynamics are very smooth, the interior is exceptionally quiet, and it all carries an air of luxury befitting a much more expensive vehicle.
  • The same all goes for the hatch and it’s a great car within its segment, but I wanted it to be just a little bit more dynamic and fun, picking back up and powering down more quickly through corners. Perhaps a Mazda3 hot hatch could be the next step in the brand’s journey to premium? As the average compact hatch goes, though, it’s still a standout.
  • One more criticism on the hatch: that second-row window looks tiny from the outside, and it feels tiny from the inside, too. It’s not tragically small, and only the most diminutive of children won’t be able to see out of it from the perch of a car seat, but it does leave the back of the cabin feeling significantly darker and tighter than the front half. The 569-litre cargo space in the hatchback that expands to 1,334 litres with the seats up – and the 374-litre trunk in the sedan – aren’t exactly class-leading figures, either. But no one ever advised anyone to run out and buy a Mazda because of spaciousness.
  • The company’s developers have put an extraordinary amount of study into the infotainment’s usability, to the point where they made sure that their testers could figure out how to use it blindfolded. This is because their philosophy is that touchscreens are too distracting – the example of zombies walking the streets staring at smartphones was cited, and that’s kind of hard to argue – and so the new interface was developed as an evolution of the previous dial-based system with subtle but rewarding haptic feedback, improved ergonomics, and a simplified layout. I’m a believer. It took no time at all to get used to using the system, and the standard 8.8-inch screen displays crisply with highly detailed maps in the available on-board navigation. Oh, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, too. I was only left wishing that the satellite radio controls could be more intuitive, to allow easy station cruising without clicking back and forth between menus.
  • We need to talk about the audio system in this car. Mazda worked with Bose to make some major improvements, including pulling the bass speakers off the front door panels and putting them under the cowling to reduce vibrations and better direct the sound waves at the passengers. The forward side tweeters are now on the door sill just behind the A-pillars, and the Bose premium system adds a rear woofer and centre front speaker along with additional cones on the sides. And it can also read Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) high-definition music files. How good the standard eight-speaker system sounds I can’t say, although it would benefit from many of these changes. But if there’s a better factory sound system than this Bose 12-speaker arrangement in any other car under $40,000, show it to me and I’ll pay you a reward. I haven’t heard sound quality this good since I last sat in my father’s living room listening to his pristine vinyl collection though his multi-thousand-dollar surround sound setup.

Verdict

Mazda’s been talking for the last few years about its journey to premium, and in its top trims the new 2019 Mazda3 is a clear and present expression of that. It will only take a few more steps to see this trajectory through. (Does that mean that the time is ripe for a new and improved Mazdaspeed3? I’d say so.) But if fuel economy matters more to you than performance, the new Mazda3’s high-quality and thoughtful construction and available all-wheel drive turn it into a near-luxury car that’s nowhere near being priced like one. Don’t defect into an SUV – pick one of these up instead before the bean-counters figure it out.

2019 Mazda3 Packaging and Pricing

Pricing below is for sedan models and includes freight and PDI of $1,695 plus $100 A/C tax.

2019 Mazda3 GX

2.0L, 6 M/T, FWD: $19,795

2.0L, 6 M/T, FWD w/ Convenience Package: $22,095

2.0L, 6 A/T, FWD w/ Convenience Package: $23,395

New standard equipment from entry level includes G-Vectoring Control Plus, driver and passenger knee airbags, an eight-way manually adjustable driver’s seat (up from six-way manual on the 2018), 7-inch digital display cluster, 8.8-inch wide infotainment screen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and a rotating infotainment controller, an unbranded eight-speaker sound system, LED headlights, taillights, and interior lighting, 60/40 split-folding rear seats, an electronic parking brake, tachometer, trip computer, steering wheel controls for audio and Bluetooth, and two USB ports.

The Convenience Package adds 16-inch alloy wheels (as opposed to the standard steels), heated front seats, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and side-mirror-integrated turn signal indicators.

2019 Mazda3 GS

2.0L, 6 M/T, FWD: $24,495

2.5L, 6 A/T, FWD: $26,095

2.5L, 6 A/T, FWD w/ Luxury Package: $27,995

2.5L w/ CD, 6 A/T, AWD: $27,795

2.5L w/ CD, 6 A/T, AWD w/ Luxury Package: $29,695

Standard equipment at the GS grade includes 16-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control, smart brake support and smart city brake support, automatic high-beams, blind spot monitoring, active cruise control, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, and lane-keep assist.

The Luxury Package adds leatherette upholstery, a 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat with lumbar support and memory function, a power glass moonroof, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror.

2019 Mazda3 GT

2.5L w/ CD, 6 A/T, FWD: $27,995

2.5L w/ CD, 6 A/T, FWD w/ Premium Package: $30,495

2.5L w/ CD, 6 A/T, AWD w/ Premium Package: $32,195

The top grade comes with standard 18-inch alloy wheels, adaptive front lighting, and the Bose 12-speaker sound system.

With the Premium Package, leather trimmed upholstery is included, as is a 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat with lumbar support and memory function, a windshield-projected head-up display, rear smart brake support, rear cross-traffic smart brake support, rear parking sensors, SiriusXM satellite radio with a three-month trial subscription, SiriusXM Traffic Plus and Travel Link services with a five-year subscription, advanced keyless entry (proximity and ignition), on-board navigation, traffic sign recognition, front wiper de-icer, HomeLink wireless control system, and auto-dimming exterior mirrors with memory seat link.

2019 Mazda3 Sport Packaging and Pricing

Pricing below is for hatchback models and includes freight and PDI of $1,695 plus $100 A/C tax.

2019 Mazda3 Sport GX

2.0L, 6 M/T, FWD: $23,095

2.0L, 6 A/T, FWD: $24,395

The hatchback model starts with the features that are included in the Convenience Package in the sedan model: 16-inch alloy wheels, heated front seats, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and side-mirror-integrated turn signal indicators. Otherwise, standard equipment is the same as on the four-door: G-Vectoring Control Plus, driver and passenger knee airbags, an eight-way manually adjustable driver’s seat (up from six-way manual on the 2018), 7-inch digital display cluster, 8.8-inch wide infotainment screen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and a rotating infotainment controller, an unbranded eight-speaker sound system, LED headlights, taillights, and interior lighting, 60/40 split-folding rear seats, an electronic parking brake, tachometer, trip computer, steering wheel controls for audio and Bluetooth, and two USB ports.

2019 Mazda3 Sport GS

2.5L w/ CD, 6 M/T, FWD: $25,795

2.5L w/ CD, 6 M/T, FWD w/ Luxury Package: $27,695

2.5L w/ CD, 6 A/T, FWD: $27,095

2.5L w/ CD, 6 A/T, FWD w/ Luxury Package: $28,995

2.5L w/ CD, 6 A/T, AWD: $28,795

2.5L w/ CD, 6 A/T, AWD w/ Luxury Package: $30,695

Standard equipment at the GS grade is the same as in the four-door and includes 16-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control, smart brake support and smart city brake support, automatic high-beams, blind spot monitoring, active cruise control, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, and lane-keep assist.

The Luxury Package also adds leatherette upholstery, a 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat with lumbar support and memory function, a power glass moonroof, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror.

2019 Mazda3 Sport GT

2.5L w/ CD, 6 M/T, FWD w/ Premium Package: $30,195

2.5L w/ CD, 6 A/T, FWD: $28,995

2.5L w/ CD, 6 A/T, FWD w/ Premium Package: $31,495

2.5L w/ CD, 6 A/T, AWD w/ Premium Package: $33,195

As with the sedan, the top grade in the hatch comes with standard 18-inch alloy wheels, adaptive front lighting, and the Bose 12-speaker sound system. Unlike the sedan, however, a manual transmission option is available here and comes only with the Premium Package.

With the Premium Package on the Mazda3 Sport, unique black metallic finished 18-inch alloy wheels are added. It otherwise includes the same features as the sedan: leather trimmed upholstery, a 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat with lumbar support and memory function, a windshield-projected head-up display, rear smart brake support, rear cross-traffic smart brake support, rear parking sensors, SiriusXM satellite radio with a three-month trial subscription, SiriusXM Traffic Plus and Travel Link services with a five-year subscription, advanced keyless entry (proximity and ignition), on-board navigation, traffic sign recognition, front wiper de-icer, HomeLink wireless control system, and auto-dimming exterior mirrors with memory seat link.

A standout small-SUV alternative. 3/23/2019 1:00:00 PM