Stick or automatic, it’s good fun.
THE GOOD
  • Sexy exterior
  • Beautiful interior
  • Refined beyond its price
THE BAD
  • Stick shift not smooth
  • Rear visibility lacking
  • Needs revs for torque
2019 Mazda3 Sport GT Review

Yes, yes, the big Mazda3 news this year is the addition of their i-Activ all-wheel drive system and I definitely agree that it’s a heck of a great idea. Dan Heyman gave it a pretty good review too, but there’s one big fault with that otherwise great system: you can’t order an i-Activ Mazda3 with a stick shift. For some of us, that just won’t do, so here’s a look at the impressive new 2019 Mazda3 Sport in front-wheel-drive guise, with a row-your-own-adventure transmission.

Driving Feel: 7/10

Mazda used to promote the fact that they make cars for those who really enjoyed driving. They were the “Zoom-zoom” company, remember? (I wonder how many people cringe when that comes up). Anyway, because of that, it seems fitting to go for the more engaging Mazda3 afforded by the available six-speed manual transmission.

So, is it worth it? I’m a huge supporter of the “save the stick shift” movement, so it pains me to say this, but: not really. Mazda knows how to make a great stick shift – in fact, the current MX-5’s stick shift could be the best in the business – so the one in the Mazda3 Sport shouldn’t be as vague and clunky as it is. The clutch has a light action, yet it’s still really springy, making it a bit tricky to be smooth.

And then there’s the hanging revs that afflict so many direct-injection cars these days. Rev the engine up, press the clutch and the engine revs stay up for a second before dropping. This means that when trying to shift quickly, the car lurches forward with too many rpms.

It’s more engaging than the automatic, yes; but not as much fun as it could’ve been.

The handling is still quite good, but this larger Mazda3 Sport isn’t as frisky and nimble as previous generations, nor is steering feel as sharp (though still better than most of the competitors). On the upside, the ride is quite good, and the brakes are strong and have good bite.

Power: 7/10

There’s a graphic in the gauge display that makes gear-change recommendations. It was often trying to goad me into saving fuel by shifting up to fifth or sixth when I was driving in third or fourth. Yes, it would’ve been more efficient, but one of the joys of driving a manual transmission car is knowing that you’re in control of the power delivery to the nth degree.

The SkyActiv-G engine displaces 2.5 litres through four cylinders. Most of the Mazda3 Sport’s competitors have turbos (except the Corolla hatchback), and they produce more low-end torque. Still, with 186 lb-ft of twist, it’s not lacking, it’s just that a relatively high 4,000 rpm are needed to squeeze it all out. The Mazda3 Sport’s 186 horsepower is certainly competitive too, and overall this is a spritely car.

Styling: 9/10

When the previous-generation Mazda3 Sport came out, it struck me as being one of the best-looking hatchbacks around. With its squinty-eyed visage and squat hindquarters, it reminded me of the achingly cool Alfa Romeo Brera from a decade ago – a car we could only lust after from afar here in North America.

This new-for-’19 design is an evolutionary step beyond and for the most part, a further improvement. I say for the most part because the rear three-quarter view is a little too chunky with that unadorned slab of sheet metal that’s become the Sport’s C-pillar. The new Mazda3 sedan’s proportions are just about perfect, by comparison.

The interior is amazing for a car with a sub-$30K price tag. The colour scheme of my tester is the same as Dan’s with the grey exterior being a subdued shell for the visual feast inside the car. The two-tone black and burgundy look would be completely fitting for a car costing double, or even triple what this Mazda does. The materials and design mimic the best we’ve seen recently from the German premium brands, with the metallic Bose speaker grates in the doors being an especially dramatic touch.

My only complaint is levelled against the piano-black plastic around the shifter that collects dust, smudges, and scratches seemingly by simply looking at it. If it cost $10 more for each car to replace that scratch-magnet with a brushed aluminum panel, it would be money very well spent.

User Friendliness: 7.5/10

I’m not typically a fan of infotainment systems controlled with a rotary dial, and it seems the general car-buying population agrees with me as most other brands have largely done away with them in favour of touch panel systems or simpler touchscreens to tremendous effect. Still, Mazda’s latest system has been streamlined and proved to be a pretty good one, even managing to help me overcome my distaste for operating Apple CarPlay with anything other than a finger on a screen. CarPlay and Android Auto are both standard equipment on the Mazda3.

Features: 7.5/10

That slick new infotainment interface is shown on a new 8.8-inch screen that’s got great resolution. The on-board mapping even animates simple wave movement on the water, adding to the graphic slickness of the system. The 12-speaker Bose sound system is pretty good too.

There are other goodies too, like adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams for the LED lights, and even a head-up display that can actually be seen even when the driver wears polarized glasses! That last bit of sorcery hasn’t been mastered in $100,000 BMWs yet.

The Mazda3’s windshield wipers have jets built into the wipers themselves, improving their clearing power across the whole sweep. That said, I fear if one used them with the side windows down, I’d end up with a face-wash as well, given how much washer fluid ended up on the driver’s side window.

Comfort: 8/10

With styling cues that emulate premium European car makers, it’s not surprising Mazda seems to have drawn inspiration there for its ride-handling trade-off too. This is a car that feels more German than a Volkswagen, with very solid road manners, but a compliant ride.

The biggest surprise about the new Mazda3 Sport is how quiet it is. Road, engine, and wind noise are all incredibly supressed, not just by compact car standards, but by luxury car touchstones. Typically, the hatchback cargo area can act as a road noise amplifier too, making the 3 Sport even more impressive that it’s as hushed as it is.

The leather-covered front seats are heated (though not cooled), and offer plenty of support for spirited driving without being constrictive. The rears offer space that’s competitive for the class, but getting in and out is seriously compromised by the steeply raked roofline. What’s more, my nine-year-old son was not at all impressed with the upswept rear window line that meant at his height, he could barely see out of the car – not great for a kid who has recently developed a propensity for motion sickness.

Practicality: 7/10

Hatchbacks are the practical choice over their sedan counterparts by their very nature. The Mazda3 Sport is no exception. The split-folding rear seats easily flop flat opening up a usable cargo hold, but even with them up, the space is decent. With seats folded, it measures 1,334 L – greater than a Honda Civic Hatchback.

Rear-seat space is smaller than most of the competitors, and the rearward visibility is significantly hampered by the roofline and C-pillar, so many may find a less fashionable hatchback more practical than this one.

Safety: 8.5/10

Mazda has earned an IIHS Top Pick safety award thanks in no small part to the Mazda3 Sport’s i-ActivSense safety suite that includes a host of sensors inside and outside the car to detect potential hazards, including a driver’s own fatigue. There are other active safety functions too, like the lane-keeping assist system that’s particularly aggressive in nudging the steering wheel back when the driver drifts over the line slightly.

Fuel Economy: 8/10

With a 50 L tank, and only regular fuel required, filling up is relatively painless compared to most SUVs and larger cars. The Mazda3 Sport, rated at 6.6 L/100 km highway is very competitive with the efficient Honda Civic Hatchback and Toyota Corolla hatchback. But, the Mazda’s city rating of 9.2 L/100 km is about a litre higher than either of the other two.

Value: 9/10

A car is a good value when it feels like you should’ve spent a lot more for the car you’ve got. That’s definitely the feeling when driving the Mazda3 Sport. Its interior finishes, quietness, and driving dynamics all present a car that could fool most folks into believing it costs at least $10K more than it does. A Mazda3 Sport GT like this one starts at $25,900. My tester also had the $2,500 Premium Package that provides leather upholstery, as well as a bunch of other nice-to-haves like the HUD, Advanced Keyless Entry, navigation, and parking sensors.

The Verdict

The Mazda3 Sport has been a compelling offering in the segment for four generations now, resulting in this compact car being one of its best-selling models of all time. The new 2019 Mazda3 Sport – particularly in this top trim – has matured significantly to a highly refined, and properly luxurious machine. It remains a handsome car and continues to offer a reasonably rewarding drive experience. While I applaud Mazda for continuing to make a manual transmission available, even on a top-trim car, having one that’s anything less than a hoot to drive won’t help win back any more stick-shift drivers, especially without any price benefit.

Stick or automatic, it’s good fun. 9/24/2019 6:28:00 AM

Specifications

EngineDisplacement 2.5L
EngineCylinders I4
PeakHorsepower 186 hp @ 6,000 rpm
PeakTorque 186 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
FuelEconomy 9.2/6.6/8.1 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
CargoSpace 569 / 1,334 L seats down