The last two-plus years will have dramatic short- and long-term impacts on the car industry. Automakers without a diverse portfolio — namely trucks, for this market — lack the broad income levels of some competitors and the capital necessary to fund ambitious projects like electric-battery vehicles or other alternative-fueled projects.
If you are an automaker that counts heavily on sales here in America, now the second largest new-car market after China, and your portfolio was strongly biased towards conventional cars and car-based crossovers, you will inevitably be forced to align with other larger automakers that may or may not once have been primary rivals, if you are going to forge a path forward.
Subaru is working with Toyota. Honda is partnering with GM on BEVs. Mazda is sharing technology with Toyota, as well. Computer chip shortages, supply issues and the dizzying array of new sources needed to make electric-car batteries are going to force some brands into long naps. The list of BEV start-ups that have failed this year is already close to a dozen. I suspect that some more familiar car company names will soon succumb to the harsh realities of the projected power transformation in the industry.
How does this all fit around this week’s Mazda 3 hatchback? While the pool of eligible compact cars available to American drivers shrinks every year — Corolla, Civic, Elantra, Sentra, Impreza, Jetta, and Forte are among the Mazda’s remaining rivals — this small Asian automaker has pushed the 3 to the premium-end of the segment with an interior design that is closer to Audi than its contemporaries. Nicely finished with textures and details preferred by the Germans, the Mazda feels premium and looks that way, too.
With three powertrains — two versions of the 2.5-liter engine, plus base power from a 2.0-liter motor, working with six-speed manual or automatic transmissions, in front or optional ($1,400) AWD — the Mazda can be outfitted over several trim levels to meet budgets stretching from $22,215 all the way to our top Premium Plus Hatchback listing for a stout $35,810.
What is missing? Ah, any hint of alternative power. There is no hybrid model, and no BEV version of the 3. Given the slowing sales of cars, period, and buyers’ strident effort to purchase five-door crossovers, many with battery-power of some type, the Mazda effort to make a competent 5-door car is laudable, but seemingly a tick behind the trends. This is supported by Mazda’s emphasis with adding CX-50, CX-70, and CX-90 crossovers in the coming months.
The 3 is a strong performer. The 2.5-liter turbo motor, 227 horsepower, is polished, crisp, and very linear in its performance distribution. Thrust is immediate and without drama, as the turbo-motor’s torque rating (310 pound/feet) creates efficient and swift driving as a subtle strength of this small car. Fuel economy is not horribly sacrificed either, as the EPA rates the 3 at 23/31 mpg, with actual mileage one mpg higher in our AWD sampler. Other models of the 3 gain EPA numbers as high as 28/36 mpg.
This refined presentation again reflects a certain German bent to car performance, backed up by a chassis that is compliant, controlled, and comfortable. Steering and braking feel exceed the accepted levels of generic indifference, giving the Mazda driver that little dose of “zoom-zoom” personality the brand likes to boast about.
The hatchback promises more space, yet the 3 sedan is actually roomier inside for people. Visibility is sharply better in the sedan too, as the curvaceous hatchback body uses thick roof pillars at every location to hinder outward visibility more than the sedan. The VW Golf, a shorter five-door hatch, feels absolutely convertible like compared to the snugness of the 3 hatchback.
The clarity of the Mazda’s info screens has improved; however, the fussy console controller for the central info/entertainment screen is far too distracting for simple inputs. Entertaining in the showroom, it proved to be a steep curve for on-road comfort. It would also be good for the vehicle to retain your driving selections from start-to-start, items like the heated seats, heated steering wheel, or the deactivated lane-keeping. Re-engaging control at each start becomes an unnecessary annoyance.
The Mazda 3 has carved a very specific niche in the compact car segment. It drives like a more expensive German car, with the look and feel to boot. Will enough buyers embrace this form of sensible transportation as the market gyrates to alternatives?
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles for more than 20 years.
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