Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2018 Mazda3 5-Door Grand Touring.
You could drown in the ocean of discarded buzzwords and meaningless marketing-speak used across the automotive world. And even though Mazda's vehicles have proved a reliably good time in recent years, it's tempting to roll your eyes at the company's talk of jinba-ittai, the mythical relationship between a horse and rider that the company claims its cars embody. Remove the iconic image of an MX-5 Miata blasting through a sun-kissed curve, and replace it with an econobox trundling through rush-hour traffic; think you'd still feel like a horse-mounted samurai?
As it turns out, yes—to a degree. To cut right to the chase, the 2018 Mazda3 remains the most-fun no-bullshit economy car you can buy today. It mixes a beautifully-sculpted exterior, an upmarket interior (especially in Grand Touring trim), and the lively driving dynamics we've come to expect from the company that brought us everything from the RX-7 to the Miata to the last manual transmission minivan you could buy in America. In hatchback or sedan form, the Mazda3 is a rock-solid steed for everyday drivers, one whose sleek appearance also masks a relatively inexpensive price point.
That is, until you really step on it, at which point the limits of its naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine become clear. Luckily, that shouldn't be a problem for long; Mazda has already added a turbo to the 2018 Mazda6 midsize sedan, and its next generation of revolutionary Skyactiv-X engines are poised to deliver huge gains in fuel economy and power.
To find out just how well the current car delivers on its promise of equine transcendentalism, The Drive grabbed the reins to a 2018 Mazda3 5-Door Grand Touring for a week and galloped around the high-altitude plains surrounding Denver, Colorado.
- If you're going to feel at one with your car, you damn well better like what you're looking at. And I do—the 2018 Mazda3 is one of the best-looking hatchbacks out there. It's the soul music to the Honda Civic's techno-pop, the modernist jacket to the Volkswagen Golf's business suit. Despite the fact that the current generation is almost six years old, the evolved Kodo design language still catches your eye, as does the striking optional Soul Red Metallic paint.
- It's much the same story inside—a minimalist, calming space that offers beautiful white leather seats on higher trims. You'll read countless reviews where people toss out the word "zen," because it's an Asian car company and that sounds right. But it's far more accurate to say that Mazda designers went all Marie Kondo on the interior, channeling the Japanese art of decluttering to remove everything that doesn't spark joy in the driver.
- Speaking of joy, one of the greatest things about the 2018 Mazda3 is how the stellar driving experience doesn't change from the $19,000 base model to the top-of-the-line $29,000 Grand Touring example I tested. The sport-focused trims of the Civic and the Golf may offer slightly better performance, but there's no base model in this price bracket that drives as well as the Mazda3. The steering is sharp thanks to the company's G-Vectoring technology, which reduces engine torque in the turns just enough to load up the front wheels and increase grip without making it feel like it's cutting power. The chassis is balanced, there's very little torque steer, and the suspension gives you the confidence to carve a curve without shattering your spine on the pothole just around the bend.
- Of all the premium touches I appreciated—and the heads-up display with traffic sign recognition was a welcome surprise—perhaps the best thing is how the infotainment screen tells you the next cross street as soon as you pass an intersection. It's a small text banner, unobtrusive and functional. But it's incredibly useful if you're not following a guided route, doubly so if you're trying to piece together directions from a passenger squinting at street names on their phone.
- And it's worth noting that there's no screwy packaging when it comes to the manual transmission. Every single creature comfort can be had with a stick shift.
- The biggest problem is that this horse—or these 184 horses, to be exact—feels like it's being flogged to death when you push it. The engine is certainly punchy enough around town, and well-suited for a short highway pass. Fling the Mazda3 a mile into the air, though, and it loses a little steam. Without a new Mazdaspeed3, the company lacks a true sport version that would make the most of this platform's potential.
- Buyers might find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the sedan versus the five-door hatchback. The hatch is a better looker, no doubt. But it's also $1,200 more than the sedan, and thanks to its sloping rear, it actually doesn't offer a ton of cargo space unless you put the back seats down (20.2 cubic feet versus 47.1).
- Everything seems premium, but there's a lack of finesse around the edges that keeps the Mazda3 from feeling quite as nice as it seems at first blush. Mazda offers a comprehensive safety suite that includes radar cruise control, forward collision alert with automatic braking, and lane-keep assist, but I found the automatic braking far too sensitive in heavy traffic, to the point where the brakes cut in dangerously during a tight merge. The white leather seats in my tester had already picked up an assortment of undefinable stains. And the doors still feel suspiciously light upon opening.
- With that in mind, there's one more absence that seems all the more glaring with each passing day—Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are still unavailable. Apple CarPlay is coming to the 2018 Mazda6 this summer and spreading across the lineup from there, and Mazda has said that owners of other recent Mazdas should be able to take their cars into the dealer to get the upgrade installed once it's ready. But there's no set date yet, and people are getting anxious.
The 2018 Mazda3 5-Door Grand Touring, Ranked
Hauling people: 4/5
Hauling stuff: 4/5
Curb appeal: 4/5
“Wow” factor: 3.5/5
The Bottom Line
At its core and in either body style, the 2018 Mazda3 is an honest, fun car. There's an old-school simplicity about this Mazda, a harmony that many vehicles of today have dropped in favor of trying to cater to as many needs as possible. It's an economy car for the masses, sure. But it's also a car for people who enjoy the act of sliding behind the wheel and setting off on a random drive, or purposefully taking the long way home.
So jinba-ittai it is, then. The little Mazda3 does an earnest impression of an eager horse, and even if that Avatar-esque connection between man and machine gets a little staticky when you put the pedal down, there's still far more two-way communication in this hatchback than in nearly every other car in its class. So when that jerk in the GTI blows past you, just reach over, pat the dashboard, and remember—what you have with this steed is special.
The 2018 Mazda3 5-Door Grand Touring, By the Numbers
Base Price (as tested): $23,895 ($29,485)*
Powertrain: 2.5-liter inline-four engine; 184 horsepower, 185 pound-feet of torque; six-speed automatic transmission; front-wheel-drive
Fuel Economy: 26 mpg city, 35 mpg highway
Cargo Capacity: 20.2 cubic feet with the back seats up, 47.1 cubes with the back seats folded
Number of minutes it took my analog father to figure out the push-button start: 3