There comes a point in life where one becomes ready to outgrow what they have been thus far. It's as true of automakers as it is of people, and to Mazda, that means becoming a "mature" car company, one that caters to the profitable premium market. Though Mazda has been partially successful in establishing this new identity, its old circle—the Enthusiast™ community—still pushes it to be the make-weird-fast-cars company that spawned the MX-5, Wankel rotary sports cars, and of course, the Mazdaspeed3.
To please both crowds, Mazda has warmed up its newly upscale 3 hatchback and sedan with the 2.5-liter turbo engine from its larger crossovers, in the process creating a car with some elements of the old 'speed3—but perhaps not the potent mix Mazdaspeed hopefuls wanted.
The 2021 Mazda3 2.5 Turbo Hatchback, By the Numbers
- Base Price (As Tested): $30,900 ($33,750)
- Powertrain: 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder | six-speed automatic transmission | all-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 250 horsepower @ 5,000 rpm
- Torque: 320 pound-feet @ 2,500 rpm
- EPA Fuel Economy: 23 mpg city | 31 highway | 26 combined, 33 achieved in testing
- Curb Weight: 3,348 pounds
- Seating Capacity: Five
- Cargo Space: 20.1 cubic feet
- The Promise: A more powerful premium hatchback that slips under HOAs' and insurers' radars.
- The Delivery: A solid compact made better with more power, if not radically different.
The Turbo Is Here
With its redesign, the new Mazda3 has matured into one of the best-looking mass-market cars sold in America. In sedan form, anyway. From the rear, the hatchback's huge C-pillars dominate its profile, blend into the fenders in a way that leaves it haunch-less and result in blind spots the size of Rhode Island. They're not elegant, but they do contribute to a five-star rollover safety rating. Cleaner are styling elements included as part of the range-topping Premium Plus trim, which adds a Mazdaspeed-appropriate chin splitter and rear spoiler, plus some tech we'll talk about after examining what that Turbo badge heralds.
That'd be the 2.5-liter Skyactiv-G engine, a high-compression, all-aluminum turbo-four that has previously had to haul around everything from the larger Mazda6 sedan to Mazda's biggest crossover, the 2.1-ton CX-9. To do so, it metabolizes 93-octane gas into 250 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque which, in the smallest car Mazda sells here, should be more than ample. A strengthened six-speed automatic feeds that into Mazda's part-time I-Activ all-wheel drive, which Mazda says can shuffle enough—though it didn't specify exactly how much—to do donuts in the snow. To account for the drivetrain's extra weight, Mazda stiffened the 3's front springs 15 percent, retuned its shocks accordingly and strengthened its steering arms.
Torque of the Town
Together, the above mean that on the scale of Taco Bell mild to straight-up bear spray, this hatch comes in somewhere around Frank's Red Hot. The 2.5 delivers a solid wallop of torque down low, producing nearly its peak before 2,000 rpm, and pushing the 3 Turbo off the line in a way front-drive hatches struggle to match. A first gear that goes just past 30 mph gives it a GTI-like dash to that speed, measured at 2.6 seconds, though beyond 30, things begin to slow down.
Four seconds of uninspiring second-gear hum later, the Mazda touched 60, and in highway-passing third gear, acceleration wasn't anything to write home about. Accounting for Colorado's power-sapping high altitude, the Mazda3 Turbo seems about as quick as a Subaru WRX, doing zip to 60 in the low sixes, and not pulling hard beyond there.
A broad torque band and spaced-out low gears, however, mean the car rarely needs to shift when the road gets its twistiest, and when it does, the changes are smooth and snappy, even more so in Sport mode. It holds its revs through corners rather than upshifting early, and under heavy braking, it downshifts to keep revs up. If there's one flaw to this otherwise strong six-speed auto, it's a tendency to get confused over whether it should be in fifth or sixth going uphill in the mid-upper 50s. It jerks back and forth, seemingly unhappy with either gear's ability to maximize fuel economy, strong though it may be—I averaged about 33 mpg on a long drive.
Firm for a Reason
The transmission wasn't the only source of juddering, either. Over the frost-heaved back roads of the Rockies, its suspension felt slightly on the stiff side, even with a whole household's weight smoothing some of the bumps. On the plus side, that stiffened front end kept handling balance mostly neutral; only a hint of understeer presented itself when the G-Vectoring Control—which reduces engine output based on steering input—came up short on corner entry. On exit, GVC dragged the brakes on the outside front wheel, straightening and stabilizing the car in a way that'd be welcome when sliding on ice.
Entering such a slide would have to be a deliberate, traction-control-disabled move of bravado, though, as "predictive" I-Activ AWD does a handy job of stopping slippage in the first place. It reads road conditions using parameters like wiper speed and steering effort to distribute torque, negating understeer even as that torquey turbo engine comes alive. Mazda claims a tendency to slightly oversteer on throttle in slick conditions, and I believe them, as it resisted scrubbing wide with the throttle planted in second gear.
Confidence-inspiring driver inputs make these limits no terror to explore, either. Its slender (heated) steering wheel is modestly weighted and offers direct, but not overly sharpened control over the front axle. Brake application is smooth and easily modulated in all driving scenarios, and on account of that wide torque band and those quick shifts, throttle response is solid if not awe-inspiring.
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There's an Interior, Too
Similarly uninspiring is the Mazda3 Turbo's 12-speaker Bose sound system, which has a flaw that's brought into clarity by the nearly nonexistent road and wind noise. Though it can take input from Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and USB sticks loaded with uncompressed, audiophile-grade FLAC files, those speakers emit tinny vocals, which I didn't find a way to remedy in the infotainment system. Aside from this, and a heated leather driver's seat I couldn't work into a comfortable driving position, the Mazda3 Turbo's tech package lessened the strain of a lengthy test drive.
Active cruise control kept a safe distance at all speeds, and while crawling through larger mountain towns, Traffic Jam Assist did most of the steering below 40 mph, even handling most intersections well. Its activation status was displayed on the head-up display, which also made up for poor rear three-quarter visibility with a blind spot monitor. The C-pillar preempting the need for such does, however, deserve credit for hoisting the roof high enough that a backseat passenger eclipsing six feet had no headroom complaints, nor any elsewhere, as the Mazda3 Turbo is as roomy as it is well-finished.
Minus B-pillars you never look at, quality soft-touch materials are everywhere, and feature an almost perfectly uniform matte finish normally reserved for far more expensive cars. Judged by design and build quality, it's probably the best interior I've sat in all year for something in this price range—and for several tiers higher, too.
Verdict: A Turbo Makes a Better Mazda3
Hot hatchback is too grandiose a term for the Mazda3 2.5 Turbo, which falls on the milder end of the performance compact spectrum. On its own, the more potent powertrain doesn't really make the Mazda3 a performance car, just a premium compact that scoots down the road with more gusto. Maybe it's fair to add touring to that categorization, or call it a lukewarm liftback. Maybe it's easier to think of it as a slightly more expensive, efficient, and refined Subaru WRX for people who are tired of steep insurance premiums and vape jokes.
Whatever the case, the turbo engine turns the Mazda3 into a hatchback that's almost as pleasant to drive as it is well-built. And if you live anywhere other than a trackside clubhouse, that should probably matter to you more than lap times you can't achieve anyway.
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