Mountain Wheels: Beating the winter blues in the accomplished Mazda3 (column) | SummitDaily.com

Mountain Wheels: Beating the winter blues in the accomplished Mazda3 (column)

Andy Stonehouse
Mountain Wheels

While the holiday period may indeed be the best time to vacate the High Country and head to Aruba, the appeal of snow and wintertime fun certainly acts as a big magnet for other folks — like it or not.

With visions of powdery sugarplums dancing in my head, I joined the massive crowd making the trek along I-70 to Summit County last Saturday, myself heading up from the Front Range to Copper Mountain in the 2018 version of the sporty Mazda3 five-door hatchback.

I felt pretty confident that the car, with 184 horsepower and a new set of Blizzak snow tires, was going to help me conquer the roads and get up to that fresh snow in style. Copper got 6 inches of new snow while I skied, tremendously enhancing their conditions, and the car had handled the slushy but not really that terrible conditions heading down from the tunnel, so everything seemed absolutely peachy.

As you remember, the rest of the day was a complete nightmare for motorists as icy conditions grew worse on the too-busy passes and the tunnel itself went dark, closing the highways and leaving plenty of people stranded.

I'm happy to report that the Mazda3 (mostly) saved my bacon. That, and a mixture of good timing and updates from CoTrip.org and even Apple Maps (on my phone, as the traffic updates on the Mazda's navigation system hadn't been set up on my test model) which convinced me to head to Hoosier Pass in the late afternoon and get the hell out of Dodge before things got worse.

Here's the thing: In truly despicable winter conditions, you become instantly aware that every other driver nowadays is in a giant SUV, though they're also often the first in the ditch.

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And in this instance I must say that the compact and sport-oriented Mazda3 was just a little too little for comfort, capable and powerful and beautifully styled as it might be. Flat out or aided by the traction of accumulated snow, the front-wheel-drive car had great grip and confident handling.

But as the roads worsened and patches of ice grew, I started to lose traction and struggled up the last of Hoosier Pass's twists and turns — the light (3,000-pound) body just not generating the downforce to allow me the uphill grab and poise I needed.

On pure ice, nobody can really do much of anything (except the lunkhead in the giant truck who passed about nine of us into oncoming traffic on the way down to Alma, hell-bent on getting to the dispensary), so I can't fault the Mazda just for that.

You just begin to lose wintertime confidence when your front windshield is constantly about the same height as the front bumper of all of those big rigs. Low ride height made for short headlamp projection distance as well, even though auto-leveling Bi-LED headights come standard on the Grand Touring model I drove.

Sure, Mazda3 isn't the smallest thing on the road, but the fact that the U.S. market doesn't even get the even smaller Mazda2 indicates the power that the SUV holds over our cheap-gas, big-family, long-distance culture. In this instance, I sure would have felt a bit safer in one of Mazda's growing line of SUVs, especially the very impressive and entirely reinvented CX-9 I drove over the summer.

Nonetheless, with a starting price of just $18,095, the Mazda3 holds an appeal for both budget-minded drivers and those seeking a more stylish and sporty alternative to today's compact choices.

For 2018, the vehicle's Touring models are all equipped with the 2.5-liter four cylinder engine I enjoyed; a 2.0-liter, 155-horsepower engine is also available on lower models. Mileage for the larger-output engine is in the mid-30s, and slightly better with the 2.0-liter. I had a six-speed automatic with optional wheel-mounted shift paddles, though I would have liked to have had the six-speed manual to help with those hill issues.

Inside, it's a beautiful car, with sculpted seating and controls that are all easy to reach (as you get when you are not in a gigantic SUV). Storage space is also impressive for a small car.

In rotten conditions, anything short of a CDOT snowplow truck is going to feel a little inadequate. In better conditions, I likely would have called the Mazda3 one of the best cars I've driven this year. So it goes when it snows. Be safe out there.

2018 Mazda3 Five-Door Grand Touring

MSRP: $24,945; as tested: $29,770

Powertrain: 184-HP combo 2.5-liter four-cylinder with six-speed automatic transmission

EPA figures: 30 combined (26 city/35 highway)