Mountain Wheels: All-wheel drive and turbo power revolutionize the Mazda3 |

Mountain Wheels: All-wheel drive and turbo power revolutionize the Mazda3

A 2.5-liter turbo engine, available all-wheel drive and loads of classy touches help elevate the 2021 Mazda3 into premium-feeling territory without the premium price. A WRX-styled hatchback, pictured, and a sedan version are available.
Photo by Mazda Motor Corp.

While the not-so-hidden agenda of the auto industry of late seems to be to try to get you into the biggest SUV possible, this year’s spike in gas prices is going to leave a lot of drivers secretly wishing they had not done so.

And yes, I realize skipping the boat-sized SUV is not always practical or possible. But consider a few other options for a moment — even if only in a fantasy football kind of way.

Mazda tries very hard to cultivate a premium-feel kind of choice for American drivers, and that seems to have meant more of their very capable crossovers and larger SUVs on the road.

They started the whole thing with cars; however, their car choices, beyond the venerable Miata roadster, keep getting better each year.

I was particularly impressed by a recent drive in the 2021 rendition of the Mazda3, the most recent iteration of its economical and fun-to-run basic automobile. Except there’s nothing basic about it anymore, minus not being the size of a Humvee.

I had a Machine Gray Metallic-colored, Premium Plus package-outfitted 3 sedan with the mountain-living-practical addition of all-wheel drive, which brought the total price to $34,015. And yes, I still managed to raise the ire of everyone on the road with my auto manufacturer California plates, but I was too busy zipping along to feel bad about that.

This Mazda3 was equipped with the 2.5-liter turbo engine, adapted from what is available in Mazda’s CUV offerings, and it absolutely flew. And it got 30.7 combined mpg, close to its 32 mpg highway rating.

The turbo puts out 227 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, and it cruises like you wouldn’t believe. It’s practically flawless, power-wise, and ran so much more smoothly and summoned up power in the ways that a similarly outfitted Korean sedan I drove at the same time just could not.

Better yet, the turbo and all that torque meant high altitudes were no problem at all, with exhaust noises and whoosh factor. Some of the other car publications have called the 2021 Mazda3 a rival to the Subaru WRX — especially the five-door hatchback version — and I think they might be right, especially when it comes to output.

Actually, what it reminded me of was how far we have come. Only a few years ago, you had to shell out big time to get the souped-up Mazdaspeed3, and it only had 263 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, plus absolutely brutal torque steer.

Here, none of that, and no silly aero bits either, minus a useful rear spoiler. It looks as good as a Lexus. I’ve had every Lexus made in the past six months, and this has none of the crinkly lines and fins they do. Rather, the new Mazda3 sports a stylish, almost Jaguar-inspired rounded grille, loads of chrome trim and smooth lines. Its update seems to accomplish what the ill-fated Jaguar XE did not, for about $10,000 less.

Yes, the interior is still black as hell, but an improved info and navigation setup and the gentle onset of Level 2 pre-pre-autonomous driving aids adds a lot of extra value. Turn on the force-field-style button here (you may notice most cars now have them to coordinate all the new safety systems) and Mazda3 will gently nudge you to stay in your lane or create a mild grinding sensation in the wheel if you run across a line. It’ll even remind you to actually turn the wheel if you’re thinking you’ve settled into an inexpensive Tesla; it’s all real evidence of the just-on-the-horizon world of partially self-driving automobiles.

Otherwise, layout and finishing is of Mazda6 or CUV quality, which meant some dazzling padded and stitched white leather sub-dash and door details, with a slightly sticky, absolutely black strip on the door tops. The three-way-view camera and metal Bose speaker covers also added some real premium feel to the otherwise inexpensive automobile.

The navigation screen is now much brighter and cleaner, with easier access to apps and good, high-quality maps with even weather radar included. The digitized central instrument screen is also bright and adjustable.

In sedan form, the Mazda3 also had a sizable trunk; seating was plush and even rear passengers get a semi-premium experience, though there is nary a USB outlet or vent to be found.

Andy Stonehouse

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