Where’s the zoom-zoom? 2021 Mazda 3 needs to stir, not just soothe

by Ed Piotrowski and CarPreview staff

What changes will make the 2021 Mazda 3 different?

Little of consequence ahead of a likely model-year 2022 refresh. The revamp isn’t apt to be sweeping; whether it’ll stir demand for Mazda’s troubled compact car is the question.

The 2021 Mazda 3 will reprise four-door sedan and four-door hatchback body styles and remain the only car in the segment to offer a choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. The sole engine will remain a non-turbocharged four-cylinder, and the hatchback should again offer a manual transmission in addition to the standard automatic.   

From the first generation’s debut in 2003, the fun-to-drive 3 was Mazda’s most-popular U.S. vehicle, annual sales consistently topping 100,000. They slid to 64,638 in 2018, but Mazda anticipated a reversal with the model-year-2019 launch of today’s all-new fourth generation. The turnaround hasn’t materialized. Sales continued to fall, down a sobering 21 percent through the first three quarters of 2019.

Sure, the compact-car segment is in steady decline, as well, down 15 percent over the period as buyers flock to crossovers. Mazda’s own CX-5 compact crossover now outsells the 3 nearly 3-1. And the 3 will face more pressure within its own showroom with the launch of the 2020 Mazda CX-30, a new crossover that uses the 3’s running gear but has a raised suspension and bolder body cladding. Still, we believe other factors might explain this car’s struggles.

Should I wait for the 2021 model or buy the 2020?

Consider doing neither and wait for the 2022 refresh. We say this not because we expect radical styling revisions or major content updates. Wait instead to see if Mazda addresses performance issues that may be playing a role in the marketplace’s apparent dissatisfaction with the 2019-2021 car.

Specifically, wait to see if the automaker equips the 2022 Mazda 3 with its innovative new Skyactiv-X engine. Employing both gasoline-spark and diesel-type compression ignition, this four-cylinder is designed to deliver fuel-economy gains of up to 30 percent over a traditional gasoline engine. Mazda launched Skyactiv-X in Europe in 2019 and promises a version for North America but hasn’t committed to a host vehicle or a release date.

Another step toward restoring the 3’s credibility with buyers expecting more Mazda engineering prowess would be a revamped suspension. Some driving enthusiasts likely shunned this fourth generation Mazda 3 because it exchanged an independent rear suspension for a cruder torsion beam rear axle. An independent setup is costlier and could reduce cargo volume. But the improvement it would bring to ride and handling could well win back some sales.

If you’re OK with today’s styling and engineering and can live with a few ergonomic missteps, do consider a 2020 or 2021 Mazda 3. No other compact car looks quite like this. Standard safety features abound. The interior has a premium feel. And the only rival with traction enhancing AWD is the Subaru Impreza.  

Expect the ’21 Mazda 3 model lineup to return both body styles in Base, Preferred, and Premium trim levels. A Select trim level should return as a sedan exclusive, slotted between the Base and Preferred. AWD would remain an option on all but the Base sedan.

Will the styling be different?

No: the look that came with the 2019 redesign will carry over. This fourth-generation 3 is an evolution of Mazda’s Kodo (soul of motion) design language. Its smooth lines are a refreshing break from the sharp contours of the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla and the Germanic stoicism of the Volkswagen Jetta. The sedan is arguably the handsomer of the two Mazda 3 body styles. The hatchback’s thick rear quarters seem featureless and disproportionate, the scrunched rear side windows awkwardly shaped.

Inside, the 2021 3 should again get points for materials quality, infotainment usability, and the premium feel in the design and action of every knob, button, and lever. Soft-touch surfaces abound, and our AWD Premium sedan test car impressed with its padded dashboard and door sills. For 2021, we’d advise Mazda to make the sedan available with the stylish red leather upholstery heretofore exclusive to the hatchback.

Instrumentation will remain Mazda’s traditional clear, round presentation of main gauges. The analog speedometer and secondary readouts actually are LCD displays that have fairly limited customization, but otherwise serve just fine.

The 2021 Mazda 2’s infotainment system also should continue to merit praise. All grades will return with a crisp 8.8-inch tablet-style screen nicely integrated atop the dashboard. Operated primarily from a control knob on the center console, its various displays are intuitive, and its software virtually eliminates annoying delays we’ve experienced in Mazdas with older systems.

We’d like the automaker to offer the 2021 Base sedan with the Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto support already standard on all other models. It probably will continue to relegate imbedded-GPS navigation capability to dealer-installed software.

Where the ’21 3 will likely again stumble is passenger comfort and interior storage space. The front seats are fine, with good overall support and adequate legroom. Six-footers will lack much headroom clearance, however, particularly beneath the housing of the power sunroof standard on Premium grades. Rear seater will again suffer tight legroom; those taller than 5-8 will feel cramped behind a front-seater roughly the same height.

The 2021 Mazda 3’s center console could use a rethink. Space at its front accommodates a smartphone but is too narrow for a “Plus” size model, especially one with a case. There’s room for a large phone inside the console’s armrest box (where a wireless charging pad is available), but the box is not deep enough to be really useful. Further, its lid awkwardly slides fore and aft rather than opening on hinges.

Mazda maintains the torsion-beam rear axle improves cargo-area accessibility and volume, but the 3 is not exceptional compared to rivals. The sedan’s 13.2-cubic-foot trunk is smaller than that of the Jetta or Civic sedan. The hatchback’s 20.1 cubic feet behind the rear seatbacks trails the VW Golf and the Civic hatchback by more than 2 cubic feet, though at 47.1 cubic feet with the seatbacks folded, the Mazda edges out the Civic but not the Golf.

Any mechanical changes?

No. All 2021 Mazda 3 models should return with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 186 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual transmission will likely remain exclusive to the front-wheel-drive Premium hatchback. Optional on that model and standard otherwise will again be a six-speed automatic.

Even with the approximately 175 pounds added by all-wheel drive, our Premium sedan review sample delivered surprisingly sprightly acceleration from a stop. High-speed passing and merging response are good for the class, too. All models include a throttle-quickening Sport mode, but we didn’t find it necessary since the automatic transmission delivered the timely shifts typical of a Mazda.

The 2019 redesign made notable improvements to the 3’s suppression of noise, vibration, and harshness. The engine sounds quieter and feels smoother than in any previous model. Wind and road noise should remain non-issues, too, making the ’21 3 one of the quietest cars in the class.

The tradeoff for this newfound sense of tranquility is handling dexterity. Previous 3s were among the best-driving cars in the segment. Today’s 3 is nothing special. Part of the problem is the torsion beam rear axle, which makes the car feel less nimble than it did previously. Our sedan test sample suffered from disconcertingly severe body lean when taking turns at speeds well below what we consider aggressive. The steering lacks the connected-to-the-road feel we’ve come to expect from a Mazda.

Without change to the rear suspension or steering, the 2021 3 would again have only slightly better road manners than a Hyundai Elantra sedan or a VW Jetta, sustaining the Civic the segment’s clear leader. Introduction of the Skyactiv-X engine might not result in better acceleration, but resurrection of a MazdaSpeed 3 model certainly would.

Last sold in 2013, the 2022 refresh would be a perfect opportunity to revive the high-performance version of the 3. Our advice to Mazda: offer it as a sedan, a hatchback, or both. Outfit it with the 250-horsepower turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder from the Mazda 6 midsize sedan. Add AWD, a fully independent, sport-tuned suspension, and available manual or automatic transmission. That would restore the 3’s zoom-zoom footing and be a formidable competitor for the likes of the Elantra Sport and Elantra GT N-Line hatchback, the Civic Si, the Impreza WRX, and the Jetta GLI and Golf GTI.

Will fuel economy improve?

Not likely, meaning the 2021 Mazda 3 should remain among the most fuel-efficient cars in the class. Expect 2020 EPA ratings to repeat, with sedans at 27/36/30 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 25/33/28 with AWD.

EPA ratings for the 2021 Mazda 3 hatchback should remain 25/35/29 mpg city/highway/combined for the front-drive Premium model with manual transmission and, with automatic transmission, 26/35/30 with front-drive and 24/32/27 with AWD.

Our AWD Premium sedan averaged 27.5 mpg in our suburban test loop. All 2021 Mazda 3 models will continue to use regular-grade 87-octane gasoline. Note that fuel capacity should remain 13.2 gallons with front-drive and 12.7 with AWD.

Will there be new features?

Unlikely. Mazda has a habit of making sometimes substantial year-over-year changes to vehicle content. But with a model-year-2022 refresh in the wings, don’t expect major changes for model-year ’21.

We’re pleased to note that for model-year 2020, the automaker made key safety features standard across the board. Dubbed i-Activsense, this suite of assists includes drowsy-driver alert, adaptive radar cruise control that can automatically bring the vehicle to a complete stop in traffic, lane-departure warning with automatic steering correction, autonomous emergency braking, and automatic high-beam headlights.

Other standard amenities that should return for ’21 include rain-sensing windshield wipers, power-folding exterior mirrors, LED headlights, pushbutton engine start, and 8.8-inch infotainment screen.

Base hatchbacks and Select sedans would add 18-inch wheels (up from standard 16s), blind-spot alert with rear cross-traffic detection, pedestrian detection for the automatic emergency braking system, leatherette upholstery, keyless access, dual-zone automatic climate control, CarPlay, and Android Auto.

Preferred grades would add a power driver’s seat with two-position memory function, Bose-brand audio system, heated front seats, and satellite radio.

Premium models gain steering-linked headlights, head-up instrument display, leather upholstery, power sunroof, and steering-wheel paddle shifters for the automatic transmission.

Will 2021 prices be different?

In the face of declining sales and prices already near the top of the segment, we’ll venture Mazda essentially holds the line for the 2021 3, with the main increase likely to the manufacturer’s destination fee. For reference, here are 2020 Mazda 3 base prices including the destination fee, which was $920 for 2020.

With front-wheel drive, 2020 Mazda 3 sedan pricing started at $22,420 for the Base model, $23,620 for the Select, $25,120 for the Preferred, and $27,420 for the Premium.

Among hatchbacks with front-wheel drive, the Base was priced from $24,620 and the Preferred from $26,120. The Premium started at $28,420 with either manual or automatic transmission.

All-wheel drive should remain a $1,400 extra for all but the Base sedan.

Factory options should continue to be limited to specific paint colors, which range in price from $200-$595. Other amenities will come in the form of dealer-installed accessories, including a wireless smartphone charging pad ($275), auto-dimming rearview mirror ($275), and various blackout exterior trim pieces ($475-$1,950).

When does it come out?

The release date for the 2021 Mazda 3 will likely be in the fall of 2020.

Best competitors

Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra and Elantra GT, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Corolla Sedan and Hatchback, Volkswagen Golf and Jetta

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]