2018 Mazda 3 Buying Advice
This is the best compact car for you if you want Japanese finesse, German driving precision, and good-old American value. The Mazda 3 has delighted savvy shoppers around the world for 15 years. It’s not the fastest small car, but it’s practical, fuel efficient and best of all, one of the most fun to drive. Government and insurance-industry groups give it high marks for safety. And Mazda’s smart decisions over the last couple model years have made it one of the best buys in the class. No bones about it – this is among our favorite small cars.
About the only area in which the Mazda 3 falls short is sales. In the 17-entry compact-car class, it ranks 8th in sales, with demand down 4.6 percent in the first quarter of 2018. Still, that decrease is softer than the 9.3-percent drop for the segment overall. In fact, the only two direct rivals to gain sales in the period were the Honda Civic and Nissan Sentra. As a small, independent company, Mazda lacks the financial resources to heavily incentivize its vehicles as can General Motors, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, and Toyota. Rising interest rates won’t make things easier for many Mazda buyers, either.
Times might be rough in the near-term, but the brand’s future is promising. The Japanese automaker has strengthened its partnership with Toyota, with a joint venture to share a manufacturing plant in Alabama. It’ll produce a new crossover SUV for Mazda along with the Corolla compact car for Toyota. Mazda currently builds the subcompact Yaris iA sedan for Toyota, as well as the MX-5-Miata-based 124 Spider sports car for Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles. Mazda is also pinning its hopes on a revolutionary new engine slated to power the next-generation 3. Read on for more.
Should you buy a 2018 model or wait for the ’19?
Wait for the 2019 if you want to get in on an evolution in internal combustion engine technology. The next all-new Mazda 3 is due for model-year ’19, and along with updated styling and features, it’ll be the first production vehicle available with a compression-ignition gasoline engine.
Compression ignition is how diesel engines work: fuel and air are drawn into a cylinder, where the piston compresses them. With the assistance of a “glow plug” rather than a spark plug, intense heat and pressure under compression causes the mixture to combust. This method of ignition doesn’t use much fuel and creates lots of torque. The downside is that the less refined diesel fuel doesn’t burn completely, creating toxic exhaust byproducts that require the expensive filtration and treatment fluid to maintain compliance with emissions standards.
Applying the efficiency and power of compression ignition to a gasoline engine has vexed engineers for years. Prototypes from companies such as General Motors realized improvements to fuel economy, but it was difficult to properly control temperatures and air/fuel ratios.
Mazda’s solution, dubbed Skyactiv-X, is essentially an amalgam of compression and spark-plug ignition. At the start of the intake cycle, air and fuel are drawn into the cylinder, but with a much higher ratio of air to gas. That’s known as a “lean” mixture, and it cannot be ignited by a spark plug. As the piston compresses, a small second dose of fuel enters the cylinder, which the spark plug will ignite. The ensuing “fire” subsequently burns the initial air/fuel injection — and more thoroughly than in a diesel engine. That keeps the Skyactiv-X engine emissions-compliant without need for costly after-treatment. Mazda claims Skyactiv-X can improve fuel economy up to 30 percent over a conventional gasoline engine.
Available as a four-door sedan or a four-door hatchback, the 2018 carries over a model-year ’17 freshening that brought slightly revised styling, new features, and a simplified lineup. Mazda also cuts prices on some trim levels and most significantly, makes its “Smart City Brake Support” – a form of low-speed autonomous emergency braking — newly standard on every Mazda 3. The lineup consists of base Sport, mid-level Touring, and flagship Grand Touring trims in each body style. For ’18, only Sport models are available with the entry-level engine, and Grand Touring grades gain full LED front lighting.
Styling: Certain turbocharged rivals — the Honda Civic Si, Volkswagen Golf GTI, Ford Focus ST, among them — top the 3 for acceleration and pretty much equal it for handling. But the shapely, well-proportioned Mazda can’t be beat for styling excellence. It follows Mazda’s “KODO” (Soul of Motion in Japanese) design themes. The wide grille and sweeping headlights are key elements, with the former getting a bit more definition as part of the 3’s 2017 update. The flowing lines continue across the body sides and around the rear, adding to visual character without over-styling.
The 2018 interior also benefits from some model-year ‘17 upgrades. A tidier steering wheel with available heating and more logically arrayed controls minimizes driver distraction. Touring and Grand Touring models take a cue from Porsche by placing the tachometer at the center of the instrument cluster. A digital readout nestled in the tach’s housing keeps track of vehicle speed. The Grand Touring goes a step further by including a plastic panel that pops from the top of the dashboard. It provides a redundant speed display, and it can project traffic signs, GPS information (if equipped with the available imbedded navigation system), and even show when another vehicle is in your blind spot. You can turn off the display, but the panel stays up until you turn off the car. It would be nice to have the option to retract it yourself, but the more we used it, the more we came to rely on it because it provides a lot of useful data at a glance.
The climate controls are simple and handy. The infotainment system uses a tablet-style display placed atop the center of the dashboard. Instead of a touchscreen, you govern its functions from a knob and button setup on the center console, similar to Audi’s MMI or BMW’s iDrive. It generally works well, though it takes far too many steps to program radio presets – dedicated number buttons would help a lot here. You can use some audio streaming apps, but neither an in-dash CD player, Apple CarPlay, nor Google Android Auto is available.
Passenger room is about average for the class. The front seats are very supportive and will hold occupants in place nicely during spirited driving. Headroom is a bit lacking beneath the housing of the available sunroof; you might need to have your seat positioned lower than you would prefer so your noggin isn’t brushing against it. Adults will also feel slightly cramped in the back. Those long of leg will wish the bottom cushion had more thigh support. Cargo volume is slightly below par in the sedan and about average in the hatchback. Interior storage is just OK. The door pockets are usefully large, but the glovebox and center console bin are on the small side.
Mazda improved the interior ambiance in 2017 with the addition of more sound insulation. It’s notably quieter in most situations than its immediate predecessor. The slippery body shape minimizes wind noise, but the tires drone loudly on coarse concrete.
Mechanical: With its two available naturally aspirated four-cylinder engines, the 3 is competitive for power, even if it lacks the muscle of some performance-honed turbocharged rivals. Standard on the Sport (and no longer offered on the Touring) is a 2.0-liter with 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque. The Touring and Grand Touring get a 2.5-liter with 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque.
It’s far from exciting, but the Sport has acceleration on par with entry-level versions of most rivals. We heartily recommend the Touring or Grand Touring: their 2.5-liter is usefully faster without enacting a significant fuel-economy penalty.
Manual or automatic transmission, each with six speeds, is available on every Mazda 3. And even though only about 15 percent of Mazda 3 buyers choose the manual, that’s one of the highest shares among any non-performance car. It’s easy to see why; it shifts very smoothly and is abetted by an easy-to-modulate clutch pedal. The automatic transmission is outstanding, as well. It does not perceptibly dull acceleration, and it changes gears crisply. Enthusiasts, however, are likely to wish steering-wheel paddle shifters were standard instead of an option exclusive to the Grand Touring trim.
Even sporty drivers are unlikely to have qualms about this car’s handling. The 3 carves corners with the precision of a car that costs thousands more. You ally is Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control. It’s standard on every trim level and works by subtly braking the engine as you enter a corner. This shifts weight to the front of the vehicle, which tips its nose forward, improving grip. Body lean in fast turns is not a concern. Steering feel is meaty and precise.
Amazingly, this level of handling prowess doesn’t compromise ride quality. Yes, it’s firmer than a Chevrolet Cruze or Hyundai Elantra, but the 3’s suspension does a great job of absorbing bumps without initial impact harshness or annoying secondary rebounding.
Features: The Sport model runs with the compact-car pack in terms of standard equipment. You get 16-inch alloy wheels, a full complement of power accessories, along with pushbutton engine start, tilt and telescopic steering column, and Smart City Brake Support.
Moving up to the Touring nets the more powerful 2.5-liter engine, 18-inch wheels, automatic headlights, blind-spot alert with rear cross-traffic detection, dual-zone automatic climate control, power driver’s seat, heated front seats, and keyless access.
Grand Touring models add auto-leveling LED headlights, LED daytime running lights and fog lights, a black metallic finish grille, leather upholstery, a Bose-brand audio system, satellite radio, head-up display, and a power sunroof.
Prior to its model-year 2017 freshening, the Mazda 3 was among the most expensive cars in its competitive set. Thanks to some astute equipment shuffling, Mazda made it more competitively priced. Note that base prices listed here include the manufacturer’s $890 destination fee.
For sedans with manual transmission, the Sport grade starts at $18,985, the Touring at $20,980, and the Grand Touring at $24,035. Base prices for manual-transmission hatchbacks are $20,235 for the Sport, $21,730 for the Touring, and $24,785 for the Grand Touring.
Automatic transmission adds $1,050 across the board.
Among options, certain paint colors cost an additional $200-$300. The $1,750 Appearance Package adds an aero body kit with black front air dam, side sills, rear diffuser, and door mirror caps. The cleverly named Bose/Moonroof/Satellite Radio Package adds exactly what it says to the Touring grade for an extra $1,500.
The Grand Touring has a $1,600 Premium Equipment Package that adds a heated steering wheel, paddle shifters for the automatic transmission, imbedded GPS navigation, auto-dimming rearview mirror with built-in garage-door transmitter, traffic-sign recognition for the head-up display, and a suite of driver assistance features. These include steering-linked headlights with automatic high-beam control, lane-departure warning with automatic steering correction, radar cruise control, and high-speed automatic emergency braking.
If you can live without the extra driver aids, a manual transmission Touring hatchback with no other options is our choice for best value. A $26,385 Grand Touring hatchback with manual gearbox and Premium Equipment Package is also an appealing buy.
Though no longer class-leading, the Mazda 3’s EPA ratings remain near the top of the competitive. With the 2.0-liter engine, Sport-model sedans rate 27/37/31 mpg city/highway/combined with manual transmission and 28/37/31 mpg with automatic. Sport hatchbacks rate 27/37/31 mpg with manual and 28/37/32 with automatic.
Touring and Grand Touring sedans with their 2.5-liter engine rate 25/34/29 mpg with manual transmission and 25/33/28 with automatic. Their hatchback counterparts rate 27/36/30 and 26/35/30, respectively. Our recent test of a Grand Touring hatchback with automatic returned 33.5 mpg in a test that included a lot of high-speed highway travel.
All 3 models use regular-grade 87-octane gasoline.
What’s next for the Mazda 3?
We’ve covered what we believe will be in store for the next-generation Mazda 3. The Skyactiv-X engine should not be subject to the same delays that the company’s upcoming turbodiesel experienced. As part of its redesign, we would like to see Mazda make its full suite of driver aids available across all trim levels, as it has done with the 2018 version of its popular CX-5 compact crossover. Dedicated radio preset buttons and support for CarPlay and Android Auto would be appreciated as well.
Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra and Elantra GT, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Corolla and Corolla iM, Volkswagen Golf and Jetta