Tested: 2021 Mazda 3 Turbo AWD
Why Pay More for a BMW? Answer: You Shouldn't.
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
Zoom-zoom. As a child and being hooked to a television like a far too curious spotted bass, there are a few advertisements I remember, even 20 years later. The classic Wazzup?! Budweiser ad is one. So are various 'This is Bob' enhancement spots. Mazda's zoom-zoom series of adverts are another. Trouble is, I never thought Mazdas had that much zoom to them ever. Okay, sure, you got the cult classics like the FD RX-7 and the front tire shredder Mazdaspeed 3, but that's really it, and both are from decades past. The new Mazda 3 Turbo, though, is keen to show it's zooming credentials.
Of course you could call the recently released Mazda 3 Turbo a handbook in how to build a better BMW. Also, a much cheaper BMW. So ambitious is this new 3 that it's not just going hunting for other Japanese and Korean sedans, but it's air-dropping straight into Germany. Audi A4? BMW 330i? Mercedes CLA or C-Class? You should be shortlisting this new Mazda in your future aspirations as something not to settle for, but to, yes, aspire to.
Committees are perhaps what's wrong with modern offerings from BMW. As time progresses, the 3-series keeps swelling in size and price while also forgoing it's once sublime driver involvement in favor of a larger appeal at the expense of brand dilution. It's a great driving machine still, but not the ultimate like once promised. And like BMW, I'm somewhat losing the plot here, because I should be talking about the new Mazda 3 and not ragging on BMW. However, it's only because of how close the 3 is to being a proper, driver's car of a BMW; It's that good.
Onto the Mazda 3 then. While the 3 has always been a good-driving, affordable sedan, it's not the popular pop tart that is a Toyota Corolla. And that's something I've never understood as the 3 has always been better looking, much better to drive, and with a significantly better interior than competitors. Hey, that wouldn't be the first time the American people got something wrong. This is a different flavor of 3 though, and moves beyond the garden-variety pop tarts and into the more indulgent and tastier realm of the toaster strudel, and a properly cooked one at that.
First, shoe-in the large 2.5L inline-four engine, aided by a turbocharger and high-compression (for a turbo engine, being 10.5:1) for great power and response. Many small cars are turbocharged these days, but almost all have capacities of 2 or less liters. The 2.5L SkyActiv is meatily burly in comparison. But the real secret sauce is in the drive type. Every other small (the Mazda measures 183" long, just an inch more than a Corolla and the same as a Civic) Japanese or American sedan is front-wheel drive, but this Mazda 3 Turbo boasts all-wheel drive for better performance and all-weather usability. Four wheels distributing power also mitigates the prospect of cheap-feeling torquesteer, that feeling when the front wheels scramble for grip and attempt to wrangle the steering wheel from your hands. The old Mazdaspeed 3 was a prime culprit on the torquesteer most wanted list for constantly trying to steer you into another lane or ditch. It's simple; torquesteer feels cheap while all-wheel drive is a luxury.
Power is rated for 227 on regular gas, or 250 on premium, while torque is a prodigious 320 from 2,500 RPM. With aid from the AWD grip, the 3 Turbo scoots to 60 MPH from a stop in six seconds flat. 50-70 MPH passing times required just 3.2. It actually feels faster than six seconds, though, as the older six-speed automatic transmission doesn't provide the most immediate of shifts. Still, it's worlds faster than the quickest Corolla you can buy, a smidgen quicker than a Civic SI, and not much slower than that pesky BMW 330i. So yes, it's quick as the Turbo moniker in the name suggests. I do wish the SkyActiv motor gave a more inspired engine noise. Under heavy load, it just kind of sounds there; nothing special nor soulful, only another four-banger, which it is. At least it's nice and smooth whereas other four-pots can be like an unbalanced washing machine.
The zoom-zoom DNA is also definitely felt in the chassis. Mazda has always produced great steering and handling rides and this AWD 3 is no exception. I'll go as far as to say that Mazda typically owns the 'best driving' title in every class of vehicle they compete in. With a well-weighted, nuanced steering that reminds of those much lauded classic BMWs, there's information and a sense of confidence as you don't think as much as you instinctively just do with the wheel. The damping is spot-on, too, giving a comfortable ride to soak up bumps, yet retains fantastic body control and responses. There is some body roll, but it's also there to increase the feedback of the package and let you really lean on and feel each corner as you load up the chassis. Wherever you will the 3 to go, both ends work in a harmonious accord.
The front end is communicative and digs into the pavement when asked, all while the rear remains sure-footed and ready to apply power down to the asphalt. Understeer, that annoying front end push, is very hard to come by as the inherent balance and grip allows the 3 to turn and go. When you do come into a corner a little too hot, a little trailbraking and throttle lift retrieves traction and, once the nose is angled to your desired destination, you can ramp up the throttle and then see you later. It does feel a little too clinical at times, but that also is the nature of all-wheel drive; you can't do tail-out powerslides like you can in a rear-wheel drive machine. Yet it remains tossable due the willingness to change direction so quickly, but a mature demeanor keeps it from being the detention-ready adolescence of past MazdaSpeed models. Still, on a tight backroad near Auburn, CA, it's easy fun to find a beat and go between boosting out of corners and letting that all-wheel drive traction pull and slingshot you out of corners. Mazda calls it G-Vectoring Control Plus to control and handout power to the proper places in coordinance with the I-Activ AWD.
Moving inside, it's a typical Mazda affair, meaning for an affordable car, it's an atypically luxurious interior. The quality of all materials used, leather, switches, is a step above anyone else at the moment; this easily can be a $45,000 car's cabin. It doesn't have the ooo...ahhh theater of a new Sonata with any fancy gauges or swoops here and there, rather it's a classic design that pays more attention to luxury and actual tangibles. I picked up a date in this Mazda and she was mightily impressed at the inside and comfort of it. Rear seat space is surprisingly large given this is a compact sedan, with my 6' 2" friend having literally zero complaints and being quite happy to be back there. People need to notice these interiors, well that and the driving experience, too, but next to those premium German alternatives, it's so close in quality to any of them. New for 2021 bits include a sizeable upgrade in the infotainment system, with a new 8.8" screen. There are an order of operations to it that need to be learned, but it comes natural to use the rotary click-wheel design after a bit and after setting up some radio presets.
Other things I liked: The trunk is enormous, like properly throw-a-few-golf-bags-in-there enormous, despite the presence of a rear differential underneath for the all-wheel drive system. Gas mileage is quite good at 36 MPG on the freeway at 71 and averaging 27 overall. A newer eight-speed automatic (or dual-clutch) that the engine yearns for would likely yield better results and likely push 40 MPG on the highway, though. I Also like the understated exterior shape that exchanges aggression for class. It's a very elegant and handsome shape, and the gloss black wheels with Machine Gray metallic paint are a nice combo, even if I do prefer Mazda's signature Soul Red.
So now for things I didn't like. There's actually only really one, and that's the annoying electronics. Unlock the car, open the door and you're bombarded by bongs and dings. Many new cars all do this today, but this 3 particularly struck me as annoying, especially when the Mazda CX-9 I tried just a couple weeks later displayed none of this funny business. I was able to turn the volume down, but they were still too prevalent for me. Just opening a door with the car on would get into my head; It really seemed like there was a bong and beep for everything. More puzzling was the car's default setting to automatically lock the car when leaving. Confused? I'll give you an example when trying to retrieve groceries placed in the passenger rear seat. First, I close the driver's door and upon walking around the car to the other side, the car beeped and locked automatically when I was halfway there. I went back to my driver's door, unlocked the car using the door panel switch, closed the door and it locked yet again when I approached the same point. This time I opened the passenger front door instead, unlocked it from there and that way it couldn't re-lock on me in time. What crap idea is this? I get if you walked AWAY from the car, but I'm walking around it. Luckily, you can disable it, but what a half-baked design.
Those petty mind-numbers aside, this is a superlative driving machine that is worth every ounce, pound, and kilogram of your consideration. NOTHING that competes against it drives as good or offers such a well-rounded combination of performance and comfort. And the interior is a masterclass for a compact, affordable sedan, plus it has all the tech goodies and safety systems you could dream of. Let me remind you, think of other all-wheel drive sedans for the price. A bigger AWD Camry? Sure, but it's a gutless, uninspiring sedation. There really aren't any other choices, and at the moment Mazda has the market cornered with an unrivalled mix of ingredients. The asking price of $33,890 might seem high for a small vehicle, but the fact I've been comparing it to $40,000-$50,000 Germans should tell you all you need to know. Zoom-zoom, Mazda.
2021 Mazda 3 Turbo AWD Signature
Price as-Tested: $33,890
The Road Beat Rating: 4.5/5
Pros: Almost everything
Cons: Beeps and bongs, that's it.
Verdict: Why pay more for a BMW? This Mazda is a proper zoom-zoom.