Even near the end of its life cycle and in its least desirable form—at least to us—the sporty Mazda 3 still impresses. Our ideal 3 has a manual transmission, the larger 2.5-liter engine, and a hatch, while the updated 2017 model tested here is a 2.0-liter sedan with an automatic transmission. It’s also a mid-level Touring; if it were one rung lower, which Mazda dubs the Sport trim, it’d be the 3 lineup’s closest analogue to a penalty box.
Yet the 3 family is so good that no member underachieves. The six-speed automatic we’d so readily trade for the standard manual shifts crisply and makes the most of the 2.0-liter inline-four engine’s 155 ponies—and the automatic’s manual shift gate has you push the lever forward for downshifts and back for upshifts, the most intuitive layout. The smaller engine moves the 3 admirably, but its high-rpm graininess and loudness on cold starts (it quiets down when warm) don’t measure up against the smoother base engines in newer competitors. If it’s speed you’re after, the more powerful 2.5-liter four-cylinder is the one to get, although for 2017 it’s no longer available outside of the range-topping Grand Touring trim.
The 2.0-liter isn’t a total slug, as proved by our 3’s 7.9-second trip to 60 mph—0.1 second quicker than a nearly identical 2016 3 sedan we tested. It’s peppy around town and breathes hard only above 70 mph. The 3’s chassis, however, steals the show. The Touring ups its handling game for 2017 by ditching its 16-inch wheels and tires in favor of the same 18-inch package used by the Grand Touring. With this upgrade, the sedan posted 0.87 g of skidpad grip and a 171-foot stop from 70 mph, improvements of 0.05 g and 8 feet over its 2016 counterpart. Those figures also elevate this version of the Mazda 3 to the top of the compact-car class.
Subjectively, the already sweet-to-drive 3 is even more so, thanks to Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control. This electronic program imperceptibly and briefly diminishes engine torque when turning into a corner to transfer additional load to the front tires, making them respond more sharply to steering inputs. All that for a car that already eagerly romped down winding roads. Other unnecessary but welcome improvements were made to the suspension for a marginally better ride—the 3 continues to masterfully mix suppleness and handling prowess—and there is a natty new steering wheel.
Although Mazda’s enhancements for 2017 polish the 3’s sporty, driver-focused image, they don’t do much to address its shortcomings. The cabin remains loud at highway speeds (more so in this Touring than before, thanks to the bigger tires), and the back seat feels tighter than the aft quarters of the Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cruze, and Hyundai Elantra. Mazda’s Skyactiv weight-minimization efforts give the 3 a somewhat thin-walled feeling, too, the body transmitting suspension noise more readily than its contemporaries’ shells.
These areas likely will be…