For years, if you wanted an AWD hatchback without getting an over-the-top hot hatch, there was only one option: the Subaru Impreza. But Mazda has entered this domain with the new Mazda3, which is now being offered with all-wheel-drive. Is the new Mazda set to upstage Subaru in its own territory?
That seems tough to do because Subaru has a dedicated following for its all-wheel-drive compact car, but the new Mazda uses a whole new design that is striking, modern, and more eye-catching than before. With its sleek body and lack of hard edges, the new Mazda3 is definitely more attractive than the Impreza, although I find the sedan more attractive than the hatchback. Either way, the Impreza looks far more utilitarian and dated. While styling isn’t everything in a car, the Subaru is being left in the dust when it comes to making a first impression.
This scenario repeats itself when it comes to the interiors of these compacts. The Mazda features an interior that’s second to none in this class. In fact, the materials and quality are on par with the likes of premium brands like Lexus, Acura, and Infiniti. The contrasting red and black design that’s available is eye-catching and modern, while the switchgear feels satisfyingly tactile and high-end. There’s a new steering wheel design with fancy-looking toggle switches, but the Mazda3 is also full of high-tech goodies like a digital gauge cluster and a head-up display.
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The new infotainment system has Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support, although, in our testing, the unit showed the Android Auto interface only using a portion of the whole screen, which is a waste. Mazda has already updated the infotainment system for customers so it properly displays the smartphone UI using the whole screen. The Mazda interior is brilliant and is a reason alone to buy the compact.
But if you have any intention to put passengers in the rear seats or use the cargo area, you’re going to want any other compact, or at least the Impreza we’ve been comparing. You’ll find more rear seat room in the Subaru and a bit more space in the hatch. The rear seat room in the Mazda is a bit of a dealbreaker because it is very cramped, but the cargo room is not that bad.
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Sure, it’s not quite as glamorous as the Mazda’s interior. The Subaru has weaker quality materials and the design isn’t as modern, but Subaru has done a lot to make the Impreza safer and easier to drive. Subaru will sell you a model with cameras to monitor what’s ahead of you, blind spot monitoring, and sensors that let you know when someone’s about to take your trunk off while you’re backing out of a parking spot.
The two cars contrast again on the road. Under the hood of the Mazda3 is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that makes 186 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque. It’s paired to a six-speed automatic, and the power gets sent to all four wheels. According to Mazda, the system sends power to all four wheels all the time but is constantly shifting the power split between the front and rear axles. The powertrain is good and the Mazda hustles, getting up to speed quickly and easily. It’s not the best sounding motor, but it builds up the revs smoothly. It gets about 27 MPG combined, which isn’t great, but at least better than the Subaru.
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The Impreza features a 2.0-liter flat-four engine that makes 152 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque and is available with a five-speed manual or CVT. The latter is more fuel efficient, but we’re testing the former, which is fun and engaging. This makes the Impreza seem sportier than it is, but don’t mistake that for thinking the Subaru is fast, but it’s quite the opposite. It has a stiff chassis but softly sprung suspension, however, meaning it’s comfortable and confident. With symmetrical all-wheel drive, you always have grip, which gives you a lot of confidence while driving. Sure, the Mazda3 now has AWD but it’s always shifting its power around, while the Impreza has a more predictable setup. The Impreza could be more fun to drive if it had a power output that is more competitive with the Mazda because it has a solid chassis and decent steering. The seating position isn’t perfect like in the Mazda3 and it can be a bit soft on the road, though, making it a touch more comfortable.
But the Mazda3 is more satisfying and fun to drive, despite the redone rear suspension that uses a torsion-beam setup instead of the more modern multi-link setup. It’s still responsive and engaging thanks to the fantastically well-weighted steering. The typical driver shouldn’t notice a huge difference compared to the old Mazda3, but enthusiasts should know that this is not a hot hatch. The Mazda is offered with a lot of driver assistance systems and safety gear, bringing it up to par with the Subaru, but the price difference is significant. A fully loaded all-wheel-drive Mazda3 will set you back $30,120, while the fully loaded Impreza (with a CVT) will be $29,325.
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The Verdict: 2019 Mazda3 AWD vs Subaru Impreza
The extra price of the Mazda3 is worth it for the fantastic interior alone, but you also get a great engine and a sporty drive as well. The Subaru is far more basic, and buyers on a budget should be happy with the rugged appeal of the Impreza, but overall, it can’t compare with the Mazda3.