2019 Mazda3 Review: We Drive the AWD Model, Hatch and Sedan

The 2019 Mazda3 is an entirely new car from its approach to styling, a completely redone rear suspension setup, a distraction-free interior, and an additional drivetrain option that powers all four wheels. It’s impressive that even with all this new stuff, however, that the Mazda3 feels so naturally like its old self in all the best ways.

Let’s start with maybe the most controversial aspect of the car, its design. The Mazda3 has a reputation for being the most classically good looking compact car out there, with a clean design that steers clear of being too dramatic. This new model, at first glance, looks a bit odd. The hatchback, in particular, has a shape that lacks certain sculpting or lines, which is very unique and can make the vehicle look a bit of a blob. There’s a huge C-Pillar on the hatchback that looks very awkward. The sedan is easier for your eyes to digest, but the lack of design lines on the profile is very weird because under certain lighting conditions, you can see… something.

You’re not going crazy; Mazda did this intentionally. The skilled craftsmen at the Hiroshima-based automaker’s design team have found a way to make the light dance off the paint in a way that simulates the sculpting of a clay model. Mazda is proud of the fact that it sculpts all its designs in clay, scan the model digitally, then make the stamps and dies from there, which is a unique method in this industry. It’s supposed to emphasize the human touch when designing the car, and to showcase that, the special paint effect is added that brings texture and an aura to the fairly flat-looking body panels.

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Whether you think it is pretty or not may have a lot to do with the paint finish you pick, but the special red and grey shades are striking.

Now With All-Wheel-Drive

While that’s a whole lot of discussion for just the paint and exterior design, the powertrain discussion is a bit less involving. Under the hood is a carry-over engine, a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that makes 186 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque. It can be had with a six-speed automatic or a six-speed manual for base hatchbacks. The engine can now deactivate half of its cylinders in order to run leaner and use less fuel. Front wheel drive models can get about 30 MPG combined.

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But more importantly, there’s an all-wheel-drive option available now, which is important because there are so few other compact sedans and hatchbacks offering this feature. In fact, only the Subaru Impreza has AWD in this class. The all-wheel-drive system in the Mazda3 works in combination with Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control Plus (GVC+) That means that the car is shifting torque to various axles to improve traction and confidence depending on various conditions such as take-off from a stop, slowing down and cornering. We tested the AWD model both with and without snow tires, as well as with and without the GVC+ system, and the response and predictability of the all-wheel-drive system are good. In terms of fuel economy, AWD models can get up to 28 MPG combined.

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Those who see snow or inclement weather will feel surefooted in the Mazda3 AWD. The all-wheel-drive system working with the GVC+ is very subtle, working together to better meet the driver’s intended path. Essentially, you’ll find yourself correcting the steering much less in this car, resulting in a smoother drive.

The AWD offering is a pretty big deal for the Mazda3, making it more appealing to a wider audience. Those living in areas that see snowy winters but don’t want a big crossover will probably lean towards the Mazda3 as an option, and the interior will help seal the deal.

Uplevel Interior

Mazda has always offered an interior that’s a touch above the usual compact car standards and the new 3 raises the bar significantly. The layout is smart, a minimalist style that pares down the buttons and brings them up to the dash to make them easy to see. The touchscreen is gone, and in its place is a rectangular infotainment system that is set far forward and up on the dashboard. Mazda set out to put all driving-related information directly in front of the driver, so there’s a decently sized screen right in the middle of the gauge cluster and a head-up display as well. The move away from touchscreens is Mazda’s attempt to mitigate distracted driving, as the touchscreen requires large gestures and motions, while a rotary dial-based infotainment system requires smaller movements, which should be easier to manage while in motion.

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The clean layout is done through smart speaker placement, high-quality soft materials are used throughout, and the upholstery is also offered in a dark red, something that’s more expressive than the usual shades of black, white and grey, while also looking less juvenile and obnoxiously bright. I’m not entirely sold on the seats, which sometimes feel like they lack bolstering and support, but that might be a product of the winding roads we were driving on.

Space and Sound

There’s a bit less space in the new model’s cabin. You’ll find about a half an inch less front headroom, rear headroom, and rear legroom compared to the 2018 model, but the addition of AWD can have that effect on cars. The sedan has about one more cubic foot of storage in the trunk than the last model, and the hatchbacks have about the same space. It doesn’t seem significantly smaller, but visibility will take more getting used to. The mirror and infotainment screen pinch a good chunk of the windshield, resulting in an awkward porthole to look through, but the large c-pillar on the hatchback wasn’t as big of an issue as I thought it would be.

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At least the car is fairly quiet by small car standards. Mazda spent a lot of time perfecting the layout and acoustics of the speakers to help minimize vibrations and excess noises. At high speeds, you’ll definitely hear some wind and road noise, but the sedan seemed to be the quieter ride. Speaking of acoustics, the Mazda3 is the first vehicle to be offered with a new Bose 12-speaker setup with Bass Match, that has a specific bass placement to maximize clear sound and minimize unwanted vibrations. Bass enclosures aren’t in the door panels, but moved down into the kick panels, while an additional woofer is on the rear shelf of the sedan, while the hatchback has a special enclosure for the woofer in the spare tire well of the cargo area. True to form, the audio system is very good, even at high volume where things can typically get muddied up.

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New Rear Suspension, Still Fun to Drive

Things can get kind of muddied up when you completely redesign a vehicle’s suspension as Mazda did with its new compact, ditching the multi-link setup for a beam-style suspension that’s typically used in cheaper, smaller cars. A beam-style suspension is notorious for being adequate at best and hardly sporty, but Mazda made the change to simplify things. A multilink setup has 14 bushings that need adjustment and fine-tuning, while the beam suspension has just two. So it focused its effort into getting those two just right. Mazda has also adjusted the suspension to be a bit firmer, allowing for a softer tire to be fitted as well. Mazda is also boasting that it’s quite rare to have a beam type rear suspension paired with an all-wheel-drive system.

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Typically, the torsion beam rear suspension shows its economy roots on broken, bumpy pavement and winding roads. We didn’t have too much of the former, and plenty of the latter and the Mazda3 proved to be as agile and fun to drive as before. We hit a few rumble strips in some construction zones, and the rear end didn’t wander or wobble as we’ve experienced in past compacts that use beam suspensions.

The Mazda3 feels responsive and enjoyable to drive, a trait that carries over from the last generation despite having a simplified suspension and two more driven wheels. We only drove the all-wheel-drive version of the car. It’s a tiny bit heavier as a result of the all-wheel-drive system, settling in at around 3,250 lbs, which isn’t too hefty at all. You could spend a whole day throwing the Mazda3 through country roads as we did, but the compact also has to be solid at commuting and dealing with the daily grind. So many of these compacts are the only or primary vehicle of a household, so if it is tiring or unnatural to drive, it’d be a huge issue. While the forward visibility is a bit of a knock, the braking and throttle response is solid. The engine can feel a bit pokey at times, but there’s a sports mode that inspires the transmission to stay in lower gears in order to maximize the power offered by the 2.5L.

Pricing

The Mazda3 has a host of interesting and rarely offered features, from the AWD system to the head-up display, there’s also the audio system and the impressive dark red leather. But you’ll find many other important safety features including blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, radar cruise control and an adaptive front lighting system being offered, some on the more affordable trim levels too. The only curious thing is the pricing. The front-wheel-drive sedan will start at $21,895, while the all-wheel drive is offered with the Select Package for $24,895. The hatchback starts at $24,495, while all-wheel drive is offered on base models for a total price of $25,895. Fully loaded versions of the vehicles will cost around $30,000, and there are three extra option paint finishes that range from $200 to $595.

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Considering a base Subaru Impreza sedan or hatch just around $20,000, it will be hard for Mazda to capitalize on buyers looking for all-wheel-drive on a budget, but the addition of an impressive interior and fun-to-drive handling should help make the Mazda3 a bit more appealing.

The Verdict: 2019 Mazda3 Review

Even with all the changes, the Mazda3 is a classy car that can impress critical compact car buyers and is available with a versatile and surefooted all-wheel-drive system. It’s a bit pricey, but there’s a special sauce in the way this compact drives that helps justify it.

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