2021 Mazda3 Sport 2.5 Turbo Review: First Drive

A speedy Mazda, not a Mazdaspeed.

Have you watched Hot Ones, the interview series where they eat progressively hotter chicken wings? It’s a blast.

During this masochistic 10-wing run, many guests have been knocked down a peg or two by one sauce, and surprisingly, it isn’t the final one. No, it’s Da’ Bomb Beyond Insanity sauce. The response is usually shock, lots of cursing, and a general realization of one’s fragile mortality.

The old Mazdaspeed 3 was the four-wheeled equivalent of Da’ Bomb. It certainly could be “fun” trying to tame the torque steer, if you’re the type to hunt down peppers with a Scoville number in the seven digits. But that sort of tomfoolery doesn’t jibe with modern Mazda’s march upmarket. To be honest, it wouldn’t have even worked against the current batch of hot hatches.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Honda Civic Type R vs 2020 Mercedes-AMG A 35 Comparison

Step forward then, 2021 Mazda3 2.5 Turbo. With a forced induction engine back under the hood, and all-wheel drive to boot, this is most definitely a speedy Mazda, but not a Mazdaspeed. And I’m betting for most people, that’s a good thing.

Bumping up the boost

Mazda is doing what worked for Aston Martin at the turn of the century: build an impressive engine, and then stuff it into every model in your stable. The 2.5-liter turbo-four showed up in the CX-9 first, but it’s since spread to the Mazda6, CX-5, CX-30, and this. As it does in other applications, the Skyactiv-G makes 250 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque on premium gas in the 2021 Mazda3. Feed it regular ol’ 87-rated dino juice and those ratings drop to 227 ponies and 310 units of twist.

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Mazda also provided a chart comparing the entire rev range on both fuels. There really isn’t much between them below 4000 rpm, outside of the additional 10 lb-ft showing up around 2,500 rpm. If you don’t plan on exploring the upper third of the rev range for one tank, it’s unlikely you’d ever really notice a difference.

The stated goal with the 2.5-liter turbo is to mimic a big-displacement naturally-aspirated motor’s attitude as much as possible. Mazda provided an incredibly detailed explanation of how its engineers went about achieving this, but the essentials are this: more displacement for the turbo engine means better initial naturally-aspirated response and more exhaust gases to improve turbo response. The Mazda3 also gets an air-to-water intercooler, unique amongst the turbo Mazdas, for quicker, more consistent turbo response.

How it translates to the road

My 36 hours with the Turbo was refreshingly simple, like a butter-based buffalo hot sauce. Mazda Canada dropped off the freshly cleaned and gassed Sport hatchback outside my place, showed me how to load up the pre-made test route on a third-party nav system, and let me loose. The first leg, from the city core to an art store 50 miles (80 km) away, was pretty standard highway fare. The Mazda is expectedly good here: the turbo torque makes it easy to match the flow and close gaps. It’s one area the six-speed auto feels slightly out-of-date, though. While it shifts quickly and smartly, the ‘box just doesn’t have the spread to offer barely-above-idle cruising at as many speeds as more modern eight- and nine-speed units. The C-pillar still tries to hide cars too—at least this tester comes with a 360-degree camera.

It’s after lunch that the good roads arrive. It’s like someone accidentally drizzled a bunch of chocolate sauce on a map and then used that for the road network. It’s a real three-dimensional test, with lots of undulations, blind crests, and off-camber corners.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata Review: Ooh-Ooh What a Feeling

The Mazda3 gets to work. Mazda’s Dave Coleman says it’s the latest model to embody the company’s “Jinba Ittai” philosophy of the rider and horse operating as one. Special attention was paid to minimizing the jerkiness of the fleshy being behind the wheel, be it cornering forces or having to correct the steering. I notice the latter quickly: the 3 turns in cleanly, quickly building confidence and removing the need for constant steering corrections. That turbo engine and AWD has bumped the curb weight up to the high side of 3,300 lb (1,500 kg), but the 3 remains flat through the countless sweepers up here. It’s satisfying, thanks to that clean, accurate steering and an always-planted demeanour.

There’s no doubt the 3 Turbo is now an incredibly quick point-to-point car, and should easily slay the entry-level models from BMW, Mercedes, and Audi. It’s a little too composed for its own good though if I’m honest, and I end up wishing for just a little more playfulness. I don’t want the old Mazdaspeed full-throttle-results-in-lane-changes madness, but maybe just a tiny pinch of ghost pepper in the mix to give it that kick for those who crave the extra tenth.

Same great premium interior

Mazda has been putting out some of the most impressive interiors in the business the last few years. The one in the 3 is no different, looking minimalist without being austere—the red leather probably helps. The way the red spills into the door panels is a nice bit of visual continuity from the driver’s seat. Everything your hand touches is soft, including the steering wheel, which I maintain is one of the best you’ll find anywhere.

The front seats are comfortable, though I find them too high no matter the amount of fiddling. Getting into the rears is fine for me. With the high window line and a sunroof for only the front seat, it can feel a little too cozy on long trips. The actual measurements run close to the Mercedes A-Class hatch. Headroom is down about an inch at 37.5 inches (952 mm) in front and 36.5 (928 mm) in the back. The Mazda wins on legroom though, with 42.3 inches (1,075 mm) for driver and whoever rides shotgun, and 35.0 (891 mm) for the second row. The Japanese car gets the bigger trunk too, with 20.1 cubes (569 L).

Automated emergency braking, dynamic cruise control, lane-keep assist, and the rest of the usual new-car features are here. The Premium package adds smart braking for the rear, a head-up display, as well as traffic jam assist.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Mazda CX-30 Review: Fun for the Small Family

And then there’s the 8.8-inch infotainment screen. Either you dig the intentional absence of touch screen or you don’t. As I said recently in our CX-30 review, it’s commendable Mazda is focusing on driver attention, but being limited to the iDrive-like controller knob, especially when navigating CarPlay, arguably draws your focus away from the road, defeating the purpose. 

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Verdict: 2021 Mazda3 2.5 Turbo First Drive Review

The turbocharged Mazda3 feels like the culmination of Mazda’s push upmarket. The naturally-aspirated model already felt more premium than its Civic and Corolla contemporaries, but tradition and its power output kept it in that field. Not anymore.

Whereas Honda and Hyundai have built exceptional hot hatches in the Civic Type R and Veloster N, Mazda is looking past the boy-racer crowd and aiming at the entry-level Merc A-Class and BMW 2-Series Gran Coupes of the world. Reframed as such, the Mazda3 Turbo makes a compelling case: it’s quick, handles well, looks and feels like a quality item, and is a relative bargain. It’s more entertaining than a non-AMG A-Class; I’ll have to get back to you on the 2 Series in a few weeks. The move also makes a lot of business sense. Mazda remains a tiny independent, and the sales volume is in the entry-lux market, not CTR/N territory. Not to mention the profit margins.

No, it isn’t actively trying to cause you mental and physical harm like the old Mazdaspeed 3 or Da’ Bomb. The 2021 Mazda3 Turbo is Los Calientes, which appears right in the middle of the lineup, “where hot sauce magic happens—the perfect sweet spot between maximum flavor and pleasing heat.” It adds just enough spice to the daily life.

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