2014 Mazda3
John Goreham's picture

Review reveals why the 2014 Mazda3 competes with more expensive vehicles

Our take on the 2014 Mazda3 is that it is so good its competitors are really the much more expensive German and Japanese luxury brands like Audi, BMW, and Lexus.

Our test of the 2014 Mazda3 i 5-Door Grand Touring left us very impressed with how far Mazda has come with its new generation of vehicles. This affordable compact car is newly designed and was released late last year as a 2014 model. The look is entirely new compared to the previous generation, and the car no longer shares Ford’s platform. Mazda is now creating vehicles that are decidedly more upscale, and they exist in their own space. They are near-luxury cars and should be compared to the Japanese and German luxury brands’ cars of this size.

The Mazda3 can come either as a 5-door hatchback, or a 4-door sedan with a conventional trunk. There are two engine offerings. A 2.0 liter four-cylinder and a larger, 2.5 liter engine. A manual 6-speed is offered on just the 2.0. The 2.0 can also come with an automatic 6-speed transmission which is what all of the 2.5 liter cars have. The turbocharged rocket called the MazdaSpeed3 has been discontinued (temporarily we hope).

Our test vehicle came with the 2.0 liter, 155 horsepower engine that produces 150 lb-ft of torque. The little “i” in the model designates the 2.0 liter engine. This power was sent to the front wheels of our test car by a gem of a 6-speed manual transmission. Being a Grand Touring model, this well-equipped car had most of the luxury features that one would expect in a loaded Lexus CT 200h, or Audi A3. Throughout our review, we are going to mention the competition a lot, and most of the competitors are premium vehicles costing literally 50 percent more. This car punches above its weight class. Way above.

Exterior Design
The 2014 Mazda3 5-door hatchback looks best from the front. Here we see the company’s new corporate front end. It is a flat-front design, which many manufacturers are adopting to meet pedestrian impact safety mandates. The long hood is part of this but also gives the car a great look, not the snub-nosed look some compact cars have (Ford Focus). The prominent grill area is flanked by slit-like halogen headlamps that give the car a nicely menacing look. There is no “carp mouth” or “smiley face” to be seen in this front end. Mazda was wise to move away from those looks. There are low-mounted fog lamps (driving lamps actually) that look good, and would otherwise be black blanks on lower-spec. models.

The side design language is called the Kodo “soul of motion” design. The car has flowing lines that sweep upward. The side windows are rather small by today’s standards, and that does become apparent when one drives. The B-pillar is very thick, and it gives one hope that this compact could withstand a solid side impact. It is about four times the thickness of any car in its class from 5 years ago.

The side of the car ends just after the rear door. This is the only area of the car we feel could use a bit more visual impact. The rear end is rounded and looks good to our eye. There is a smallish winglet integrated across the top above the glass and the glass bows out slightly. The hatch opens widely to reveal a very large trunk area that is completely hidden from the outside. My son commented, “Cool car, but no trunk?” He was very surprised when I made him open the hatch. Under the cargo floor is a compact spare (yeah!). The cargo cover lifts with the hatch as it goes up. A nice touch.

The 16 inch alloy rims on our car were not that fancy. Larger 18” wheels come on the “s” versions of the Mazda3. Frankly, the ride on this car is absolutely, utterly perfect. We will caution readers to note the wheel size and ride if they try the s-2.5 version. Our review is limited to the “i.” More on the ride below. The only other distinguishing feature on the Mazda3 is a large shark-fin antenna sticking up like a rudder over the rear-roof area. It seems a bit big.

Interior Design
The interior of this 2014 Mazda 3 Grand Touring is the first place that Mazda proves this car is to be taken very seriously. The dash is covered in a soft material and has a lot of sweeping lines. The center stack is well laid out. There is a 7” communication, information, and entertainment screen at the top sitting on the dash, not in it. This is exactly the way that both the Lexus CT 200h and the Audi family of cars now like to mount their screens. I am not a fan of the whole movement, but that is just one person’s opinion. I asked two passengers what they thought, and both said it looked added on like an aftermarket GPS. Take a look at our gallery of interior photos here to see what you think.

The screen works fantastically though. It is controlled by a small rotary man-machine interface that is where your right hand falls to rest in the car. It works just like the BMW and Audi controllers that are now considered the industry best. Mazda scored here. When I first entered the car, I looked to see if there was a rotary dial for audio volume on the dash. There isn’t, and I was all ready to slam the car for that. However, the folks at Mazda blew me away by placing that exact rotary knob you want and expect, directly to the right of the large multi-function knob. Genius! It was my favorite thing about the car’s interior, and there was much to like. After one day of driving, I had come to be able to grasp and control that knob as if it was there from the first day I started driving 30 years ago.

I was able to jump into this Mazda3 and quickly figure out the Nav, audio controls, and the apps without even glancing at the owner’s manual. It is that intuitive. Synching my Samsung S4 took only one try and less than 10 seconds from start to finish. Pandora worked amazingly well. My Pandora menus were all there including the thumbs up and down and even the channel sections and album art.

The car can also show you that a text has come in. When stopped, it will let you look at the text and then select a reply form a handful of choices. I was surprised how well this worked. The truth is 90% of the text replies one makes can be summed up in about six options, one of which is a smiley face. Before you fire off distracted-driving hate mail to me and Mazda, note the phrase “When stopped.”

Sadly, “when stopped” is the only time anybody can input a new address to the nav. using the rotary knob. There are audio controls to do this, and the car may let you do it while moving. I never use audio controls in any car to control nav, audio, or apps, so you will have to try that yourself. The audio controls for the phone worked very well. In fact, everything about the interior worked very well.

The seats were almost perfect. The material was wonderful, and I was certain it was high-quality leather. However, the spec sheet says it is “leatherette.” I had fun asking every passenger how they liked the “leather.” Without a single exception, the five people I asked all thought it was some of the finest “leather” they had felt in a car. The seats have offset red stitching that feels great and looks great. The power adjustable driver’s seat did everything I wanted. My only suggestion to Mazda would be to move the headrest back one single inch. I don’t like my head to contact the headrest in a car. The front seats were also heated and fit my 6 foot, 195 pound body very well. Contrast this with the BMW X1 I recently test drove, which had seats that were simply too small for a full-sized man.

The real-leather steering wheel tilts and telescopes manually. I felt very comfortable in the car once I set it up my way. The wheel also had all the stuff one expects such as volume and trip computer controls. The stick shift was just a bit farther forward than I would have preferred. However, the feel of the shifter was fantastic. I am not kidding when I say the stick is as good as any car I have ever driven at any price point (Audi R8 included). The throws were not overly short, and there were no crunches in the synchros of my 9,000 mile test car when I hurried it.

The pedals were close to one another in a good way, but my size 10s did sometimes catch the pedal to the side of the one I wanted. The legroom is more than adequate, and when the seat was lowered down to my taste, there was airy headroom. I was also able to sit behind myself in the back seat after I was comfortable up front. There is adequate legroom and lots of headroom in back. The new Corolla is slightly larger in back than this Mazda3. That said, the BMW X1 was waaay smaller in back than this Mazda. I remember the Lexus CT 200h being about the same in size. The CT 200h, BMW X1 and Mazda3 are about the same in general size and layout.

The Drive
The 2014 Mazda3 we tested had the perfect ride in this tester’s opinion. I like a car with tight handling and precise steering and this car had it. I also like a car that does not rupture my aorta if I drive over an expansion joint. This car seemed to strike the perfect balance between handing and ride comfort. After a few miles I stopped steering around every little road imperfection and let the car’s suspension do its job. I credit the Mazda engineers who set up the car’s chassis, steering and suspension, but there is more going on here. Mazda clearly has figured out the German formula for making a smallish car feel like it is made of adamantium and solid as a rock. The car stopped well with great pedal feel.

This test car was not new. Yet, there were no (zero nada) squeaks or rattles. The platform is solid and has the elements many people pay a lot of money for in BMWs. Down the highway this car drives itself straight and true, and the crown of the road does not make it dart side to side (tramline). It is a front drive car, but it is one of the best available.

The power delivery of the engine is smooth and feels nice. There are vibrations in this car, and you will love them. This feeling was one of the things that I remember best from my Miata. The engine is smooth enough that you can drive it happily at 3,000 RPMs. If you do that, the car will display the gear it wants you to shift up to in the small corner tachometer. I ignored it most of the time, yet around town my mileage was still 35.4 MPG. On one highway trip of about 90 miles, I filled up before and after, did the math and came out with 42.3 MPG. Both of these are about 2 MPG better than the EPA estimate. The EPA highway number of 40 MPG is the same as the Lexus CT 200h. That is an underpowered hybrid that costs big bucks compared to this Mazda. The Mazda3 uses regular unleaded as every passenger car should.

The engine is not what I would call powerful. That is not a demerit, just an observation. The stick works well with this car’s engine though. Only when I would roll around a corner and not shift to first and then floor the gas in second gear did I ever notice the car needed more power. I want to add some caution here. Do not buy the 2.0 liter engine with the automatic without testing it first. It may not have the power you expect. Fellow writer, Aaron Turpen, this very week drove the 2.5 liter Mazda3 with the 6 speed transmission and this was his impression of the engine and transmission:

"In the sporty 2.5-liter SKYACTIV-G, putting out 184 horses and 185 lb-ft of torque at low RPM, the 2014 Mazda3's response was awesome for a car that isn't called a 'sports car' by most of the press. The six-speed auto trans is nicely tuned, though I was getting better 0-60 times when shifting manually via the paddle shifters on the wheel. Fun to drive.”

Aaron’s highway mileage was 37 MPG, close to the car’s EPA estimated rating of 38 MPG.

The Final Word
As a former owner of a 2007 MX-5 Miata with every go-fast option, I am often annoyed at writers that say “The Mazda3 is a 4-door Miata.” It is not. It is in many ways better. My feeling after living with this car for a week is that Mazda took only the best elements of the MX-5 Miata and added them to a very good looking 5-door hatchback. This car is more comfortable than any Miata, much more fuel efficient, and more grown up. The Miata is like a 4-wheeled motorcycle. This car is closer to a BMW 3-series than a Miata overall.

The 2014 Mazda3 i 5-Door Grand Touring we tested had an MSRP of $24,635. That seems steep until you realize that this car is so much higher in value than its real competitors, which I would call the Lexus CT 200h and BMW X1. From my point of view this car does not compete directly with the 2014 Toyota Corolla S. That is also an excellent car, priced a bit lower, but the 1.8 liter Corolla does not offer the zoom-zoom this car offers even with its smaller 2.0 liter engine. They have very different personalities, but both are cars their owners will love.

The Mazda3 is an IIHS Top Safety Pick+, the US’ highest safety rating. Having hammered the previous generation Mazda3 on-track at Skip Barber schools, I know that Mazda3s are tough, durable cars. If this car suits your needs and you like the look, drive it, and you will not be disappointed. If you are considering a near $40k priced Lexus CT 200h, Audi A3, or BMW X1 do yourself a favor and drive a Mazda3. You will be glad you did.

Related Stories:
Considering Buying Pre-Owned? Here is our review of the 2012 Mazda3
Why the Mazda3 was named to Automobile’s All-Star list for 2014

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Impressive review. It’s nice to get the perspective of a fellow Miata owner. I’ve read almost universal praise for this car. I like the Infotainment screen on top of the dash with a backing camera, very German in its presentation. No mention of a lack of an engine coolant temperature gauge and that funky digital tach and fuel gauge; hopefully not a big issue. One thing you mentioned, I was concerned that the rotary control for the Infotainment system pushed the manual stick forward and into a less comfortable position. Picking nits in what appears to be a homerun for Mazda.
Thanks GL. I noticed those things you pointed out too. It is hard to decide what to put into a review in general, but when the car is this good it is even harder. You have now helped make it better! Thanks again. BTW, I found I could drive about 32 miles before the gas meter would move off of full. I actually love that. I like to drive a while "full."
42 MPH This is amazing awesome superb gas mileage on highway , excellent vehicle report
This is a very thorough, thoughtful, and useful review. Another nitpick is that Mazda needs to offer that nice leatherette in a light color. They offer the choice of a light color upholstery This is a very thorough, thoughtful, and useful review. One additional nitpick is that Mazda needs to offer that quality leatherette in a lighter color, not just black. The trim levels that come with cloth or leather (the GT s) offer the option of lighter upholstery with some exterior colors. I'm also curious whether Mazda provided any information on a possible forthcoming 2.5 manual.
Thanks Evan. I too like light colored interiors now. They cheer me up. I did ask the Mazda rep I work with about a 2.5 with the stick and she would not comment on future products (none ever do). However, she is one of the best in the business and she looked into the numbers for me. The current 3 with the 2.0 only garners 5% of Mazda 3 buyers. That is typical actually. The Corolla is like that as well. Financially, Mazda would be crazy to offer a stick in the larger engine size, but they may do it because it is the right thing to do for fans of the brand. Honestly, having tried this car, I say drive the 2.0 stick and see what you think. It may be enough for you and you will save some money. - As the former owner of a Supra, Integra, Civic SI, Miata and other cars with sticks, I am now a convert to paddle shifters. Believe me, I never thought I would be, but I love them in my Lexus IS 350 and even on my 1 week test the stick was a hassle in a lot of heavy traffic I encountered. Just my own opinion.
Thanks John. At first I was pretty depressed when I read your stat above on the 5% manual take rate in the 2014 3. If folks aren't rewarding Mazda for its investment in making available in its cars this drivers feature, especially such a well-executed one, then what hope is there for manual transmissions or for Mazda's core approach of appealing to drivers? Upon reflection, I don't think it's that bad, though. It looks like your stat is the percentage of i manuals of total 2014 3 sales. The more relevant stat is the percentage of i manuals of total 2014 3i sales, which has to be higher because the s models (which come only with automatics at this point) are excluded. Granted, I'm sure that adjustment doesn't take the number up to the 12-15% take rate that Mazda told USA Today they were expecting in i models, but there are reasons for optimism that figure will rise. First, sales of the 2014 3 haven't taken off as much as Mazda probably hoped. That may be changing as April was a real good month for 3 sales, the best April since 2010 and 21.5% better than last April. As sales heat up, the percentage of manual buyers may also come up more in line with Mazda's expectations. In addition, the 2014 i manual take rate has probably been hurt some by a couple of first year omissions by Mazda that it can correct easily for MY 2015. The first of these is the lack of an analog tach in i models. That's a real turn off for enthusiasts for which Mazda has received criticism from the automotive press. Clearly, at least i GT manuals, if not all i manuals, need to have the s dash, with the big analog tach and the heads up speedometer. That's easily done. The other omission, which I noted in my earlier comment above, is the lack of the option of a lighter colored interior in the i GT model, which is the i model enthusiasts probably focus on most. Black doesn't cut it for everyone and Mazda has recognized that on all its 3 models, except the i GT and s Touring, which come only with black leatherette. Again, that shouldn't be hard to address in MY 2015; if someone makes great black leatherette, someone must also make great tan leatherette. I appreciate your opinion on paddle shifters and will try some, but I've been driving manuals for more than 30 years and.doubt I'll change on my next purchase. My wife's next car might be the more likely prospect for paddles. Then again, if Mazda doesn't offer a 3 s manual or take care of the issues I've noted above with the i GT manuals, I may look at the paddles in the 3 s in a new light. That would also make it more likely that I look more seriously at other manufacturers in picking the replacement for my 05 6 V6 manual. (Thanks also for responding to my garbled post. Not sure how that happened but I don't see a way to edit it now.)
Thanks again Evan. In the just printed June 2014 Car and Driver the 2.0 with 155 HP is tested and CD loved the manu-matic shifting (within the story's context). And those guys are of course crazy-fanatical about stick shifts. It isn't the same as self-shifting with a clutch, but Mazda does manu-matic as well as anyone can. Hoping to test the 2.5 Thursday. Will report if I am able.
Bought the Mazda3 touring sport 2.5 liter MANUAL shift in July 2015. LOOOVE this car! Before her I had the wonderful wonderful Mazada Protege sport wagon 5. It lasted me 12 years before starting to rust. Never had a lick of transmission issues with her, and very little engine care needed. Did not think I'd buy another Mazda. But...Zoom zoom o plenty in the 0 to 50 sprint in this car. Slower after 50 to get to 60, but she's got the power to get the sprint done, in excess of most of the other cars around me when I'm driving. And yes she turns exceedingly well, its one of the best I've ever driven! I test drove practically everything out there before I hopped in her, and I have to say I was really blown away immediately. Very very smooth manual shift, great acel and wonderful handling. Doors feel heavy, car feels refined. BMW lite for sure. (And I've got ALL the trimmings you get in a luxury car, for a fraction of the price.) Oh, and I did I mention, she takes regular gas? No premium gas required. The Skyactive doesn't care, it runs just fine. Yes, I love me my car. And I can't wait for the new Mazda speed 3 to come out, all wheel drive and 269 hp. That would be Da Bomb... PS. And my Mazda3 looks soooo snazzy with the kayak mounted on top : Eat your heart out Subaru.