2015 Subaru Impreza vs. Mazda3 2.5
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Winter Comparison: 2015 Mazda3 Grand Touring vs. Subaru Impreza 2.0i Limited

In the latest "Which To Buy" comparison, we compare and contrast the 2015 Subaru Impreza and Mazda3 in winter driving conditions. If you think the Subaru is the hands-down winner, read on.

We recently put the 2015 Mazda3 Grand Touring 2.5 up against a more expensive Audi A3 and explained why we found them to be very comparable cars. We don’t pick winners and losers in our comparos, but rather we try to bring to light the cars’ personalities and strong points so buyers might decide which would work better for them personally. In a twist on this, we are going to add some emphasis to these two cars’ bad weather capability and we give the Mazda3 a decided advantage, so we want to make that clear right from the start. Let’s see which of these two excellent small sedans might suit you.

2015 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Limited (automatic)
The Subaru Impreza sure has grown up. I owned a 1999 Subaru Legacy 2.5GT that was pretty much this car’s exact dimensions and capabilities. My first moments in the Subie came when my media vehicle delivery was performed in the middle of a snow-covered street. I left a Lexus sedan for the fleet driver and hopped into the Impreza. Other drivers were patiently waiting for us to get out of the way, so I buckled up, put the Subie into drive, and toed the gas. The little Impreza immediately fishtailed sideways and leaped forward as if the ghost of Colin McRae had occupied my body. Holy smokes! This little 2.0-liter 4-banger (non-turbo) with a CVT transmission has a crazy sensitive throttle. It took me a full day to adjust.

Temperatures were in the teens and roads were entirely snow covered. This AWD Subie had no trouble going straight ahead, but its all-season (new) tires did it no favors at all. The car was squirrelly, and turns were a case study in either slow understeer or wild power-on rally-style oversteer. I mostly chose the former. I take safe driving seriously.

The Impreza feels spacious inside. The only thing I missed was a power driver’s seat. That said, this $25K car had a great infotainment system with Pandora and Nav, leather, heated seats, a moonroof, and keyless entry and push button start. What shocked me most about this car was its power. This car’s specifications sheet is like an apology. 148 horsepower and a gearless CVT. However, Subaru has some strong drivetrain magic. Just like my recent time in a Subaru Outback, I loved this engine and transmission. They are noisy, but not in a way I disliked. I don’t know how Subaru does it, but this drivetrain was a plus, not a minus to the car. Only when merging onto the highway was lack of power noticeable.

My tester also had the innovative EyeSight safety system with Forward Collision Prevention (FCP) and other driver aids. This Impreza is a Top Safety Pick Plus since it aces every single crash test. My mileage was low, about 29 MPG. However, my conditions were extreme. I trust that the EPA’s estimated 28 MPG city/ 37 highway/ 31 combined are what all drivers will find over time.

2015 Mazda3 Grand Touring 2.5 (manual)
OK, here is the part where we cheat. My test Mazda3 2.5 manual came from the media fleet with Blizzak winter tires. If you have been dying to read a winter review of two almost identical cars, one front wheel drive (Mazda3) and one all-wheel drive – Subaru Impreza – you have found it. My feeling is it that the snows on the FWD car equalize this matchup. The Mazda3 on snow tires was much better at turning and stopping than the Subaru on all-season tires. Once underway, the snow tires are much more important than AWD. However, the truth is, there were times this week when nothing but AWD would have moved me forward. Even with the all-season tires, AWD is dramatically better at getting a car from zero to 10 MPH.

Back to the vehicle matchup, the Mazda3 feels more intimate (smaller). It also feels much more refined. So much so that the Mazda is the walk-away winner if what you want is a sense of luxury, quality, and refinement. However, the Subaru feels more airy, and its AWD system is not to be ignored. I was all set to say that the Mazda3 was sportier than the Subie, but I can’t. The Subaru simply defies logic and its specifications and delivers a fun to drive experience. In a road race in dry conditions, the Mazda3 2.5 would win. However, I’m not comparing race cars, but rather compact sedans meant for younger buyers and small families.

Like the Subie, the Mazda3 is a Top Safety Pick plus if you get the FCP system. It also aces every crash test. I love that about this matchup. In my perfect world, every car would earn the IIHS TPS+ rating. The Mazda is also a $25k car.

Both of these models are available with either a manual or automatic transmission. That is incredibly rare these days. During my tine with the Mazda3 2.5, I recorded 29 MPG. The EPA rates this vehicle at 25 mpg city/ 37 highway/ and 29 mpg combined. A smaller 2.0-liter engine is available for the Mazda3 if fuel economy is a top priority for you.

Conclusion:
If you were hoping that your preference would crush the other in a humiliating defeat, we warned you at the start that’s not our game. Based on my time in both of these cars, it is clear that each has a distinct personality and that any owner will look forward to their daily drive or a road trip in either even if the snow is falling - hard.

Related Reviews:
2015 Audi A3 2.0T Quattro vs. Mazda3 s Grand Touring: Which to buy?
2015 Mazda3 s 2.5 manual Grand Touring exceeds expectations
2015 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Sport Limited Review

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Comments

You write, " If you have been dying to read a winter review of two almost identical cars, one front wheel drive (Mazda3) and one all-wheel drive – Subaru Impreza – you have found it." Except that for this to be a valid comparison, both cars would have to be equipped with comparable tires. Both come from the factory with all-season tires, but both can be just as easily upgraded to dedicated snow tires. AWD is not a replacement for winter tires, but a supplement for them. If the Impreza had been the car with the winter tires, it would have dominated in every measure of traction - but the comparison would not have been any more valid.
Very true. I may not have made it clear that the comparison is snow tires on a FWD car, and AWD with all-season tires, a decision some folks do make. Thanks for giving me the chance to try to restate it. Without any doubt, the Impreza would be the better winter car in this matchup if both had the same snow tires.
Annnnnnd... don't forget that the choice for the subaru's drivetrain was just wrong all together. If you are going to use the Mazda's 2.5 litre with a 5 speed manual, then why would you not use the 2.5I and 5 speed impreza? that drivetrain in a subie is more common than freckles on a redhead. Seems like it should have been a no brainer.
I have a 2012 Impreza with X-Ice tires for the winter. I'm not sure if the 15 Impreza comes with the A/S Yokos, but they are not great tires at all. Winter tires outperform A/S in braking and curves. AWD comes in handy, like you said getting the vehicle going, and also climbing inclines. Tires make all the difference, that's why we have the term "where the rubber meets the road." When I had the 00 Legacy with RE-92s vs my 00 Odyssey with Symmetry tires, the Odyssey outperformed the Legacy with AWD on packed icy snow. Both had their OEM tires. I also run Winter X-Ice on my Odyssey and I'll beat any SUV with A/S tires around icy curves. Subaru needs to put better A/S tires if they want their renown AWD to shine. Slapping on poor traction OEM tires is a big mistake for Subaru. Their system is much better than that, but the company is trying to be cheap about it. This is not to take away from the Mazda 3, which is a great driver.
Thank you Monica for posting this. I like the way you say it straight. I agree with all of your conclusions.
My 2012 Impreza was just totaled from an engine fire two days ago. We're not sure yet what the fault was. I am wondering if it may be the dreaded head gasket busting at the wrong time scenario. I am actually going to compare the 2017 Mazda 3 against the 16 Impreza. Unfortunately, the 17 Impreza, which is supposed to be much improved is 4 weeks away from making it into the showrooms. I'll need to decide whether the Mazda 3 is better for my needs. Impreza is fairly fun to drive and its visibility can't be beat, like driving in a fish bowl. I wish the 17 Impreza was available for me to compare against. I still have the winter set of wheels/tires for the 12 Impreza which do not fit on the Mazda, different bolt pattern radius.
Since I wrote this comparison the all-new CIvic with the 1.5-liter turbo has impressed me the most. Just another good option.
What size rims and tires came with the Mazda GT fleet car? The 2015 Mazda3 GT are equipped with 18" wheels. Did they downsize or use the 18" wheels and tires?
Hi Jim. Great question. I don't have the Monroney sticker copy anymore for the vehicle I tested, but I know that the company that supplies me test cars does not get special rims for cars. They simply change the rubber (and store the car's standard rubber for after the winter, or after testing.) Hope it helps.