The MX-5 Miata may be Mazda’s most iconic model — hell, it may be the most quintessential sports car of the last 30 years — but it’s certainly not the brand’s breadwinner.
That title doesn’t even belong to one of Mazda’s trio of crossovers, despite their ever-increasing popularity, or the award-winning but slow-selling Mazda6 sedan. No, it’s the humble Mazda3 that bears the distinction, a car that, while diminutive in stature, is anything but small when it comes to significance, accounting for more than a third of the brand’s sales globally. With a strong SkyActiv foundation underpinning Mazda’s compact for several years now, a refresh aimed at refinement with an emphasis on fun has finally arrived.
A Modest Makeover
Stylistically speaking, nothing about the 2017 rendition of the Mazda3 stands out compared to its pre-facelifted predecessor — and that’s OK. It retains the same attractive appearance as before, with minor tweaks to the front and rear fascias, and new wheel designs rounding out the unassuming exterior changes.
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Inside, Mazda has made a handful of changes, including a new, more streamlined center console design that features an electronic parking brake and a Sport mode on all automatic models, as well as a new steering wheel and trim materials, and a new look to the seven-inch infotainment screen. Operated through a console-mounted knob or the touch of a finger while the vehicle is stopped, the infotainment system is easy to use but lacks the refinement found in much of the competition, particularly those with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone compatibility. Otherwise, the interior is well laid out, and is reminiscent of the larger — and pricier — Mazda6.
Other changes that are largely unnoticeable but impact the cabin greatly include a host of new or redesigned materials aimed at reducing road noise and vibration. The result is a tremendously quiet cabin, with only the most porous of pavement polluting the cabin.
Far From a Facelift
Despite the mild makeover, the Mazda3’s refresh is about more than updated aesthetics. Perhaps the biggest change for 2017 is the addition of G-Vectoring Control, a software-based system designed to smooth steering input while retaining the fun factor synonymous with Mazda’s cars.
Unlike other carmakers, which rely on brake-based systems to improve cornering performance, G-Vectoring Control uses engine braking — and a little bit of physics — to do the job. The system works by reducing engine torque ever so slightly in response to steering input, shifting more of the car’s weight to the front wheels for improved traction and turn-in response. As the car works through the turn, the torque that was put on hold is re-engaged, shifting the weight back to the rear wheels for improved stability and corner exit. The whole process happens in a split-second and is virtually imperceptible while behind the wheel — and that’s the point.
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The G-Vectoring system has also been engineered to incorporate a more precise on-center tracking, reducing the number of steering corrections necessary while driving. Again, the operation goes almost unnoticed in most circumstances, and that’s by design. It’s only in certain scenarios where the fruits of the system’s labor begin to show. Driving on a gravel road, for example, it’s possible — though not advised — to take your hands off the wheel and watch as the steering wheel remains steady and the car headed in the right direction. It’s on those same gravel roads, however, where the system’s tremendous turn-in response can backfire, over-rotating the car enough to kick the tail out when pushed.
Like the rest of automaker’s stable of cars, the Mazda3 provides plenty of fun behind the wheel, displaying a sporting pedigree not often found in the small-car segment while remaining as capable a commuter as anything in its class.
As an increasing number of competitors turn to turbocharging, Mazda is sticking to its naturally aspirated engines. Available with the choice of 2.0- or 2.5-liter four-cylinder motors under the hood, only the larger of the two was available for our drive through Quebec’s Laurentides region. With 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque on tap, the 2.5-liter proved more than capable through the area’s countless elevation changes. As with the smaller engine, the 2.5-liter can be mated to either manual or automatic transmissions, both of which are fitted with six gears. While both manage power with equal aplomb, the manual should scratch any itch for sportiness, with a shifter that’s easy to maneuver and a clutch that is soft but surprisingly compliant.
Underpinned by a multi-link suspension complete with revised dampers front and rear, the car does a nice job of smoothing uneven asphalt while providing enough stiffness to communicate what’s going on when the car is pushed. Combined with a nimble steering setup that is nicely weighted, the Mazda3’s athleticism still impresses nearly three years after winning AutoGuide’s Car of the Year honors.
Big on Safety
For all the emphasis on drivability, the 2017 Mazda3 is served with a healthy dose of safety features. The available head-up display is now in full color, and is capable of showing driving speed, speed limits, and direction of travel, among others, while a full suite of safety features is on offer, including autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, radar cruise control with traffic sign recognition, lane departure warning and lane keep assist. However, the lane-keep assist system shouldn’t be confused with the semi-autonomous type, with the Mazda3’s keeping the car from crossing one line by bouncing it over the next like a bowling lane with only one gutter bumper.
Short on Space
Both sedan and hatchback versions of the Mazda3 ride on the same 106.3-inch wheelbase, matching the likes of the segment-leading Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Where the Mazda comes up short in either four- or five-door guise is in its overall length, with the hatch measuring about 175 inches long and the sedan stretching about 5 inches longer — both of which are shorter than the Civic and Corolla, translating to less cargo space. With a 12.4 cu-ft (351 liter) trunk, the sedan gives up a modest bit of volume to the Corolla (13 cu ft, 368 liters) and a more substantial amount to the Civic sedan (15.1 cu ft, 428 liters), while room behind the rear seats of the Mazda3 hatch (20.2 cu ft, 572 liters) falls well short of the new five-door Civic (25.7 cu ft, 728 liters).
The cargo space conundrum shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for most, but young families may want to consider their options carefully or risk running out of room for anything more than a stroller in the back, particularly in the sedan.
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Likewise, the Mazda3 surrenders some rear passenger space to the segment leaders, with its 35.8 inches (909 millimeters) of rear legroom trailing both the Civic (37.4 in, 950 mm) and Corolla (41.4 in, 1,052 mm). Headroom front and rear is on par with the competition, with 37.6 in (955 mm) all around, but a high rear hip point makes the back seat in both body styles less than ideal confines for taller passengers.
The Verdict: 2017 Mazda3 2.5L Review
With already impressive looks, not much was needed for the Mazda3’s mid-cycle refresh aesthetically. Instead, the automaker focused its attention on further refining the driving experience. And it worked. There’s just something refreshing about the way the Mazda3 drives, and the addition of G-Vectoring Control has made it that much more engaging.