Cars, as we know them, are dying. Even if the switch to autonomous driving doesn’t kill them, the buying public’s insatiable appetite for crossovers will. In the waning days of the automobile, though, there is one company that still gets it. One that still understands why we fell in love with cars in the first place. When they say a car is fun to drive, it’s not just some empty marketing tagline. They mean it, they can prove it, and you can feel it. That company is Mazda, and the evidence is the Mazda 3 Turbo.
It is a sad irony that in an age of unprecedented horsepower and technology, cars have become so dull. Electronic steering has sucked the life out of most cockpits. Cabins are so isolated from the road that artificial exhaust noises and jolting movements have become stand-ins for actual performance. Worst of all, automakers have zero incentive to do better, because most people can’t tell good vehicle dynamics from a shove off a cliff.
And yet, Mazda soldiers on, pouring countless hours and yen into silly things like handling or feedback. It’s an amount of effort put into chassis and suspensions not seen since Honda in the 1990s. These are qualities that will never appear on a spec sheet, cannot be conveyed in a 30-second Superbowl spot, but make all the difference between a car that’s merely awesome and a car that’s got a soul.
Whether it’s the naturally aspirated or the new-for-2021 turbocharged version, the Mazda 3 takes to winding touge roads like flowing water. That’s not just flowery language. Other performance cars attack the road with anger, growling motors spewing horsepower, massive wheels in low-profile tires clawing at the asphalt. The Mazda, on the other hand, simply glides through the bends like Fred Astaire on skates.
That’s because most automakers simply use power and grip as way to satisfy a benchmark. Mazda is much more focused on how a car feels in your hands. It’s part of their human-centric engineering philosophy that prioritizes the driving feel over a skidpad result. It’s the ultimate expression of jinba ittai, horse and rider as one.
If you want to get less abstract and technical, there are several methods used to achieve this. For one, there’s a system Mazda calls G-Vectoring Control, which dials back the engine torque for a split second when the steering detects the start of turn-in. That shifts the weight to the front, pre-loading the front tires, enlarging the contact patch. With the sidewalls already compressed, the car feels more consistent and planted through the turn. On the turbo 3, GVC is a tad more aggressive in Sport mode than the naturally aspirated 3.
Then there’s the matter of the torsion beam rear suspension, which many saw as a devolution from the previous generation. Strictly speaking, it’s not just a steel beam to hold up the back wheels. There’s arcs and shape to it, one that helps it move with the road and maximize grip in the right situations. According to Mazda’s chassis engineers, simplifying the rear suspension also meant there were fewer deflecting bushings, angles, and variables to worry about.
We can’t tell you whether it’s truly the best solution, but the upshot of all this is that the 3 handles like magic. You don’t have to make tiny corrections to the steering wheel once you’ve entered a curve. You simply turn, and the car confidently carries you through to the exit in one fell swoop. Soon, you’re linking the esses like a pro, even on sinuous roads you’re not entirely familiar with.
Nowadays, even BMWs and Audis give lackluster feedback from behind the wheel. We’re confident when we say the Mazda 3 is the best steering “normal” car since the world went to drive-by-wire.
The current 3 is a distant descendant of the BD Mazda Familia that came out in 1980. The hugely popular hatchback became a hit with youth during Japan’s surf culture boom. Familias were often seen with roof racks and surfboards as a style statement, not unlike the more recent trends of having snowboard or fixie bike racks mounted on a stanced show car. The phrase “land surfing” was coined as a tongue in cheek term for these owners, but we think land surfing is also an apt way to describe how the 3 behaves on twisting mountain stretches.
Armchair racers will always clamor for more power. The turbo answers that with 250 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque, mated to an obligatory 6-speed auto (Mazda vows never to use CVTs; the lack of a manual will be addressed in a future article) and AWD system. That’s on 93 octane fuel, but due to the wizardry of Mazda’s SkyActiv-G engines, you can also run it on 87 octane for 227 horses and 310 lb-ft and no engine knock. That’s a tremendous amount of power for its class, and certainly for some the $29,900 turbo AWD will be the ticket.
The torque comes very low in the rev range, at 2,000 rpm on 87 octane and 2,500 rpm on 93. It’s there for acceleration as soon as you take your foot of the brake, thanks to an ingenious valve that squeezes air to spool up the turbo even at idle. The absence of lag means a burst of speed is always at your fingertips, and there’s no jolt to the car when the turbo does kick in.
What’s more, the turbo barely dings the fuel economy, lowering the combined rating by just 1 mpg. And even if you choose to cheap out on low octane fuel, you get the same performance below 4,000 rpm, where most driving is done.
However, we’re here to tell you that the $20,500 front-drive, naturally aspirated 3 is just as brilliant. Sure, the prodigious torque is welcome in many real-world situations. You can fling the car from a light, charge up a steep hill, or dart into that gap in traffic with a flex of your big toe. But, for some drivers, who perhaps prefer momentum cars in the canyons, the FF version will bring you the same joy from driving at a much lower cost. You can’t go wrong with either.
Mazda was never one to follow conventional wisdom. Whether that’s committing for decades to the rotary engine, single-handedly reviving the roadster, or keeping that single-use Miata platform going in a world where even the unfathomably wealthy Toyota won’t build its own sports cars, the Hiroshima firm definitely forges its own path.
Mazda doesn’t have the resources to become a Toyota, VAG, or whatever Carlos Ghosn was trying to build. It knows that it can’t compete on volume or reinvent itself as a “mobility company”. It must double down on what it does best, something that most companies can’t or have forgotten how to do.
It builds drivers’ cars so it can stand out from the crowd, and so it can survive. As our resident Mazdafarian Dave Yuan describes it, Mazda is now an artisanal carmaker. It’s a small company, but because it’s small it can create the platonic ideal of a car for those who love driving. Decades from now, when internal combustion engines are as confusing to teens as a VHS tape, we will be able to point to a Mazda and say, “This. This is why we cared.”