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2019 Mazda 3 GS might just be most important test drive in busy compact-car segment


Our 2019 Mazda 3 GS tester was powered by a 155 horsepower, 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine. - Justin Pritchard
Our 2019 Mazda 3 GS tester was powered by a 155 horsepower, 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine. - Justin Pritchard

What a time to be buying a small car.

Features reserved for expensive luxury flagships just 10 years ago are now standard in the Toyota Corolla. The Nissan Kicks gives you a Bose stereo and 360-degree parking camera for 23 grand.

The Hyundai Kona gives you all-wheel traction and a long list of goodies in a similar pricing universe, too.

There’s now another machine you must test drive if you’re in this segment, and want to feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. That machine is the 2019 Mazda 3 GS.

My tester, with manual six-speed gearbox and a sexy maroon-coloured paint (worth the $450), clocked in at about $23,000. Most will feel like they spent more.

Outside, a deliberate lack of unpainted panels, more paint, and less plasticy cheapness. It’s sculpted and accented nicely, lines and shapes are mostly smooth and inviting with some sharp edges added for drama. Usually, you’re paying much more for a car that looks this polished and poised.

The interior impresses on a similar level. It’s a game changer, I think, and that’s not a term I use often, or lightly. This mid-line 3 was brimming with upscale touches. The leather steering wheel calls pricey Lexus machinery to mind.

The fake leather dash looks and feels convincing — and it’s stitched and smooth and puffy. It’s a nicer looking dash than the one in the $125,000 Porsche Cayenne I reported on earlier this winter, for heavens sake.

It’s a neatly-organized array of nicely crafted aluminum, metal trim, piano-black accenting and more. They’ve even made the key fob look more modern and fresh and sleek.

Switches and controls feel like they came from somewhere higher up the line, and they’ve even sculpted the central screen to flow better with the shape of the dash, so that it looks less like an afterthought.

I don’t know an entry-level Acura or Lexus right now with an interior as well done as this. And this is a $23,000 car.

Also on board were adaptive cruise, push-button start, automatic lights and wipers and high beams and climate control, heated seats and steering wheel, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, one touch up and down on every window, and notably, an appreciably powerful lighting system to boot.

Room up front for two adults is no problem — comfy snug but not restrictive, and rear seating can handle two adults of average size, but only sort of just. For extra roomy rear seats, check out the new Jetta, instead.

 The 3’s interior is a ‘game changer.’- Justin Pritchard
The 3’s interior is a ‘game changer.’- Justin Pritchard

 

In the Mazda 3, average-sized rear-seat passengers will be fine, though claustrophobia is a possibility on longer trips.

The trunk is flat and wide and deep and easy to load. Also, it’s annoying because there’s no trunk release on the trunk, and because the remote key fob won’t work if the engine is running, so you’ll need to use the button on the dash, just like 2005. Blessedly, they did install a trunk closer handle — a touch missing from many affordable cars.

My tester ran a two-litre four-cylinder SkyActiv engine with trick engineering to try and give you something fun to drive, and also, very easy on fuel. Mission accomplished on that front — she’s got a small tank, but also, she sips fuel — so you get plenty of range for a day-long highway trip, with cheap and quick fill ups coming few and far between.

With 155 horsepower, drivers concerned mostly with fuel economy will find it smooth, relatively quiet, and plenty responsive, even from low revs.

Work it hard, and it never feels or sounds too strained, keeps the volume down nicely for the most part, and is smooth as silk from idle to near redline.

A 2.5-litre engine with about 30 more horsepower is available, if you like. Also, you can have a hatchback, and (for the first time ever), all-wheel drive is on the options list.

The sportier among us will appreciate the feel of the manual shifter and clutch. Mainly, that’s because it exhibits an accurate, thick and positive feel at a price-point where many clutches and shifters feel globs of warm Cheese Whiz.

Suspension is soft where it counts, taut where it counts, serves up a nice blend of comfortable and sporty — on rougher roads it feels durable and dense, and suspension noise is mostly kept to a minimum unless things get really rough.

Steering is nicely dialled in against that — quick and eager but not difficult to use smoothly. It’s not a sponge cake, nor a corner-carving scalpel, but you do get ride comfort in the upper end of this segment, and no complaints from the car if you decide to drive more vigorously.

Gripes? The infotainment system is a little fussier and more dexterity-heavy in operation than some shoppers will like. Instead of a straightforward (but often more distracting) touch-screen, the Mazda3 makes you control things on the screen with a dial and buttons mounted on the centre console instead. A little practise will have you sorted in a few days.

A bigger gripe on my highway-heavy test drive was the adaptive cruise control system. Simply, when automatically adjusting your speed based on changing traffic, it often lacked the smooth, pre-planned and predictable inputs common in competitor models.

In a few situations, the system’s engagement was even jarring or startling. Your results may vary, but be sure to try the system extensively on a test drive for yourself.

Still, for many, this car will make an excellent choice, especially where feature content, mileage, manners and a very upscale look and feel are high priority.

And if you’re after a luxury car mostly for the lovely cabin, the Mazda3 might save you $15,000 or $20,000.

 With 155 horsepower, drivers concerned mostly with fuel economy will find the Mazda 3 GS smooth, relatively quiet, and plenty responsive, even from low revs. - Justin Pritchard
With 155 horsepower, drivers concerned mostly with fuel economy will find the Mazda 3 GS smooth, relatively quiet, and plenty responsive, even from low revs. - Justin Pritchard

 

The specs

  • Model: 2019 Mazda 3 GS
  • Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, 155 horsepower
  • Drivetrain: front-wheel drive
  • Transmission: six-speed manual
  • Features: Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, heated seats, heated leather steering wheel, automatic climate control, automatic lights and wipers, push-button start, adaptive cruise, blind spot monitoring
  • What’s hot: game-changing cabin, good manners, excellent on fuel, nice shifter and clutch, looks and feels pricier than it is
  • What’s not: annoying trunk release, fussy radar cruise system, some fussy interfaces
  • Starting price (Mazda3 GX): $18,000
  • As tested (Mazda 3 GS): $23,150

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