Mazda's slogan is "Feel Alive," but this hatchback doesn't yet fulfill its potential.
The 2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo is a tricky car to wrap the old noggin around. Not because it produces brain-melting acceleration and cornering figures or because it'll set your hair on fire at the local autocross. That's not necessarily the case. Rather, the new Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo is so perfectly adequate in so many areas that, viewed as a car that gets you from point A to point B in comfort and with no drama, it's a fine device. Still, you can't help but feel like it needs something more.
Beautiful On The Inside ...
As we've said before, the Mazda 3's cabin is the best in its class—by quite some margin, too. The dashboard is cleanly designed, while a set of mostly analog dials and a head-up display present important information neatly to the driver. All of the car's secondary controls (volume knob, indicator stalks, and HVAC) have a beautiful, high-quality weight to them. Even when you perform a task as mundane as adjusting cabin temperature, you manipulate something that feels well considered. Mazda is working hard to be seen as a near-luxury brand, and this interior is a standout example of what it's capable of.
The Mazda 3 hatch is also easy on the eyes, offers plenty of cargo space, and, if you never touch Sport mode—which activates more aggressive throttle- and shift-map behavior—will even return an EPA-rated 31 mpg on the highway. The Bose sound system is excellent, wind and tire noise are well hushed, and the whole car has an aspirational feel that justifies its $35,020 as-tested price.
And if your test drive ended there, you'd think, "Great stuff—good job, Mazda!" But it doesn't. Even though the 2021 Mazda 3 Turbo is a high-quality item, there are other intangibles that matter to the overall experience.
Is It A Driver's Car?
A car might be executed well, but if it leaves you with a sense of "meh," is it still a good car? Most people would say, "Yes, of course." And we agree. But sometimes that isn't quite enough to satisfy, especially when we've come to expect a level of personality from Mazda products.
Maybe our enthusiast-influenced hearts inflate our standards. When we see a "Turbo" badge on a small car's rump, and a spec sheet boasting a 2.5-liter I-4 with 227 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque, plus all-wheel drive, we tend to imagine we're going to have a rippin' good time. Other hatchbacks given the same treatment over the years—cars like the Volkswagen GTI, Ford Focus ST, and the old Mazdaspeed 3—come to mind, and you think, gleefully, this could be the new Mazda enthusiasts have waited for.
The new turbo I-4 engine—well, not exactly new new, as it's been in the CX-9 and the CX-5 for years now—makes 250 horsepower and 320 lb-ft if you can find 93-octane fuel. If 87 octane is the best you can do, those numbers fall to 227 horses and 310 lb-ft. Compared to the standard Mazda 3, this hopped-up hatchback makes an extra 41 horses and an additional 124 lb-ft of twist, at a bare minimum.
In our testing, the turbocharged 3 made the 0-to-60-mph sprint in 5.9 seconds and raced through the quarter-mile in 14.5 seconds. That's right up there with the best in its class. It's even quicker than the last dual-clutch-automatic-equipped VW Golf GTI we tested, which needed 6.0 seconds to accelerate to 60.
Sounds good, so hop in and start the engine. There's no clutch to operate; the 2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo is an auto-only machine. Make your way to your favorite bit of twisty road, back-off the traction control, step on it and ... wait. Sure, it goes, but not in the way we expected. We're not talking about raw acceleration, which the numbers show to be good. But the transmission is a bit of a laggard, disappointing when Mazda's ethos used to nearly always deliver great-driving, enthusiast-pleasing cars right out of the box—without needing gobs of power to be fun.
Instead of feeling alive and on its toes, the 2021 Mazda 3 Turbo feels sedate. The brake pedal is mushy; instead of initial bite coming right near the top of the pedal's travel, you find an inch or so of travel before the binders affect much deceleration. This dulls the driving experience and lowers confidence in the car's reflexes. True hot hatches have sharp responses and feedback to tell you they were developed in part by beating them within an inch of their mechanical lives, so as to to make them as engaging and entertaining as possible. But that's not present here; in fact, it feels like a thick layer of latency-exaggerating rubber has worked its way into the Mazda's nooks and crannies.
The suspension damping is the Turbo 3's sharpest trait, a characteristic that usually goes a long way toward providing a sporty personality. But like the standard Mazda 3 hatch, this car makes do with a rear torsion beam; that's in contrast to the previous-generation car and its independent rear end. The result (as we've noted before) is a car that rides somewhat poorly, and which is unsettled by small road imperfections even at low speeds. Manhole covers and expansion joints can jostle the rear out of line enough to necessitate frequent steering corrections. If power was all the 2021 Mazda 3 needed to be fun to drive, it would have delivered. Instead, the car's underlying potential feels unrealized.
There's A Lot To Love, But It Isn't Lovable Yet
We know from experience Mazda can make a maniacal hot hatch that competes with the best of them. Yes, the old Mazdaspeed 3 was deeply flawed, but it was profoundly entertaining and lovable as a result. We didn't expect the new 2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo to be a direct successor to that car—Mazda has matured past its crazy teenage years—but we hoped for some of the old 'Speed 3's charm. Instead, the Mazda 3 Turbo feels like its name and nothing more, namely a 3 with a turbocharger bolted to its engine.
None of this makes the Mazda 3 Turbo a bad car; it excels at being a great car. If you want a hatchback that's quiet, usable, and relatively quick, this 2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo is a great choice. But if you want something that feels truly alive, you'll have to look elsewhere. Maybe our expectations were too high. Maybe you can say that's our problem. But the fact is that Mazda's previous creations set that high bar in the first place; unfortunately, this car drives under it.