2016 Mazda3 GT Review: The Enthusiasts’ Compact Hatchback

wheel-to-wheel copy

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

After noodling around for a week in Mazda’s subcompact CX-3 crossover, I was rewarded with an alternative option to the clever little all-wheel drive go-cart. Working with Mazda on a string of different vehicles has been an eye-opening experience, and as you’ll soon see, there’s a reason why Consumer Reports just ranked Mazda sixth out of 30 automakers for having the best cars of 2016.

Accolades aside, Mazda is still an underdog in the Asian battle for new car buyers. After spending some time with the 184 horsepower GT version of the Mazda3 five-door hatch, you too will see why it bested the likes of Mercedes Benz and Acura. Mazda is an automaker that offers surprisingly stylish interiors, long-term reliability, and sport buttons that actual offer notable results in both drivetrain performance and handling. It also has superb fuel economy ratings and solid manual gearbox options for those who want to row their own.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

But for as good as Mazda has become, it is just now starting to get its feet back under it after all the Ford funding dried up. So while the Mazda3 is absolutely spot-on in many ways, like many of its other offerings the brand feels incomplete without a turbocharged performance model. At least they have given us some solid options to tinker with in the meantime, and the GT version of the Mazda3 might just be one of the best.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior

The GT version of the Mazda3 is the swankiest 3 you can opt for, and I was thrilled to see that it looks just as good in person as it does online. This is by no means an extreme performance version, but a refined “Grand Touring” edition instead, and aesthetically the little hatch hits all the boxes in just the right order especially when the $1,750 “Appearance Package” gets tacked on.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior pros and cons

+ All that polished black lower trim work is quite upscale, especially since the Mazda3 doesn’t come with hideous unpainted plastic around the wheel wells like we found on the CX-3. This aero upgrade juts out just enough to be noticeable, has folds where it should, and the openly spaced rear lip really works nicely with the dual port exhaust.

+ The side profile is equally as sharp looking, thanks to its elongated hood, subtle line styling, tightly bowed spoiler, and sharply raked rear glass.

+ Those 18-inch alloy wheels look stellar when equipped with low profile tires, and we would love to see them in a gloss black to match the added ground effects.

– That license plate mounting bracket is a distraction on what is otherwise a gorgeous face. A removable, bracket-oriented design would be an easy fix.

– The sconces around the fog lights and on the doors are not the same polished piano black as the side mirrors or ground effects, which makes them stand out in a not so great way.

– Those polished exhaust tips looked damn good on the CX-3, but on the 3 they seem a bit small next to the GT version’s more aggressive rear lip.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain

Mazda has done quite well for itself over the years by re-tuning the SkyActiv engines so that they can offer an exceptional blend of naturally aspirated grunt and fuel efficiency. In the 3, this translates to 155 or 184 horsepower and 150 or 185 foot-pounds of torque (ours had the latter). That may not sound like much, but push the sport button and as the transmission gets re-geared for more high-end power, you’ll realize that in a car that weighs less than a ton and a half, the difference is pretty noticeable.

 

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain pros and cons

+ Just like the CX-3, pushing the “SPORT” button in the 3 rewards you with some nice results. Gears are held longer for greater grunt, and in my opinion this is the only way to drive a Mazda.

+ Having equal amounts of torque and horsepower is a winning mixture. The 3 rewards drivers with a seamless transition, as low-end twist effortlessly gives way to top-end throttle response.

+ Sporting a 37 mile per gallon average on the highway and 27 around town, this hatch is an efficient little guy if you can hold back from hammering on the throttle.

– After speaking with a couple of Mazda engineers at the Chicago Auto Show this year, I came away knowing that mashing the Sport button merely changes the transmission’s shift points. It seems there is room to grow in this area since the engine itself remains unaffected.

– There isn’t an Eco Mode on the Mazda3, so regular or sport driving are your only two options here. It would be interesting to see what efficiency gains are hidden in this 2.5-liter motor.

– As of now there is no turbocharged option out there for the 3, and while it does offer a fun driving experience, the car feels stale when compared to similar turbocharged offerings from Kia, Hyundai, Ford, and Subaru.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior

As with the other top-tier Mazdas we’ve driven, the 3 had an interior that felt very well made. Supple, well appointed, and purposefully contrasting, the Mazda3 I received had these creamy, almond-colored door panels and seats that featured just the right amount of charcoal contrast. Comparing Mazda’s interiors to its competition really puts things in perspective; this car absolutely kills it in the cabin quality game.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior pros and cons

+ Knobs, buttons, switches, and door handles all clicked, flipped, and switched soundly in place, illustrating sound craftsmanship. Those variable heated sport seats up front are as comfortable as they are stylish.

+ The gauge cluster, dash, center stack, and center armrest all look sharp, and even though I personally prefer the round air vents of the CX-3, it was nice finding that the 3 doesn’t have the CUV’s annoying armrest versus cup holder design issue.

+ While its cargo space is not the most massive thing on the market, the addition of a cargo net, hidden storage pockets, and a 60/40 split seat improve the 3’s standings.

– The lumbar support is manual, as is the passenger seat having to be manually adjusted. Even in the top-end GT model, you still have to adjust your seats like the rest of the peasants.

– There are no ventilated front seats here like what we found on the more moderately priced Kia Forte5 SX, which also happens to have a heated bench seat in the back.

– There aren’t a lot of options for the backseat in regards to charging electronic devices, so don’t expect to find any plugs or USB ports in the back.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech and safety

The version of the 3 I received had a lot of the safety features you would expect in a GT trim, and from what I witnessed it all worked flawlessly. There are a few interesting add-ons that warrant a buyer upgrading to a GT version of a Mazda, with a flip-up head-up display being the primary contender.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech pros and cons

+ I really like the tech features encased within the gauge cluster of the 3. All of the digital read-outs, adjustable multi info display (MID) options, and red-lit illumination makes the driving experience much more rewarding.

+ Mash the push-button start in the GT version of the 3 and a transparent head-up display flips up to serve as a secondary MID, showcasing vehicle speeds, safety warnings, and more.

+ The nine speaker Bose audio system sounded pretty damn good, and the 3D mapping in the navi  is always a nice touch. Making the seven-inch infotainment display both touchscreen sensitive and manually usable via a control knob is also a great option that we wish more automakers would take advantage of.

– For as cool as that head-up display is, its light blue colors don’t really match the rest of the interior. Being a flip-up design it also could be a weak point down the line when things start malfunctioning.

– Tech touches like illuminated, proximity-based, power-folding mirrors are absent, and though it’s Mazda’s base model, stuff like that is becoming commonplace in the lowest ranks of compact cars.

– While it is extremely easy to use and navigate around, there aren’t a lot of standard apps on the 3, and while that rounded display is now a Mazda staple, it would be nice to be able to fold it flat when you just want to unplug and drive.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The drive

The Mazda3 GT drives with just enough aggression to keep it fun, while tapping into all of its mid-class refinement in order to make it anything but jarring. Suspension tuning is sure-footed but not intense, with some noted body roll and nose dive under braking. After an hour behind the wheel you too will realize how good those sport seats truly are. Driver fatigue isn’t much of an issue in something so balanced, and hitting the throttle in Sport mode offers enough get-up and go to pass semis without having to floor it. I also found the 3’s cabin to be fairly quiet, even if winter tires added some drone.

Speaking of tire options, the day after I conducted this shoot it snowed like hell and the combination of the Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires and those 18-inch alloy wheels made me forget that this was just a front-wheel drive hatchback. The drivetrain is exceedingly solid too, and while gear selection via paddle shifters is always nice to see, opting for Mazda’s bulletproof six-speed manual gearbox would be the way to go.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Wrap up and review

The GT version of the Mazda3 can be had in either a 155 horsepower version or the 184 horsepower model I received. While the 2.0-liter model offers noticeably greater fuel gains, the 2.5-liter version still offers solid efficiency numbers, and since it can still be had with a stick shift I would strongly encourage you to try one on for size.

Powertrains aside, the Mazda3 is a fantastic contender, with its award-winning interior, clever tech, and ideal proportions taking it to the basket. But there’s just one major issue with the $30,000 Mazda3 GT: For four grand less, you can get a loaded version of the Kia Forte5 SX which rocks things like a more potent turbo motor, a heated steering wheel, and a flotilla of safety and performance upgrades. Luckily, the Mazda still has charm and amazing looks on its side, but for some buyers these things may not matter, and that’s when the gap narrows between the two.

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