2021 Mazda 3 Sedan GT AWD – Best in Class

2021 Mazda 3 Sedan GT AWD
2021 Mazda 3 Sedan GT AWD

Unlike the crossover world, we don’t have many options in the compact sedan/hatchback segment, especially if you are looking for an all wheel drive car. In fact, AWD was not even an option for many years, except one or two brands. Though Mazda 3 has always been one of Mazda’s bestseller in the last decade, AWD was not available, even in sporty hothatch Mazdaspeed3 in the past.

Well, that’s not the case anymore. Like many other brands, Mazda has been following the market carefully, and modern buyers prioritize having All Wheel Drive system regardless of the body type. New Mazda 3 is not your regular compact sedan/hatchback, as it competes more with premium options like the Audi A3, rather than a Subaru Impreza. Let’s see how it can differentiate itself from the econobox crowd and if it can really compete in premium compact sedan segment.

Exterior and Interior

Looking good in every angle, red colour is an option

In the last decade, Mazda stepped up its game in terms of design language, and Mazda 3 is no exception. It is, by far, the best-looking compact sedan, period. The big chrome front grille, front headlights and body lines are uniquely Mazda. Our tester had the Soul Red Metallic colour which is a $450 option. It does not matter which colour you choose, it looks upscale, sporty and elegant at the same time.

The rear design is a great match with the overall body lines, taillight design makes it look more sporty and upscale

In the rear, things are not much different. It is a great match with the overall design of the car. Round-shaped brake lights make it look much sportier in the back. I personally like the hatchback’s rear design more than the sedan, but it’s totally subjective. It comes with dual exhaust tips which are 100% real. The C pillar design makes it more like coupe-ish, but that means it is harder to get in and out for the rear seat passengers.

Rear seat accommodation isn’t the best in class, but you would be looking for a crossover if that’s your priority

Speaking of rear seats, one of the biggest disadvantages of the Mazda 3 is the rear passenger accommodation. Due to its sporty design, it has less visibility and the headroom isn’t the best in the rear. Also, rear legroom is not great for anyone taller than 6’0″. If you are a large adult, you would want to take the front seats. It also does not have any features in the back, no USB ports, no air vents, no heated seats in the rear. You would probably buy a crossover if you are driving with your family regularly, but this is something to keep in mind.

The driving position is very good unless you are coming from a very big and tall crossover. You feel like you are a part of the driving experience. A large steering wheel radius makes it feel more sporty and premium at the same time, though the steering feel is a little bit on the numb side. Front-seat comfort is excellent, we haven’t had any fatigue during long drives. This is the most driver-focused compact sedan in 2021, without sacrificing ride comfort.

Unlike the rear seats, front seats are very comfortable for a tall adult

Overall interior quality is very good for the price range, definitely one of the best in the compact segment. However, there are some missed opportunities in terms of material choice. First of all, it is a great cabin to spend time day to day basis. The build quality is excellent for the price range, and there are multiple colour options in the interior, depending on which exterior colour you chose. However, there are too many glossy black plastic parts all around the center console, where you touch most of the time. It looks perfect when it’s new or in the showroom, but over time, it would look nasty with all the dust, scratches and fingerprints.

The digital gauge cluster is not very customizable, but it shows all necessary information and there is no lag

Like the rest of the car, the overall console-button layout is also unique. Mazda decided to put the infotainment screen far from the driver, which means it has no touch screen feature. Granted, it is very easy to use the infotainment knob, but a touch screen would have been a more convenient and faster solution in most cases. By the way, the infotainment system works great, there is no lag and resolution is perfectly fine for this segment. Rearview camera is also not blurry at all. As expected, it comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Mazda Radar Cruise Control works very well, stops and goes smoothly, though we wish there was a Lane Centering feature available at least in the top trim.

Mazda’s latest infotainment system is very easy to use and no input lag, we wish it had a touchscreen feature

Steering wheel buttons feel very solid and easy to use. It has a digital gauge cluster in the middle, which is not very customizable, there is room for improvement Mazda decided to leave for future models. Air conditioning buttons are all located in the middle of the console, and everything has dedicated physical buttons. You don’t have to rely on infotainment or electronics for essential features, which is great for longevity.

2021 Mazda 3 Sedan has 374L cargo space that can go up to 940L if you fold down the rear seats.

Mazda 3 Sedan has a surprisingly good amount of cargo space. It has 374L which can go up to 940L if you fold down the rear seats. Having AWD does not change interior or cargo space, even though it increases overall curb weight by 50 kg. If you choose All Wheel Drive, it comes with a 48L -fuel tank, instead of 50L with the front-wheel drive version. It should not be a deal-breaker if you need an all-wheel drive.

Drivetrain & Driving Impressions

This generation Mazda really differentiated itself from the regular compact sedan segment, it is probably one of the few premium and driver focused option, and the new turbocharged engine is the best proof for that. Mazda’s Skyactiv 2.5L Turbocharged engine produces 250 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque. It is the most powerful non-hothatch compact vehicle. Mazda didn’t design, engineer, or market the 3 as a performance car, instead the powerful engine is a nice addition to the overall premium feeling.

Even it has the most powerful engine in this segment, it would not make the Mazda 3 a dedicated performance machine. The good thing is, it does not force you to buy premium gas, you can also use regular gas but it reduces power slightly to 227 horsepower if you do so. Having this kind of flexibility is a great plus, as gas prices have been increasing lately. Speaking of gas prices, average consumption was 9.5L / 100 km, which is not bad for a turbocharged AWD vehicle.

Turbocharged 2.5L Skyactiv engine produces 250 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque with premium gas

The 2.5L turbocharged engine is also used in different Mazda models, and it has lots of torque down low rpm. It does not like revving too much, but you don’t even need to go over 5000 rpm as the torque curve is explosive between 2000 and 5000 rpm which makes it a great daily driver. However, if you don’t need that sort of power, you can still choose a naturally aspirated 2.5L engine which has also been known as a very reliable platform.

Mazda decided to take the “premium” brand strategy like the rest of their model lineup, and as a result, they avoid Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) at all costs. Our tester comes with 6-speed torque converted automatic transmission. If you want a manual transmission, it is still available but you need to choose the base trim or GS (mid) trim. It is not available in GT or higher trims. AWD is available in all trims except the base trim and only available with automatic transmission.

6-speed torque converted automatic transmission comes with an actual shift lever, and paddle shifters

The 6-speed torque converted automatic transmission is a proven platform that has been used in other Mazda vehicles for the last few years, and it is known as a very reliable and smooth unit. 6-speed may not sound a lot, but it is perfectly acceptable for this segment, as many other entries come with CVT. The only disadvantage is, being 6 speed, it cannot have too much flexibility in terms of gear ratios. For better fuel economy, gear ratios have to be tall and as a result, it would feel slower. However, thanks to the powerful turbocharged engine, extra torque makes the car feel more agile. Paddle shifters are easy to use, downshifts and upshifts are not spectacularly fast, but fast enough for this segment and price range.

The Turbo badge comes with a $700 price premium over the naturally aspirated engine, and it is definitely worth it

The 4-cylinder turbocharged Skyactiv engine is placed horizontally, and as a result, it has a front-biased AWD system. i-Activ AWD system not only monitors traction level in each wheel but interestingly it monitors exterior temperature and windshield wiper operation to send more power to rear wheels. It also sends more power to the rear if you choose sport mode, and it is noticeable in tight fast-speed turns.

Pricing and the Verdict

Mazda is an innovative yet traditional automotive brand, and I really appreciate what they have done with the latest Mazda 3. The brand may not be an automotive giant like some other Japanese brands, but it has a much more unique approach to the compact sedan segment. As our tester had the AWD system, it automatically eliminates some popular models like Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic. However, I would not compare the Mazda 3 with those entries. The closest match would be Audi A3 in terms of driving refinement and build quality, which shows how far they have come along in a decade.

Mazda can compete with bigger brands by offering unique products, they did a great job with the 3 Sedan

Of course, it is not perfect, but it is definitely one of the most unique entries in the compact sedan segment, which perfectly combines premium features with Mazda’s traditionally good driving dynamics. This is not a sports sedan, it never meant to be a sports car, and it can’t be a replacement for the old Mazdaspeed 3. Mazda targeted this as a premium compact sedan and turbocharged engine is meant for driving refinement rather than pure performance. 2021 Mazda 3 starts at $22,381 and if you want the AWD option, the price goes up to $28,381. Our tester is the GT AWD trim, which is priced at $34,781.

Do you need a compact sedan with AWD? Your options are limited, but it is the best compact AWD sedan alternative in 2021

There are two direct competitors (compact sedan with AWD), one being a non-premium alternative, the Subaru Impreza Sedan. The Impreza is a well-known entry in the compact sedan/hatchback class, and it can even be a few thousands dollar cheaper. It offers a great value especially in the lower trims, but the value proposition gets worse with the higher trims. However, it comes with a very weak drivetrain, almost 100 less horsepower and only CVT is available. Not to mention it is not comparable with Mazda 3 in terms of overall build quality. The premium alternative is the Audi A3, which starts at $34,500 and can go all the way up to $47.200, so much more expensive than the Mazda 3.

In my opinion, Mazda 3 offers premium features for the non-premium price tag, which makes it one of the best bang for the buck options in this segment. It may not be the most family-oriented entry, and it is totally fine. You should get the CX-5 if you need more space. The important point is, it teaches a lesson for the “big” brands how to create a unique, not-so-boring compact sedan while still being affordable.

For more details, please visit www.mazda.ca

Article and Photos by Dan Gunay