REVIEW: Mazda3 a practical hatchback with extra pep

What makes a good getaway car?

Well, if you’re looking to knock over a bank, the likes of John Dillinger would tell you to get something with a V-8. If, however, you’re looking to just escape from the everyday, something thriftier might do.

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Something like this, the Mazda3 hatchback. When it first replaced the happy little Protege5 in the early 2000s, the Mazda3 was an extremely popular choice in the Lower Mainland. However, demand tapered off a little as the design got smiley-er, and the original 2.3-litre engine was a bit thirsty.

Mazda has since improved its overall fleet fuel consumption very effectively, and their design language is flat-out excellent. The Mazda3 Sport has an efficient four-cylinder engine, a practical hatchback layout, and it’s priced competitively with other affordable compacts like the Toyota Corolla.

However, to truly make for a decent getaway machine, the Mazda3 is going to have to do more than just be pretty and practical. It’s got to have a bit of zip. Time to load up, and get out of town.

Design

Arguably, the hatchback variant of the Mazda3 is less well-executed than the sedan. That rear three-quarter view emphasizes the lack of windows, and while such is probably safe in a collision, it does really hand you a couple of blind spots when backing up.

And, since we’re kicking off with complaints, Mazda really needs to dig deep into its back catalogue and come out with some more interesting paint options. Yes, most people prefer safe choices like grey, black, silver, and white. But if you’re going to offer a blue or a brown, maybe punch up the intensity a little.

Having said that, this car, in the optional Soul Red paint (a $450 option) is flat-out gorgeous. It looks like it should cost at least as much as a mid-level BMW or Mercedes crossover, and has a far more cohesive design.

The sides aren’t over-adorned with styling swooshes and swipes, just curves. The 18-inch wheels are reasonably sized. The LED headlights and taillights are sporty and upscale looking, without being overly aggressive.

For what’s supposed to be positioned as a compact economy car, the Mazda3 is stunning. It’s a welcome relief from over-styled boxes.

Environment

As with the exterior, the inside of the Mazda3 looks more like a luxury car than a Corolla competitor. There’s lots of piano-black trim, a simple dashboard designed around a right-sized screen, a handsome driver instrument panel, and well-finished build quality.

Yet every decision has consequences, and the Mazda’s interior is going to ask you to make a few compromises. The rear seats, for instance, have only barely acceptable legroom. It’s also a bit of dark cavern back there with the limited greenhouse.

Up front is much better, with useful cubbies for all kinds of gear, and a clever armrest that slides open to store your smartphone quickly. But Mazda’s infotainment controls are built around a rotary dial, which means the cupholders are pushed forward. Hardly a deal breaker in something like an MX-5, but kind of an annoyance in a daily driver.

Overall though, the experience of sitting in the Mazda3 is the same as looking at it curbside. It punches far above its economy-minded weight category.

Performance

And then there’s how it drives. Mazdas have long come with excellent driving dynamics baked in, and there’s a very good reason for this. If you visit Mazda’s hometown of Hiroshima, you’ll note that the twisty mountain roads are right outside town. In Tokyo, you have to drive for hours to get outside of town, with punitive tolls. Hiroshima, the good stuff is right on the city’s doorstep.

Because of this, Mazda’s engineers tend to get obsessed about driving dynamics as a priority. And, happily, this means the Mazda3 is wonderful to drive.

Not that you’d know it from the engine. A 2.5-litre four-cylinder that makes a peppy 186 horsepower, it doesn’t sound particularly snarly. It revs willingly, and provides sufficient acceleration, but doesn’t have the character of the related 2.0-litre engine you get in the MX-5. But then again, that engine requires premium fuel, and the Mazda3 does not.

And then again, Mazda will do something fairly daring for a mainstream manufacturer in this day and age. They’ll sell you a Mazda3 with a proper manual gearbox. And not just in the base model either, but with the all-the-bells-and-whistles GT version.

Loaded up with camping gear and traipsing through a canyon in the Cascades, the Mazda3 was the ideal escape pod for a weekend away. It sipped fuel when cruising on the interstate, and when the satellite navigation started showing some twistier parts, picked up its skirts and hustled.

The transmission is effortless to shift without being rubbery, and winding the engine up does squeeze a bit of character out of it. Really though, the liveliest bit of the Mazda3 is its chassis, which manages to be comfortable over bumps and dips, but also really quick through the corners.

It’s not frenetic either, with too-quick steering, but genuinely well-sorted. The chassis is so predictable in its responses that it wouldn’t be out of character to take the Mazda3 out for a day at a high performance driving school, or at least an autocross.

It’s enough to make you wish for a new Mazdaspeed3, one equipped with the turbocharged 2.5-litre engine that’s available in the CX-5 and CX-9 crossovers. Mazda says that isn’t happening any time soon, but this chassis is more than up to handling the power.

As it is, the Mazda3 is peppy, comfortable, and really good fun to drive. It puts a smile on your face when the road is interesting, and is even enjoyable when looking for a shortcut on your boring weekday commute. What better escape than that?

Features

At $21,300, the hatchback Mazda3 is more expensive than the sedan variant. This week’s GT tester was particularly hard on the wallet, at $28,850. That’s nearly entry-level WRX territory. However, the GT comes with everything from leather seating to navigation to a 12-speaker premium audio system. You might not need all the goodies.

Fuel economy figures are average on paper, but the Mazda3 consistently hits its mark. Official figures are 9.2 litres/100 kilometres in the city and 6.6 l/100 km on the highway, and over the course of some extremely varied driving, including through mountain passes and urban commuting, the Mazda3 returned a pragmatic 7.5 l/100 km.

Green light

Looks great, inside and out; fun to drive but still economical; practical hatchback.

Stop sign

Rear blind spots; gets pricey with options; some interior ergonomic flaws.

The checkered flag

All the pragmatism of a daily driver, with a bit more fun baked in.

Competition

VW Golf: If you just look at it, the Volkswagen Golf doesn’t appear very interesting. The GTI and R variants are cool, of course, but the standard car gets overlooked a bit. Which is a shame, because it’s a really good drive in a practical package.

A turbocharged 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine returns excellent highway fuel economy, and has good low-end power for around town. It handles well, yet is still quite comfortable.

Admittedly, the Golf doesn’t have a great deal of character, but it’s livelier than many other options, and still very sensible.

mcaleeronwheels@gmail.com

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