2018 Mazda3: Hello, Old Friend [Review]

2018 Mazda3 Grand Touring
[Photo: TFLcar]
Normally, I wouldn’t delve into a story about my previous cars. But when I was handed the key to a 2018 Mazda3 Grand Touring, I saw it as a bit of an occasion. You see, three years ago, in December 2014, I purchased a brand new car. I traded up to a 2015 Mazda3 Sport sedan with a 2.0-liter SkyActiv engine and 6-speed manual transmission. The 2015 model was the second year in Mazda’s third generation of it’s best-selling model worldwide.

Now, I had the chance to drive the recently restyled and updated 2018 Mazda3 to see just how much the car has come on in the past three years. On paper, it all looks familiar. This one comes in Mazda’s Soul Red metallic – my favorite color and a signature for the brand. There are still three trim levels (Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring). You can also choose from two engines: a 2.0-liter SkyActiv four-cylinder with 155 horsepower, or a larger 2.5-liter version with 184 horsepower. You can still have a six-speed automatic or six-speed manual across all trim levels. It still starts around $18,095, rising to roughly $30,000 for a Grand Touring with some options. There are a few changes though, that have seriously improved the Mazda3’s driving experience.

What’s New

A lot of changes from the Mazda3’s 2017 mid-cycle refresh carry over to the 2018 model. This isn’t a radical overhaul, but there are some important new features worth mentioning. For instance, Smart City Brake Support (SCBS) is now standard across the range. That means every Mazda3 now gets collision avoidance technology that watches out for anything you might hit at slow speeds, like in stop-and-go traffic.

Touring models get several new features in the 2018 Mazda3. If you opt for the Touring, you now get the 2.5-liter SkyActiv engine as standard. You also get new dark silver alloy wheels, and an overhead console with a sunglasses holder and illuminated vanity mirror are standard. The Touring Popular Package has been changed to include a power moonroof and a Bose 9-speaker surround sound system for $1,500.

If you go one further and get the Grand Touring, LED lights now come as standard equipment. The Grand Touring Premium Equipment Package ($1,600) includes High Beam Control, Lane Departure Warning with Lane Keep Assist, Radar Cruise Control, Smart Brake Support (like SCBS, but at faster speeds) and Traffic Sign Recognition.

2018 Mazda3 Grand Touring
[Photo: TFLcar]


If you pick the Sport trim, you still get the 155-horsepower, 2.0-liter SkyActiv engine. It’s good for up to 37 MPG (I actually achieved over 50 MPG at some points here in Colorado, with a manual transmission). However, it doesn’t feel quite punchy enough to deliver a spirited drive, so you may want to consider bumping up to the more powerful Touring or Grand Touring. If you do, you get a 2.5-liter, 184 horsepower, 185 lb-ft torque engine. That 30 horsepower really makes a difference in the way this car goes, even if you take a bit of an MPG hit in the process. The 2.0-liter engine delivers up to 28/37/31 City/Highway/Combined MPG with the automatic, while the 2.5-liter gets 27/36/30. During my test, I averaged around 28 MPG in mixed conditions.

While the 2018 Mazda3’s performance may look similar on paper to that of the Mazda3 I previously owned, it feels like a totally different car. That’s mainly thanks to Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control feature, which is now standard across all models (even the Sport). This car truly has pin-sharp handling. Even fitted with Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires, I still felt complete confidence thanks to that system, the car’s well-honed suspension and laser-accurate steering.

Acceleration isn’t blistering (the Grand Touring’s 0-60 is rated at 7.4 seconds), but the engine and transmission are incredibly responsive, particularly in Sport mode. Sport mode holds gears longer and subtly sharpens throttle response to provide a more spirited driving experience. As with most car enthusiasts, I prefer rowing my own gears. However, the SkyActiv-Drive 6-speed automatic snaps through the gears with nary a moment’s hesitation. The paddle shifters allowed me to keep moving through the gears at breakneck speed. So, while it may not be the fastest car, its acceleration feels seamless. I almost came out of the experience preferring it over the manual.

2018 Mazda3 Grand Touring
[Photo: TFLcar]

Comfort and Convenience

You won’t be wanting for feel or convenience when sitting behind the wheel of the 2018 Mazda3. Mazda laid out the controls well, with the entertainment features relegated to the MazdaConnect infotainment system, which you operate by a command wheel and five buttons down on the center console. The leather-wrapped steering wheel and optional, full-color Active Driving Display gives the Mazda3 a premium feel for its driver. You can also get the Grand Touring Premium Package mentioned earlier, with all the modern safety features you’ve come to expect.

For $1,750, you can get the Appearance package, which does sharpen up this car’s already handsome looks quite nicely. You get a front air dam, black mirror caps, a rear hatch spoiler, a rear bumper skirt and side sill extensions. On top of that, scuff plates and door sill trim plates cost another $125. It’s not cheap, but fashion rarely is.

While I like the way it’s laid out and Mazda’s minimalist approach, I found a few annoyances with the interior. The MazdaConnect system has most of the features you want – satellite radio, navigation, bluetooth controls, vehicle settings, etc. However, it’s a few years old now, and while Mazda has updated it periodically, it’s not the most intuitive system. There’s also no Apple CarPlay/Android Auto support, for you hopefuls. The instrument cluster hasn’t really changed since the new Mazda3 first debuted. You do get a nice, big tachometer in the middle for a sporty flavor, which I like. However, the digital font feels slightly outdated for a “premium-feeling” car.

One area where the 3 has massively improved over my experience in the older model is noise. The car is 0.6 shorter than it used to be, and the A-pillar is more steeply raked. That pays dividends with a drag coefficient of 0.28 for the hatch, and class-leading 0.255 for the sedan. I also remember the door-placed mirrors creating some wind noise, but I didn’t notice that in this new model.

TFLcar’s Take

The 2018 Mazda3, in any guise, is a good-looking, practical, fun to drive hatchback. When I bought my Mazda3 years ago, I felt it was one of the best driving compacts for under $30,000, and it’s only gotten better since. It’s a well-rounded option against its competitors, such as the Volkswagen Golf, Honda Civic, Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra GT. If Mazda introduced forced induction, it could possibly be king among its peers. New Mazdaspeed3, anyone?

SPECIFICATIONS: 2018 Mazda3 Grand Touring Hatchback

Base MSRP: $24,945
Price as Tested: $29,770
Engine:  2.5-liter SkyActiv-G four-cylinder with VVT and direct injection
Horsepower: 184 hp @ 5,700 RPM
Torque: 185 lbs.-ft. @ 3,250 RPM
Transmission:  6-speed SkyActiv-DRIVE automatic w/ paddle shifters and Sport mode
Suspension: Front: Independent MacPherson strut w/ twin-tube shock absorbers
Rear: Independent multi-link w/ twin-tube shock absorbers
Brakes: Power-assisted four-wheel discs (vented front) w/ ABS, EBD and BA
Tires: Bridgestone Blizzak P215/50 R18 winter tires
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons
Fuel economy (EPA): 27 City/36 Highway/30 Combined MPG
Drag Coefficient: 0.28


Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Length:  175.6 inches
Width: 70.7 inches
Height:  57.3 inches
Turning Circle: 37.07 feet
Curb Weight: 3,028 pounds