Long-Term Review: Here’s What I Think of the 2021 Mazda 3 After a Year and 17,000 Miles

2021 Mazda 3 - post feature TotD
Running Tail of the Dragon was by far my favorite experience in my new Mazda 3 over the year I’ve owned it — at least for now. (Images: Zach Butler)
Fantastic handling (at least if you get off the stock tires) Getting the manual does limit you to a hatchback and FWD
Sharp styling, inside and out Exterior styling hurts rear visibility
Comfortable on long-distance trips Flimsy paint (Polymetal Gray looks cool, but it
will scratch and chip easily)
One of the few sub-$30K cars left with a manual option Turbo models push the price over $30K
Mazda is currently rocking IIHS safety ratings (Top Safety Pick+)

I’m back in a Mazda — surprise, surprise!

As impartial as I try to be in my role here, I’ll fully own up to my reputation as the TFL Studios’ resident Mazda fanboy. I sold my first-generation CX-5 about 16 months ago, but I couldn’t resist the itch to get into something different for very long. So, I ended up buying this Polymetal Gray Mazda 3 hatchback, and I wanted to update you guys on what it’s been like over the past year and 17,000 miles.

A bit of background: I more or less ended up buying this Mazda 3 hatchback with a 6-speed manual (oh yes!) in May 2021. Now, I set a few criteria before actually pulling the trigger on something new. Whatever I chose had to come in under $30,000, have three pedals, and it had to manage at least decent fuel economy. It also had to be fun to drive, because of course it does.

There are a few other noteworthy contenders to mention in that price bracket. The Honda Civic Si is a solid choice, as is the Kia Forte GT. The Volkswagen Jetta GLI is one of the more powerful options as is the Hyundai Elantra N or Veloster N, though all three are now solidly over the $30,000 mark. I spent weeks considering all those cars, but the Mazda3 offers more sophisticated styling and a premium feel that the others just do not match at this price.

2021 Mazda 3 - Long-term update

The Mazda 3 is more versatile in this generation, but consider your options carefully.

This generation also brings in a few more options in the $23,000-$36,000 range, including all-wheel drive and a decently potent turbocharged engine. Where you don’t get so much choice anymore is with the manual transmission. This is the only Mazda beyond the MX-5 that gives you a manual option at all (good). However, there’s one way to get it: Buying a Premium-trimmed hatchback with the naturally-aspirated 2.5-liter SkyActiv engine and front-wheel drive.

The N/A 2.5-liter engine sits right in the middle of three powertrain options for the current Mazda 3. A 155 horsepower, 2.0-liter engine is available on the base sedan, while you can spec both the sedan and hatchback with a 2.5-liter turbocharged engine making 250 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque. The non-turbo version I bought puts out 186 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque. If you aren’t part of the #savethemanuals movement, then you can opt for the 6-speed automatic transmission across the Select, Preferred, Carbon Edition or Premium trims, as well as front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.

Going for the more potent 2.5 Turbo solidly tips the price over $30,000, but you do get standard all-wheel drive, that heap of torque, larger tail pipes and some more tech goodies, should you buy the fully-loaded Turbo Premium Plus.

2021 Mazda 3 interior
That piano black trim looks great when the car’s new…and for about 10 minutes after you drive it off the lot.

So, what is there to like about the Mazda 3?

Even though we’ve had plenty of automatic Mazda 3s come through the TFL press fleet — front-wheel drive, all-wheel drive; turbo, non-turbo; sedan, hatchback — I hadn’t had a chance to actually experience the new Mazda 3 with its manual transmission before I test drove and bought it. After a year and 17,000 miles (with two cross-country trips on the books), do I regret my decision to eschew both the turbo and all-wheel drive to row my own gears?

In short: No! It’s been a great experience with relatively few down sides.

Over the past 15 months, no major issues have emerged, and the car’s been a fantastic road trip companion. On the Premium trim, you get leather heated seats, a head-up display, adaptive and auto high-beam LED headlights and a solid 12-speaker Bose premium audio system. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto also comes standard across nearly the entire range, as does radar-guided cruise control. All the tech you need is here, and at no point have I been frustrated about lacking features, nor have I thought Mazda made any stupid decisions with the interior layout.

Another plus: I’ve managed up to 38.7 mpg on a tank — solidly beating the 33 mpg EPA estimate. On average, I fall closer to that highway rating with 31.5 mpg.

If you do opt for the 2.5 Turbo, you should still manage fuel mileage in the mid-to-high 20s, though it will obviously be more expensive to run, on top of being more expensive to buy. No matter which Mazda 3 you shop, though, the top reason you’ll want to try it on if you’re a keen driver, as ever, is the handling.

One change made a good car a blast in the bends

On the handling front, the Mazda 3 always entertains, pretty much regardless of which version you buy. However, while my car is still largely stock, I immediately made one change that transformed this car into a pure joy on the back roads: the tires.

Right off the lot, my car came with a set of Bridgestone Turanza EL440 all-seasons. On balance, I want to preface the following critique by saying that Bridgestone does make some excellent tires, particularly in their Potenza and Blizzak lineups. With that out of the way…man, oh man do these tires SUCK. They were okay in the dry, but on wet, cold or icy roads the Turanzas turn into hockey pucks that severely hobble the Mazda 3’s natural handling prowess. I’m hardly alone in having that opinion, either.

Suppliers change between model years and even between different versions of the same car, so your mileage may vary. If you do get the Turanza EL440s as OEM equipment on your Mazda 3, though, I highly recommend swapping them out immediately.

Ultimately, I shelled out about $650 for a set of Continental ExtremeContact DWS 06 Plus — summarily transforming this relatively humble hatchback into an epic cornering machine.

Earlier this spring, I took a cross-country trip and ran the Tail of the Dragon from North Carolina into Tennessee, and these tires performed phenomenally. The difference in ride comfort, noise, wear and grip easily make that money the best I’ve ever spent on a car. We say tires can make all the difference, and I’ll emphatically repeat that here. Over 318 curves on a legendary stretch of highway (and many more besides), I cannot say enough good things about the ExtremeContacts.

What about the down sides?

Getting back to the rest of my 2021 Mazda 3, I do have some gripes, as enthusiastic as I’ve been about the overall experience. As cool as the Polymetal Gray looks (or indeed Soul Red Crystal, Mazda’s signature color), I have never experienced such flimsy paint on any other cars I’ve tested or owned before.

Mazda, please, stop it. Look, I’ll pay a few extra bucks if it means I don’t have to deal with my car looking like hell after a single year — and yes, I’ve had that same issue with my past Mazdas as well. If you are looking into buying any car from this brand, invest in paint protection film. I skipped that option again like an idiot, and I kick myself every time I look at the front of this car for doing so. Again, don’t just take it from me: This is a common issue.

The interior has a similar issue

Another complaint in the aesthetic department comes on the inside with the piano black center console trim. This is something I love to complain about with most cars these days, and I’ll do it again here. Piano black looks cool and modern for about 10 or 15 minutes after you buy a car. After that, it just gets ruined with fingerprints, dirt and scratches to the point that it’s genuinely distressing (at least for a car neat freak like me).

Granted, those are minor issues. I’ll get to one that can actually be a real concern: the hatchback’s dreadful rear visibility. That’s the price you pay for Mazda’s curvaceous styling. You have a rear blind spot the size of Rhode Island, and while having mirrors out on the door helps, you’re still reminded of that fact every time you instinctively look over your shoulder. Fortunately, you do get used to it after a little while with well-adjusted mirrors, plus you can skirt that issue entirely by going for the sedan instead.

If you want a new Mazda 3, here are two I’d recommend

As the whole brand tries to move upmarket, Mazda’s compact car has evolved by leaps and bounds over the past couple decades. This new one is still the most affordable in the brand’s lineup, even while more folks are shifting toward crossovers (like the Mazda 3-based CX-30, for example). Against its rivals, it’s now one of the most upscale options you can get short of going into a bona fide luxury brand, plus this car is still one of the best driver’s cars around for the money.

So, if you want one, which version should you choose? Obviously, if you want a manual like I did, you only have one option. Outside that, whether you want the sedan or hatchback, I’d recommend shooting for either the Preferred trim if you want all-wheel drive, or the new-for-2022 Carbon Edition package if you’re happy sticking with front-wheel drive. Both bring most of the equipment you’ll likely need, while the latter offers contrasts the sweet-looking Polymetal Gray against a red leather interior, and the 18-inch black alloy wheels are a nice touch.

The Turbo, for its part, is also a great option.

The extra 64 horsepower and all-wheel drive is fun, though I have felt that the shift mapping for the 6-speed automatic makes the experience just a bit laggy under hard acceleration. Bear in mind, that will push you well over the $30,000 mark, and on that basis I’d just get the standard 2.5 Turbo. The Turbo Premium Plus adds in some extra aesthetic touches plus front and rear parking sensors and a 360-degree camera, but we’re talking about a fairly small and maneuverable car here. I haven’t really wanted for either feature in my Premium, plus I’d rather not spend an extra $2,550 to get them.

One final thought: Mazda has been a gold star choice over the past few years when it comes to safety. These cars have proven remarkably stout in accidents, and nearly the entire range (apart from the MX-5) carries an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ rating.

More info on the Mazda 3 below (Update 8/16: 2023 pricing is available — click the first link for more):