2011 Mazda3: Driven

The Mazda3 is one of our favorite small cars on the market, but with every drive, we’re reminded that this benchmark fun-to-drive small car (and Mazda’s best-seller) might not be the right choice for every small-car shopper.

In our opinion, there’s only one way to go regarding the body styles. The 3 comes in (less expensive) four-door sedan form as well, but we think the five-door hatchback is the better-looking of the two styles. The Mazda3’s redesign is indeed expressive, and some might have trouble getting used to the grinning grille; there’s a lot to like in the rest of the design, however, as the Mazda3 has an even more aggressive yet neat and tidy appearance than before.

The 2010 Mazda3 we tested this time—virtually the same as the 2011 Mazda3, which is now on sale—came in a very bright, almost teal-like Celestial Blue that’s unlike most other blue hues currently used, and the color alone seemed to attract a lot of attention (we got an enthusiastic thumbs-up from a spiky-haired couple in a C4 Corvette of the same color). Contrast that with black leather that’s a step softer and better than you’d expect in a relatively inexpensive hatch, and we had a great combo, however.

Zoom-zoom = jackrabbit starts?

As for first impressions, the Mazda3 has a throttle pedal that is tuned to be super-aggressive, and it bugs us. A touchy gas pedal does not zoom-zoom make. Seemingly with the slightest touch of the gas (like a quarter inch or less), the Mazda3 surges forward with something like half throttle. That’s not apparent until you get further into the gas pedal’s travel and discover there’s not all that much more. You’ll adapt, but it feels gimmicky.

Truth is, the 167-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine has a nice, robust torque curve that doesn’t need disguising, just off idle, it builds steadily and feels at its most responsive in the 2,500-rpm to 4,500-rpm range—where it’s going to be for most driving.

The automatic transmission is kind of the opposite, thankfully; its behavior is snappy and decisive at full throttle or near that, but it’s a little less decisive at partial throttle. Overall, the automatic wasn’t quite the penalty box we thought it might be (we’re fans of manuals, of course, especially in small cars), and we were happy just to leave the shifter in Drive most of the time.

Fuel economy was a little disappointing. EPA ratings for our Mazda3 s Grand Touring with the 2.5-liter were just 22/29 mpg, and we saw just an average of 25 mpg over a week and 200 miles–with more than half of that gentle highway driving. Whether it’s the somewhat low gearing of the Mazda3, or its abrupt throttle, a car of this size and relatively light weight should be doing better, and to emphasize the point we saw more than 30 mpg in the mid-to-large 2011 Hyundai Sonata sedan this editor had driven in comparable conditions a week or two before.

Still one of the best-handling small cars

Of course we haven’t yet discussed what the Mazda3 does well: handling. In that respect, it’s a shining star. Find a little narrow, rough backroad, as we did, and the Mazda3 is a riot to drive; the suspension feels way more sophisticated than you might expect in a budget hatch, and it doesn’t succumb to plowing and understeer at the slightest provocation. And if you hit some mid-corner bumps, the suspension then smartly soaks it up rather than hopping. It’s very well-tuned, firm, but not too hard, and the steering is about perfect—never overboosted and with good feedback in tight corners.

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