Quality is subjective. Don’t believe me? Look at the smartphone market.

Quality is subjective. Don’t believe me? Look at the smartphone market. Actually, scratch that – this is a car site. Look at the automotive market. For some, quality is solely about sporty driving experience. Does it turn in fast? Is it quick? Does it reward you with playful performance when you want it? For others, it’s about tomb-like cabin serenity with exquisite materials and a smooth ride.

It drives superbly. Beautifully. It’s a playful, fun and thoroughly enjoyable hatch with poised steering response, great feedback through all three key touch points (hands, feet and bum).

Of course it’s more complex than that, but you get my point. The 2015 Mazda3 Sport GT epitomizes that dichotomy. Whether for you quality is an intangible concept embedded in the very core of a car, deep down where you can’t see it but where the initiated know how to feel for it, or instead something immediately evident to the senses will determine how you feel about the Mazda3.

For what it’s worth, I love the thing. And I didn’t always. The new shape for me looks a little bit like a clown shoe, with the exaggerated curves on the wheel arches giving the long hood a funny swollen bit on the end that I just couldn’t get behind. It’s grown on me though, getting less offensive and more interesting every time I see one in the flesh. Perhaps that’s an indication of good design. Perhaps it’s indicative of my fickle nature. Perhaps it’s an indication of good design.

The things I did love were adored by the starry-eyed journalist community, too, with the Mazda3 picking up a host of awards and gongs right from the outset.

It drives superbly. Beautifully. It’s a playful, fun and thoroughly enjoyable hatch with poised steering response, great feedback through all three key touch points (hands, feet and bum).

The art of tuning a chassis and suspension is extremely subtle. When you look at the spec sheet, nothing really sets this Mazda3 apart from other cars in its class. Many of them have similar basic configurations: independent, MacPherson strut type coil spring and stabilizer bar up front, independent, multi-link type coil spring and stabilizer bar in the rear.

And yet, Mazda has managed to massage real life into this car. When you skip it through a construction zone the 1,361 kg car dances underneath you like an excited toddler, hustle it round an off-ramp and the tires squeal with anthropomorphic delight. Realize you’re cornering faster than the highway traffic is moving and you brake with a solid, short pedal that gives instant response and reassuring feedback. “Hey buddy, yep, I gotcha, slowing up now. Hey! See that gap? Let’s go in there.”

Conversely, if you’re cornering too slowly a little poke of the accelerator and the 184 hp/185 lb-ft 2.5L four hustles forward. I found this engine a little harsh and I kept wanting more power from it, but that had less to do with what was on hand and more to do with what I thought the car would take.

 

The engine doesn’t feel like it’s been detuned for fuel economy and yet returns good numbers. The EPA rating is 8.1/5.9/7.1 L/100 km city/highway/combined – and I finished the week on 9.2. The highway number reflected in the rating might be a little low though, at 120 km/h I never saw better than 6.3 over the course of a trip.

To clarify, it’s not that the power is insufficient – it isn’t – but more that you’ll keep thinking “this would be so awesome with 30 more hp!” – I think that’s Mazda’s great downfall actually. The cars always feel like they’re just a little shy of their full potential. Again, not because the powertrains are no good, but because the abundant potential is so evident – following me yet?

The driving manners are part of how the 3 charmed the automotive press. The other way? A really excellent interior with perfectly executed styling, properly ergonomic layout and a gorgeous HMI system.

The rotary dial is a rip-off from the Germans. With all the best bits from the trio. The “iPad stuck on a dashboard” look is pooh-poohed by some, but it’s in the exact right setting for the driver’s eye and doesn’t eat up forward visibility with superfluous shrouding. I’m a fan. The rounded edges and finished faux-aluminum trim help finish off the look and harmonize it with the dash.

In motion, the touchscreen is no longer a touchscreen but I don’t mind that, I use the puck controller anyway. The menu items are simple, and the graphics rich. The instrument cluster is defined by a large tach with red accents, it’s not the easiest screen to read, but it’s attractive as all heck.

Our tester had the head-up display for speed, navigation and vehicle warnings. It’s a little pop-up display and I like it here just as I did in the Mini Cooper S. A HUD is just another example of the sort of driver-focused design you get in this car.

The pièce de résistance in driver focus? The six-speed manual transmission available the entire way through the model line, from base to “Pimp My Ride” trim levels you can get your very own sticky-up bit with numbers on the top and seven different slots for you to move it to. Hurrah! The shift feel is light but confident, though the clutch was too light for this subtlety-challenged writer. Still, whining about anything in a top-trim manual these days is cause for a clip over the ear. Manual makes everything better.

Anyhoo, the point is this: The Mazda3 drives exactly how it looks like it drives in the funky high-production quality ads. There’s a catchphrase attached to it, “bucka bucka” or “woozle wuzzle” – something like that.

And thus concludes our treatise on the intangible “quality” of the 3.

With 18-inch alloys, bi-xenon headlights, dual-zone automatic climate control and a rear-view camera all standard on the Mazda3 Sport GT line - plus optional leather as part of the luxury package fitted to this tester - there’s a reasonable facsimile of tangible quality too. If you’re used to heavy mahogany, silence and heft in your dining chamber, however, there are some flaws you might find frustrating.

The doors are light and feel flimsy when you open or close them – I spent the week petrified of door dings. The leather seats are nice, but the “leather-like” trim elsewhere in the cabin is unconvincing. The stitched accents in the trim are cool but also cheap.

The control switches are nicely detailed – especially the two dials for the automatic climate-control, but the console has some large gaps in the panels. All these things I don’t have a drama with – this is a car right on $30,000 with space for my small family, a sporty nature and a strong list of features.

I did have a drama with the wind noise inside the cabin. Well, I didn’t, but my daughter did. It was so loud that she kept asking me if a window was open. It also made my morning Bluetooth conversations with folk in Australia a bit of a chore.

Sometimes, that suspension felt a little crashy over speed humps or larger bumps in the road, and there was a lot of noise from the underside of the car to go with it. Tomb-like this is not.

There are competitors that get better sound insulation and feel more substantial. There are competitors that have a better reputation for reliability, and there are even competitors which make better power and torque numbers than the 3. But there are few, if any, competitors I enjoy driving more than I do this.

The 2015 Mazda3 Sport GT is a little bit rough around the edges. It reminds me a bit of a mate who spent the money his gran gave him for a suit on language classes instead. Mazda has worked hard to get the 3 into a palatable price bracket but hasn’t compromised on the engineering and foundation. Meanwhile, good attention to detail and good design make the interior an instantly welcoming and enjoyable space.

The result is a car that stands out in a sea of appliances as something special.

A thing of inherent quality.

Warranty:
3 years/unlimited distance; 5 years/unlimited distance powertrain; 7 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 3 years/unlimited distance 24-hour roadside assistance

Competitors:
Ford Focus
Hyundai Elantra GT
Hyundai Veloster
Kia Forte5
Subaru Impreza
Toyota Matrix
Volkswagen Golf

Specifications

Model Tested 2015 Mazda3 Sport GT   Destination Fee $1,695
Base Price $26,995   Price as Tested $30,190
A/C Tax $100  
Optional Equipment
Luxury Package (Leather seats, leather-like door trim, garage door opener, six-way power driver's seat, manual driver lumbar support, auto dimming rear-view mirror and leather-like rear console lid) - $1,500