Taking the compact segment to new heights

Car enthusiasts in the market for a performance compact car don’t have a whole lot of choice left here in Canada.

The Volkswagen Golf GTI is the obvious choice for most moderate speed freaks, while the Hyundai Veloster N and Honda Civic Type R serve as more track-focused – although slightly more juvenile – alternatives.

If something a little more grown up is in the offing, there’s always the 2021 Mazda3 GT Turbo. This surprisingly quick and refined compact is worthy of consideration by anyone in the market for a sporty small car – and it offers the added benefit of all-wheel drive to boot.

Styling: 8/10

While a handsome car, the latest Mazda3 mostly flies under the radar thanks to its tame styling. The large grille is probably the most out-there part of this sedan’s exterior appearance and is flanked by a set of narrow LED headlights with throwback circular lighting elements. Around back, it incorporates narrow taillight lenses with twin circular lights, while a set of dual exhaust tips convey the four-door’s sporting aspirations. Our test car also came equipped with luscious Soul Crystal Red Metallic paint (a $495 option) and gloss-black 18-inch wheels, helping further lean into its mild performance attitude.

Safety: 10/10

The range-topping GT trim that we tested comes loaded with pretty much every advanced safety feature that exists in 2021, including blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control that works in stop-and-go traffic, lane-keep assist, lane-departure warning, and automatic high-beam control.

In addition, the Mazda3 is one of only two compact cars to be designated a Top Safety Pick+ by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) – the highest honour the notoriously stringent safety watchdog hands out. In short, the Mazda3 is among the safest compact cars on sale today.

Features: 9/10

Standard equipment on this well-equipped GT trim model includes leather upholstery, a 10-way power driver’s seat, heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, an 8.8-inch infotainment display with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, a 12-speaker stereo, a seven-inch digital driver’s display, and the aforementioned suite of active safety tech.

Our test car also came equipped with the $1,700 Premium package, which adds a head-up display with impressively sharp graphics, front and rear automatic emergency braking, a front wiper de-icer, a frameless auto-dimming rearview mirror, and a surround-view camera system. It’s hard to imagine how Mazda could jam more features and technology into this little compact sedan.

User Friendliness: 5/10

The Mazda3’s 8.8-inch widescreen display is hard to use, plain and simple. Since it’s not touch-responsive, a rotary dial and buttons on the console are used to control the screen, but many crucial aspects of the system are hidden behind menus. Making even the slightest adjustments to the audio or navigation was extremely difficult while driving and the situation was made worse by the screen’s small font that’s hard to read.

Visibility from the driver’s seat is also less than stellar. The Mazda3’s high beltline and rearward sloping roof lend to its handsome exterior appearance but detract from outward visibility.

Practicality: 6/10

As we noted when we tested the 2020 Mazda3, the sedan has one of the smallest trunks in the segment at 374 L. The Mazda3 Sport hatchback offers more practicality for roughly the same amount of money – and is available with the same turbo engine and all-wheel drive – while providing a little more day-to-day usability.

This small sedan also has a very compact rear seat. With just 891 mm (35.1 in) of rear legroom, the spaciousness of the Mazda3’s backseat falls well short of the competition. For example, the Toyota Corolla offers more than 150 mm (5.9 in) of additional legroom in the back.

Comfort: 9/10

What the Mazda3 lacks in practicality it makes up for in comfort. Even with the optional 18-inch wheels, this sedan’s refined suspension surprised us with its smooth and supple ride. Road and wind noise on the highway is essentially non-existent as well.

The interior, meanwhile, has great sound-deadening, ergonomic front and rear seats, a thin and easy-to-hold steering wheel, and highly impressive build quality for a vehicle in this segment and at this price point. We were seriously impressed with how nice of a place the Mazda3’s cabin was to sit.

Driving Feel: 8/10

Like many other Mazdas, this small sedan is impressively poised and handles well – especially for a vehicle that’s not marketing itself as an outright performance offering. Sure, true performance compacts like the VW GTI are a bit more engaging when out on a spirited drive, but this GT Turbo model still has nice steering feel and plenty of grip in its reserves.

We didn’t get to test out the vehicle’s all-wheel drive system in the wet or on snow, but it can actively allocate engine torque to the necessary wheel to help maintain control and stability. This is also one of the few cars in its segment available with all-wheel traction, which is surely worth a few points.

Power: 10/10

Mazda’s turbocharged 2.5L four-cylinder engine produces an impressive 250 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque on 93 octane fuel, allowing the Mazda3 to accelerate from zero to 100 km/h in about six seconds. That impressive torque figure also provides ample passing power throughout the rev range and enables the four-door to pull hard even at highway speeds.

Don’t think this is some overly boosted and unrefined four-cylinder, though. In day-to-day driving, the Mazda’s 2.5L turbo is buttery smooth and has near-silent running operation.

The turbo four-cylinder pairs with a six-speed automatic transmission, which seems a little out-of-date in today’s day and age of nine- or 10-speed transmissions, but the six-speed doesn’t hang gears and has quick, smooth shifts. While the base 2.0L-powered Mazda3 is available to order with a six-speed manual, this range-topping turbo model is available with an automatic only.

Fuel Economy: 7/10

Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) rates the turbocharged all-wheel-drive Mazda3 at 10.1 L/100 km in the city, 7.3 on the highway, and 8.8 combined. That makes the Mazda3 more efficient than another powerful turbocharged all-wheel-drive sedan, the Subaru WRX, which has a combined fuel economy rating of 11.5 L/100 km. Still, it’s worth noting that this powerful compact four-door is markedly less efficient than some of its less-powerful front-wheel-drive rivals like the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.

Value: 7/10

This range-topping GT model starts at $34,750 with the optional turbocharged engine, including destination. It’s certainly not cheap for a compact like this, but it’s still good value for money. With a surprisingly powerful engine, hugely impressive build quality, an abundance of standard features and a highly refined driving experience, it’s hard to say the Mazda3 isn’t worth the price of admission.

The Verdict

The 2021 Mazda3 GT Turbo really has it all. A powerful engine, sporty-yet-refined suspension, poised handling, a well-appointed interior, great safety ratings, and rock-solid build quality. It’s easy to overlook this unassuming four-door, but with a lower base price and a more grown-up attitude than competitors like the Volkswagen GTI, it’s worth checking out.

Our only qualms with the Mazda3 lie with its small trunk and tiny back seat, but for consumers who can appreciate the car’s powertrain, build quality, and features, we think it’ll be easy to overlook these minor drawbacks.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 2.5L   Model Tested 2021 Mazda3 GT Turbo AWD
Engine Cylinders Turbo I4   Base Price $33,000
Peak Horsepower 250 hp @ 5,000 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 320 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm   Destination Fee $1,750
Fuel Economy 10.1 / 7.3 / 8.8 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $37,000
Cargo Space 374 L  
Optional Equipment
$2,150 – Soul Crystal Red Metallic Paint, $450; Premium Package, $1,700