The 2017 Mazda3 5-Door Grand Touring Review: The Compact Car, Perfectly Executed

Mazda's hatchback does everything a car needs to do and almost everything you want it to—and it does it all with style.

Mazda

​​​​Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: The 2017 Mazda3 5-Door Grand Touring.

The Mazda3 has been one of the under-appreciated heroes of the family car world for quite a while now. It's the most entertaining option in a class filled with entrants ranging from the exceptional (Honda Civic, Subaru Impreza) to the mediocre (Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus) and even the craptastic (Dodge Dart, non-Evo versions of the Mitsubishi Lancer). Even the crummiest Mazda3 I've ever driven—an automatic-equipped base model rental car—was anything but crummy. (Figuratively speaking, at least. It did have quite a few actual crumbs in it.) That car knocked out a 13-hour impromptu road trip from Kentucky to Manhattan in style, proving itself as relaxed on the long, speedy flatlands of Pennsylvania as it was entertaining on the winding country roads of West Virginia. 

Climb up to the Grand Touring model that I tested more recently, though, and you've got about as nice a car as can be had for under $28,000. Standard features includes items like leather upholstery, heated seats, a nine-speaker Bose stereo, and a head-up display. Granted, it's not as fancy as the HUDs found in luxury cars; it projects onto a transparent pop-up panel on the dashboard hood, not the windshield ... but that just makes it less prone to washout. Plus, it looks like something out of an F-104 Starfighter, which is cool. The seats proved themselves over nearly 1,000 miles of driving in a long weekend. Never once did my legs, back, or cheeks complain, even after eight hours behind the wheel. Adding on the i-Active Safety Package found on my tester also brings the type of advanced active safety features like radar cruise control, lane departure warning and lane keep assist, and traffic sign recognition (in case you miss a speed limit sign because you're having too much fun rowing the slick six-speed manual through the gears) that most people still don't associate with inexpensive compacts.

But something tells me Mazda doesn't really care if the 3 never comes close to the sales volume of Civic and Corolla. Obviously, it's looking to sell plenty of cars, but it's a small, independent automaker; it knows it's never going to compete on volume with a company whose market cap dwarfs the GDP of Kazakhstan. Like Subaru, its fellow go-it-alone Japanese carmaker, Mazda seems happy to sell cars that dance to their own rhythm and made for people who do the same. For Subaru, that manifests primarily through all-wheel-drive; for Mazda, it's about making ones that are fun to drive. 

Mazda

The Pros:

  • You can get a manual on nearly every trim. Nearly every other carmaker restricts sticks to base models or sporty variants, but Mazda offers it widely—and doesn't penalize buyers for choosing it by restricting their options, either.
  • Even with the active cruise control, you still get the choice of passive or active. It's not hidden deep within a submenu, like on some cars: tap the cruise control's on button a second time, and it goes to old-school mode. 
  • It packs a punch. 185 ponies and 184 pound-feet is enough to place the 2.5-liter Mazda3 above most cars in its class. And considering it's only pushing around 3,100 pounds, that feels like enough power to fly. 
  • Every aspect of the handling just feels natural. Mazda makes a big deal about its mantra of jinba ittai, or "horse and driver as one"—which sounds like the sort of hokey ad slogan Don Draper would shoot down like a Nike missile, until you get behind the wheel. The G-Vectoring Control system, which regulates engine torque during turns to improve stability and deliver a smoother driving experience, is the sort of thing you'll never notice, but it's a delightfully unique idea that shows just how far the company is willing to go to improve even the smallest aspect of the drive. 
Mazda

The Cons:

  • I still have no idea what the "official" model name is. Mazda3, or just 3?
  • The hatchback doesn't add all that much space. Blame that sultry fastback-style roofline at the stern, which slices into cargo room for the sake of style.
  • No Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Not a cardinal sin, and the standard-across-the-board Mazda Connect infotainment system makes paring cell phones via Bluetooth and playing iPods through the USB jack easy. But in an era when Apple and Google's smartphone-mirroring features are becoming expected, it's getting harder to justify.
  • Screw the stupid shift-suggestion indicator. It sits big and proud in the instrument panel, suggesting the driver upshift around 2,000 rpm. If I wanted a computer to tell me when to shift, I'd buy the automatic.
Mazda

The 2017 Mazda3 5-Door Grand Touring, Ranked:

Performance: 3/5

Comfort: 4/5

Luxury: 4/5

Hauling people: 3/5

Hauling stuff: 3/5

Curb appeal: 4/5

“Wow” factor: 2/5

Overall: 4/5

Mazda

The Bottom Line:

In some ways, the Mazda3 is the compact car's best self: an ideal equilibrium of value, style, comfort, and fun. Other cars may have it beat in one aspect or another—the new, turbocharged Civic Si packs more performance, the Chevy Cruze Diesel gets better mileage, the Hyundai Elantra jams in more features—but none of them manage to balance them as well as this Mazda does. 

Mazda

By the Numbers:

Price (as tested): $24,730 ($27,730)

Powertrain: 2.5-liter inline-four with 184 horsepower / 185 pound-feet; six-speed manual; front-wheel-drive

Fuel Economy: 25 city, 33 highway

Top Speed: 132 miles per hour (electronically limited)

Gas still left in the tank when the fuel light pops on: Roughly 3.1, give or take a little