The hot hatch world has a much anticipated newcomer in the 2021 Mazda 3 Turbo. Is this a return of the promiscuous Mazdaspeed 3 of the mid-aughts, or rather Mazda’s latest attempt to move upmarket and poach sales from actual (and perceived) competitors? Let’s dig deeper and find out.
Buyers should note that the turbo treatment has been applied to both the sedan (starting at $30,050) and hatch ($31,050) version of the 3 – something that didn’t happen with the original ‘speed 3 run. In addition to the turbo, Mazda has added all-wheel drive as standard to the mix. So what else do you get for 30 grand? Let’s start with the big draw here which is the 2.5L turbo 4 cylinder, making 250 hp and a whopping 320 lb-ft of torque (on premium gas). Add to that a remarkably well assembled cabin with premium feeling materials everywhere, exceptionally soft leather seats, a sharp, color heads-up display, and Apple Carplay/Android Auto through the center display (still featuring a physical rotary control, which we prefer! No touch screens here). Added sound proofing takes away some wind and tire noise, leaving the ride eerily quiet for this class. The exterior is also exquisitely styled, with lots of modern design cues in the latest evolution of Mazda’s KODO design language. The sole transmission offered is a conventional 6 – speed automatic shared with much of the rest of the Mazda line up.
So far, so good. These attributes are exactly what help make Mazdas so fun to drive and easy to live with as all around “good cars.” But how has the turbo evolved the 3, and how does it stack up to the competition? Let me be clear, the Mazda 3 Turbo is much quicker than its naturally aspirated counterpart and something that we feel the 3 has needed for…well, since the demise of the Mazdaspeed 3. While the ergonomics are generally very good, the cabin is not built to accommodate taller drivers. With the driver’s seat in a comfortable position, your 6’2” tall author’s head was in the roof and was barely more comfortable for the 5’10” passenger. Visibility in the redesigned hatch is simply bad, with massive blind spots in the rear ¾ panels, and a limited view straight out the back of the scrunched lift gate. These complaints aren’t specific to the turbo, but to this generation of 3 as a whole. I’m sure Mazda would be quick to note safety features such as blind spot monitoring and a rear view camera help remedy these complaints. They’re not fooling us though and we’d prefer to actually be able to see out of the vehicle instead of relying on electronics to tell us when it’s safe to change lanes.
The real story here is that the Mazda 3 Turbo isn’t a return to the wildcat that the Mazdaspeed line once was – it merely provides a much needed and overdue bump in power. The transmission for us really dampens the whole car. It operates smoothly and anonymously, but it’s slow to up shift, and occasionally slow to down shift with heavy throttle input. Using the steering wheel mounted paddles to manually shift can help alleviate the lag between asking for and receiving a shift, but this is still an old fashioned, planetary auto-box. It’s limited in how fast it can shift and this version really doesn’t seem tuned for any particular application. The powertrain in this sporty hatch should feel better to drive compared to Mazda’s larger SUVs, but it doesn’t. We strongly feel that a dual clutch auto, or even a manual transmission would completely change the car’s character. Even adding an excellent conventional auto-box like the ZF 8 speed would be a paradigm shift and really deliver the upmarket feel that Mazda is going for here. Nonetheless, for reasons we won’t get into here, Mazda insists on developing a lot of its own components and the transmission is one of them. We don’t anticipate this changing any time soon.
Moving past the engine and transmission, the Mazda 3 remains an entertaining car to drive. With excellent handling traits, responsive steering that provides plenty of feedback, and a chassis that’s willing to play, this small car remains one of the best to drive in its segment. It gets a middling EPA rating of 23 city, 31 highway, 26 combined mpg, but you can save a few bucks and run the car on 87 octane in return for a modest penalty in power.
Overall, we still like what Mazda has done with the 3 Turbo. It offers plenty of power, an excellent interior that transcends its segment and price, and good driving dynamics all wrapped up in an attractive body. For buyers searching for a true hot hatch experience, we’d recommend you keep looking.