The 2018 Mazda Mazda3 adds standard low-speed automatic emergency braking to a value proposition that already includes a slick design, stellar performance, and solid fuel economy numbers. But it continues to have issues with cramped rear quarters, a finicky and distracting infotainment system, and advanced safety features that are only available on the top trim.

Best Value

Prices for the 2018 Mazda3 start at $18,990 including destination for a base Sport sedan with a six-speed manual transmission and escalate to over $29,000 for a fully-optioned Grand Touring hatchback with the six-speed automatic gearbox and optional paint. Sport models feature a 155-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, while Touring (new for this year) and Grand Touring models receive a larger 184-hp, 2.5-liter four cylinder engine. On all models, a six-speed manual transmission is standard, with a six-speed automatic offered as an option.

Besides the usual power bits, the base Sport comes with low-speed automatic emergency braking, a rearview camera, keyless push-button start, a seven-inch touchscreen, and Bluetooth, Pandora, Stitcher, and Aha internet radio integration. Alloy wheels are standard on the Sport hatchback.

Blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert is optional on the Sport and standard on all other trims. Mazda's most advanced safety features, including automatic high beams, lane departure warning, lane keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, traffic sign recognition, and automatic emergency braking, are optional only on the top-level Grand Touring model.

We prefer the hatchback's versatility, and would choose the mid-level Touring trim equipped with the bigger engine, 18-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front seats, a power driver's seat, leatherette seat trim, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and rain-sensing wipers.

We'd prefer the six-speed manual. Rowing your own with this transmission isn't only a joy, it ups the fun factor and saves $1,050 over the automatic. But at this point, realism rears its ugly head, and we bow to the wishes of a majority of buyers and opt for the automatic. As a result, here's what our "best value" Mazda3 looks like:

  • Model: 2018 Mazda Mazda3 5-Door Touring
  • Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder
  • Output: 184 hp / 185 lb-ft
  • Transmission:Six-speed automatic
  • Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive
  • MPG: 26 City / 35 Hwy
  • Options: Bose/Moonroof/Satellite Radio Package ($1,500, moonroof, shark fin roof antenna, satellite radio, nine-speaker Bose sound system)
  • Base Price:$22,785 (including the $895 destination charge)
  • Best Value Price:$24,285

Performance

Mazda Mazda3

Both engines offer good performance and are very fuel efficient, while the G-Vectoring Control engine management system dabs the brakes a bit to shift weight forward for a tighter line in cornering. The six-speed automatic shifts crisply, although enthusiasts will gravitate toward the very enjoyable six-speed manual with a clutch that's easy to modulate and a shifting action and short throws that are delightfully smooth.

The good news is that the Mazda3 doesn't sacrifice fuel economy at the altar of performance. A hatchback equipped with the 2.0-liter four-cylinder and six-speed automatic tops the list with an EPA-estimated 28 miles per gallon in the city, 37 mpg on the highway, and 32 combined. The worst-case scenario is the hatchback with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder mated to the six-speed automatic that checks in with an EPA-estimated 26 mpg in the city, 35 highway, and 30 combined. Meanwhile, we managed a vehicle-measured 27.8 mpg in spirited suburban driving in our automatic-equipped Grand Touring hatchback.

But all is not perfect. Although not unusual for a smaller, non-turbocharged four-cylinder, power in the base 2.0-liter engine doesn't come on strongly until around 4,000 rpm, which is on the high side. The full-electric power steering system isn't as good as the combination electric and hydraulic system on the last-generation model. Also, the G-Vectoring Control system can sometimes work a little too aggressively – especially during high-speed cornering when it can feel like the brakes are being applied to the rear wheels.

Style

Following a mild refresh last year, the Mazda3 steps into 2018 with a pair of what are arguably the slickest-looking designs in the compact class. It starts up front with the requisite five-point corporate grill and wing-shaped chrome trim that traces the lower two-thirds until it meets the headlights. Bi-LED headlights with auto-leveling and LED daytime running lights and taillights are now standard on Grand Touring models, while below the grille a lower valance with a narrow lower air intake is flanked by pods that, on the Grand Touring, house small, round, LED fog lights that sit above a lower air dam.

Along the sides, three character lines trace arcs from the front fenders to the front door handles, above the rear door handles to above the taillights (on sedans the arc begins just behind the C-pillars), and from behind the lower front wheel wells to nearly midway in front of the rear wheel wells. The 16-inch steel wheels are wrapped in P205/60 R16 all-season tires are standard on Sport models, while both Touring and Grand Touring models (like our tester) come with 18-inch alloys finished in dark silver that are wrapped in Dunlop SP Sport 5000 Symmetrical P215/45R18ultra high performance all-season tires.

In back, the horizontal teardrop-shaped taillights are wider on the sedan, although we prefer the sportier overall look of the hatchback that features a standard rear wiper and bright-finished dual exhaust outlets.

Both body styles are wrapped around an intuitive interior layout that, thanks to added sound insulation, is much quieter than the previous model. The front seats are supportive, among the best in the compact class, with large cushions and big seatbacks that offer a natural position. All horizontal and many vertical surfaces are now covered in soft-touch materials. The gauges are straightforward and easy to read with a prominent center tach that contains a digital speed readout flanked by a transmission indicator to the left and information center on the right. The dashboard layout and much of the trim is better than average, while the perforated-leather found on the Grand Touring gives it a luxury-level look. In addition, thanks to the low cowl and beltline and relatively narrow c-pillars, the driver’s view out the front, sides, rear three quarters and back are anywhere from very good to excellent.

But perfection is eluded as the hatchbacks sleek shape cuts into rear seat head room, where leg room is already tight for the class, while the lower-quality headliner and hard plastic rear door trim are disappointments in an otherwise splendid cabin. Moreover, the sedan's trunk falls short at just 12.4 cubic feet and, over the years, Mazda's infotainment system has gotten more complicated, not simpler. Not only is it distracting, it's neither Android Auto nor Apple CarPlay compatible.

The Best and Worst Things

The Mazda3 reminds us that it's the small things that count. In this case, it's the "organ style" accelerator pedal – hinged at the bottom – which Mazda believes feels more comfortable, and we agree. Common in German luxury cars, it's rarer in this class.

The well-controlled ride is on the firm side and definitely not plush. While some will find it entertaining, it can get busy over rough pavement and can prove to be tiring on long trips.

Right For? Wrong For?

Mazda Mazda3

A sharp manual transmission and class-leading handling will appeal to value-oriented enthusiasts.

At the same time, a cramped rear seat and poor infotainment system will have families looking elsewhere.

The Bottom Line

While it disappoints with a cramped rear seat, distracting infotainment system, and advanced safety features only available on the Grand Touring model, the 2018 Mazda Mazda3 remains a top choice in the compact class thanks to its stunning exterior, quick and agile handling, and pair of entertaining and fuel efficient four-cylinder engines.