Budget luxe. If there’s a story to be told about the 2020 Mazda Mazda3, it’s that of a car grown up. This is a racy adolescent that put on a suit and tie – though there’s still a gleam in the eye.
It’s a good-looking suit. The Mazda3’s exterior is deceptively simple, but a long hood and cohesive design lend a presence that compact cars usually lack. It’s dressed up without feeling overly formal.
The inside is just as nicely laid out. A low beltline adds to the sense of space, and bright trim accents add flair without being distracting.
The misfit of the bunch is the hatchback. The design isn’t bad, but the shortened body and wide rear pillar don’t have the same elegance as its sedan sibling. We’re generally hatchback fans, but we’d be hard-pressed to pass up the sedan this time.
Fun grown up. The maturation continues with the driving experience. Mazda has a history of spunky economy cars, and the previous Mazda3 was a blast to toss around. This version remains entertaining, but it tones down the enthusiasm.
The suspension is more refined, the cabin quieter. The steering is still well-weighted and accurate, but the ride is compliant enough to absorb bumps in the road. It’s a nice balance between comfort and agility.
The engine is balanced as well. Its 186 horsepower is more than many rivals, and natural aspiration means a linear and predictable delivery of power. The six-speed automatic transmission that comes on most trims is quick and predictable, and the six-speed manual is as precise as a Miata. The available all-wheel drive doesn’t spoil the handling, and it’s quick to compensate in slippery conditions.
Compact who? The Mazda3 doesn’t just look like a larger car – it feels like one on the inside. Seats are supportive, and the driver gets a perfect seating position and a pleasantly chunky wheel.
In general, interior fit and finish help the Mazda3 punch above its weight class. Low-sheen surfaces cover the dash and doors, with tasteful accents throughout the cabin. In many trims, the Mazda3 compares favorably to some entry-level luxury cars.
Space in the second row isn’t quite as impressive, but it’s adequate for a compact car. Ingress and egress are easy, at least.
With 13 cubic feet of cargo space, the sedan trails the hatchback – but not by as much as you might think. The hatch is designed for European markets, so it’s nearly 8 inches shorter than the sedan, and it therefore only offers 20 cubic feet of cargo capacity, which is only average for the class.
Asking a premium. With a starting price of over $22,000, the Mazda3 asks more than rivals like the Honda Civic. In addition to the car’s premium feel, Mazda adds extra features to make up the difference. The 8.8-inch infotainment screen is generous, and Mazda’s standard suite of safety tech includes advanced features like adaptive cruise control.
The base trim is likable enough, but our favorite trim is the Select. For a price increase of $1,200 over the base Mazda3, the Select gains smartphone compatibility, synthetic leather upholstery, and dual-zone automatic climate control. It feels premium enough to justify the price.
Our biggest complaint is the infotainment system. The display is crisp, but the interface has a series of menus that takes getting used to. It’s not the worst system we’ve used, but others from competitors are more intuitive.
Final thoughts. Transitioning into adulthood is always bittersweet, and never trouble-free. We’ll miss the zest of previous Mazda3 generations, and we wish that Mazda would update their infotainment system (and their hatchback design).
Overall, however, the 2020 Mazda3 benefits from maturity. It’s now a small car that’s as refined as it is fun and as polished as it is stylish. It’s not without flaws, but it deserves a place on the shortlist of best-in-class compact cars.