How well does the Mazda 3 carry over to the 2020 model year?

Flying in to Newark International Airport last month, I arrived at the Budget Rent a Car counter and received the keys to a familiar staple of rental fleets: a 2019 Nissan Sentra wearing scratched-up Ignore Me Silver paint. Plenty of travelers would likely ask if, pretty please, anything else was available. This previous-generation Sentra (the car was fully redesigned for 2020) is generally reviled by anyone who appreciates a fine automobile. It’s underpowered, it lacks handling poise, and it’s drab-looking inside and out. And yet, it was just what my family of three needed for a three-hour drive home to Maryland. The Sentra’s plus-sized rear backseat was perfect for our rear-facing child seat, and its big trunk swallowed our suitcases and stroller with ease. Its generously sized windows offered excellent outward visibility, and it could go 41.3 miles before burning a gallon of gasoline. And, keeping our rental rate in check, the Sentra provided plenty of features at low prices.

This brings us to the subject of today’s review: the 2020 Mazda3. Like the Sentra, it belongs to the compact economy car market segment. But that’s pretty much where the similarities stop. For two cars in the same segment, it’s hard to get more dissimilar than our tested Mazda3 and our rental Sentra — for better and for worse.

The Mazda3 is basically a luxury sports sedan (or, like in our test car, a five-door hatchback). It’s beautifully styled, elegantly finished, laden with features, and — although it’s not as energetically zippy as it once was — a pleasure to drive. It even offers all-wheel-drive, just like an Audi or BMW. Yet like a luxury car, it’s also more expensive, has a cramped rear seat and tight cargo hold, has slits for windows, isn’t cheap for its class, and gets lousy gas mileage. It would have been absolutely the wrong choice for a family road trip, even for our small family. But if you appreciate something finer than a Sentra and won’t often carry more than one extra passenger, the Mazda3 brings a high-end experience at relatively affordable prices — starting from $21,500.

2020 MAZDA3 - DESIGN AND UTILITY

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The Mazda3 was fully redesigned for the 2019 model year, with few changes for 2020.

If you’re familiar with all the details of the car’s design, this new generation seems conservative at first, breaking little new ground over the 2014-2018 model. But the seemingly small adjustments work wonders to move the vehicle upscale. By straightening out curves and simplifying details, designers sculpted the new Mazda3 into a small car with much more presence and class. Slimmer, more angular headlights and taillights are crisply detailed, and the front end leans forward more. The five-door hatchback we tested emphasizes Mazda’s performance heritage, with a sharply rising beltline and fat D-pillar that’s closer to a Hyundai Veloster than a Hyundai Elantra. The four-door sedan is more conservative though still nothing close to stodgy.

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The interior design is an even bigger improvement, helping our test car feel like a bargain even at $32,065.

We’d put the latest Mazda3’s cabin against some luxury-brand vehicles and still call it the winner. The dashboard is an evolution of the last-generation Mazda3’s elegant simplicity — with a high-mounted infotainment screen and controls between the front seats — but with even more details simplified and all the materials made markedly posher. The new infotainment system is bigger (featuring a generous 8.8-inch screen) and more cleanly integrated with the low, sweeping dashboard. The front seats feel reassuringly snug without being intrusively cramped. And, at last, Mazda has made turn-signal stalks that don’t feel wobbly.

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However, the Mazda3 has never been one of the roomiest compact cars, and that trend continues with the current generation.

The rear seat is more cramped than ever, with adults forced to wriggle their way in and out and jam their knees into the front seatbacks.

The hatchback’s over-the-shoulder visibility is almost as you’d expect from looking out of the car (mitigated by blind-spot monitoring that’s standard equipment on every five-door Mazda3). The sedan’s trunk space has improved from 12.4 cubic feet — one of the smallest in its class — to a more acceptable 13.2 cubic feet. In the hatchback, Mazda quotes a competitive 20.1 cubic feet behind the rear seat, but it would be tough to use that much space in the real world. The sloping rear windshield limits the size and shape of any rigid objects you can carry, and the Mazda3 would have struggled on our airport run. Dropping down the split-folding rear seat opens up 47.1 cubic feet, which is again class-competitive. When you don’t have extra passengers, this is ample space for most purposes and more than you’d find in some small crossovers. You’ll likely need to remove the rear head restraints or move the front seats forward for enough clearance to fold the rear seat, though.

2020 MAZDA3 - HOW IT DRIVES

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Mazda has cultivated an image as selling the best driver’s cars. In the latest Mazda3, that carries over with a twist — and one that not everyone will appreciate.

While past Mazdas have offered extra-precise steering and handling, for a zippy “zoom-zoom” feel, the new Mazda3 is more about composure than grinning thrills.

You can drive this little car at high speeds without having to nervously tighten your grip on the steering wheel, and it continues to feel solid, stable, and quiet. This is a confidence-inspiring vehicle that entirely avoids the tinny, cheap feel of some economy cars. Everything feels perfectly executed and natural, except perhaps for unnecessarily heavy steering at parking-lot speeds. That’s an important contrast even from some luxury cars, many of which are spoiled by a discordant note like a touchy throttle or clunky transmission. Driving enthusiasts might wish for more steering precision when they push the car hard, but the Mazda3 feels just right until you do so — and for plenty of drivers, that will be just perfect.

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Part of Mazda’s secret isn’t anything fancy. Just the opposite. Rather than a low-displacement turbocharged engine or a dual-clutch transmission, the 2020 Mazda3 has a big 2.5-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder mated to a six-speed automatic transmission or an available six-speed manual. The engine makes 186 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque, which is hearty but not amazing for a compact car. It’s competitive with the turbocharged Honda Civic or the Mercedes-Benz A220, but there isn’t an available higher-performance engine to compete with a Volkswagen Golf GTI or the Honda Civic Si or Type R. The Mazda3 doesn’t feel or sound strained, but it’s not a rocketship either.

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The latest Mazda3 is also missing an engine choice on the other end of the spectrum: the affordable, fuel-efficient one. The last-generation Mazda3 filled this slot with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder making a still-peppy 155 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque, which got about 2 mpg better than the 2.5-liter. Now, the most efficient Mazda3 achieves an EPA-estimated 27 mpg in the city, 36 mpg on the highway, and 30 mpg overall — worse than some midsize sedans or compact crossovers. And figures fall from there, to as low as 24 mpg city / 32 mpg highway / 27 mpg overall in our tested all-wheel-drive hatchback. I managed about 29 mpg during my weeklong test, nearly as bad as the EPA expects despite plenty of highway driving. The only bright spot is that I did even worse the last time I tested a Subaru Impreza, despite its much higher EPA ratings.

We mention the Impreza because it’s the only other car in the Mazda3’s class available with all-wheel-drive. And while it wasn’t snowing while we tested this Mazda3, the Mazda all-wheel-drive system has won substantial acclaim in handling the white stuff. This isn’t one of those luxury performance cars that’s focused mainly on putting lots of horsepower to the road; the Mazda3 is designed to be fully four-season-friendly.

2020 MAZDA3 - PRICING

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The 2020 Mazda3 is priced from $21,500 for the four-door sedan and $23,700 for the five-door hatchback, plus a $920 destination charge.

The difference shrinks when you account for comparable equipment, at least, because the base hatchback aligns with the next-up Select sedan ($22,700). Even the base sedan is generously equipped, with features that include an eight-speaker sound system, the 8.8-inch infotainment screen, 16-inch alloy wheels, power-folding mirrors, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and a suite of advanced safety tech: adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, a lane-departure warning with lane-keeping assistance, automatic high beams, and a driver attention alert. You can’t get a cut-priced sub-$20,000 version, but that’s still a ton of equipment for the money.

And the Select sedan (equivalently equipped to the base hatchback) is an even better deal. For just $1,200 more, you get leatherette upholstery, leather on the steering wheel and shift knob, 18-inch wheels, automatic climate control, keyless entry with push-button starting, and blind-spot monitoring with a rear cross-traffic alert. Annoyingly, Mazda also leaves Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration off the base sedan, but we can’t complain too much given the relatively modest price jump. We are disappointed, though, that this trim level requires leatherette upholstery without offering heated seats.

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Next up the trim hierarchy is the Preferred model, which costs $24,200 on the sedan and $25,200 on the hatchback. It adds a power-operated driver’s seat, heated front seats, a 12-speaker Bose sound system, and — in another unfortunate omission from lower-trim models — a sunglasses holder. We tested the top-of-the-line Premium model, which starts at $26,500 for the sedan and $27,500 for the hatchback. It swaps the leatherette for genuine leather, adds a head-up display and LED exterior lighting, and is the only trim level with a moonroof.

The six-speed manual transmission is available only on the Premium hatchback with front-wheel-drive. Not everyone who wants to shift their own gears will appreciate needing a fully loaded model, but it’s still better than selling the stick shift only on a stripped-down base vehicle. That’s often the last step before an automaker shrugs and discontinues its manual, saying “well, nobody bought it.” All-wheel-drive is available on all models except the base sedan and the manual hatchback, for a $1,400 premium.

2020 MAZDA3 KEY COMPETITORS

2020 Honda Civic

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The Honda Civic is an appealing blend of sprightly driving dynamics, fuel-sipping gas mileage, and a spacious interior. At least on paper. It also has an aggressive, love-it-or-hate-it design that’s much busier and less upscale compared to the Mazda3’s, and its interior design and technology are showing their age. And as with all compact economy cars but the Mazda3 and Subaru Impreza, there’s no available all-wheel-drive.

Read our full review on the 2020 Honda Civic

2020 Volkswagen Golf

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The Volkswagen Golf is another upscale-feeling small car, sold only as a five-door hatchback. It’s fun to drive if you push it and quietly composed if you don’t, and it packs a useful amount of cargo space (despite tight rear legroom) into a tidy package. But it has none of the Mazda3’s flair, and unless you opt for the pricier and more powerful GTI — which, by the way, we would never discourage — you can’t get it with many luxury features.

Read our full review on the 2020 Volkswagen Golf

2020 Toyota Corolla

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The latest iteration of the Toyota Corolla can at last approach the Mazda3 dynamically, thanks to a bigger engine and improved suspension. And it’s less expensive and more fuel-efficient. But the Mazda3 still feels more upscale, is still quicker, and still comes with more luxury features. And despite its sensible-shoes image, the Corolla isn’t much roomier than the tight Mazda.

Read our full review on the 2020 Toyota Corolla

2020 Hyundai Elantra GT

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The Hyundai Elantra sedan is a fantastic bargain as pleasant, economical, affordable, unexciting transportation. That’s not the Mazda3’s game. But the Elantra GT hatchback — more closely related to the European Hyundai i30 than the Elantra sedan — brings more upscale styling inside and out, all at reasonable prices. Disappointing base-model acceleration, even more disappointing fuel economy, and a paucity of advanced safety technology keep it from living up to its potential.

Read our full review on the 2020 Hyundai Elantra GT

2020 Subaru Impreza

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The Subaru Impreza is worth shopping against the Mazda3 if all-wheel-drive is a priority, but the two cars are otherwise dissimilar. The Impreza is spacious, functional, and basic-feeling where the Mazda3 is sleek, luxurious, and comparatively cramped. You shouldn’t have to wonder long which of these compact AWD cars is the flavor you’re looking for.

Read our full review on the 2020 Subaru Impreza

2020 Nissan Sentra

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We spent some time talking about our 2019 Sentra rental car, so let’s briefly discuss the redesigned 2020 model even though it’s not the Mazda3’s closest competitor. The 2020 Sentra is much more stylish than the old car — inspired by Nissan’s flagship sedan, the Maxima — and delivers improved acceleration and handling. But that still doesn’t put it in the Mazda3’s league for overall performance and luxury.

Read our full review on the 2020 Nissan Sentra

Mercedes-Benz A-Class, Audi A3, and BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe

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If you’re considering one of these entry-level luxury sedans and aren’t wedded to a luxury badge, be sure to check out the Mazda3. Their main advantages over the Mazda are extra-slick infotainment systems and some additional available high-end features, but we think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how well the Mazda drives, feels, and looks in comparison.

Read our full review on the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, Audi A3, and BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe

2020 Mazda CX-30

2019 Mazda CX-30 Broadens Mazda's Crossover range
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Crossovers are in and cars are out, so Mazda sells a version of the Mazda3 hatchback as the newly introduced CX-30 crossover. It actually starts at a lower base price than the Mazda3 hatchback — $21,900 vs. $23,700 — because the Mazda3 has more standard equipment, and the prices are similar even when the vehicles are comparably equipped. That said, the CX-30 is only a little bit higher off the ground than the Mazda3, isn’t any roomier, and gets worse gas mileage, and you don’t need the crossover to get all-wheel-drive.

Read our full review on the 2020 Mazda CX-30

2020 MAZDA3 IN A NUTSHELL

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Many great cars offer something for everyone, providing a well-rounded package that could be a good fit for just about any buyer. The 2020 Mazda3, by contrast, fails entirely as an “economy car” — it’s not as roomy, fuel-efficient, or inexpensive as many of its competitors. But if you’re looking for a compact sedan or hatchback that transcends the economy label, and you’re neither counting pennies nor shuttling a whole family, we can recommend it highly.

Brady Holt
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