Heavily updated 2016 Mazda3 brings lots of appeal to an old favorite

by Andy Stonehouse :: posted in Reviews on February 24th, 2016
One of the most impressive automotive evolution stories continues with the newest edition of the Mazda3, a thoroughly transformed and modernized reinterpretation of an already popular favorite.

This time, like the much-praised and modernized new version of the MX-5 roadster – and yes, very unofficially, you can call it the Miata if it makes it easier – the Mazda3’s growth is exponential and very much ahead of the curve, producing a new vehicle with tightened looks, a very sharp interior and even more sporty driving character than in the past.

Mazda’s variation of fuel-saving technology is called Skyactiv and the solid pieces for 2016 include a 2.5-liter four-cylinder Skyactiv-G engine that’s good for a nearly race car-styled 184 horsepower and 185 lb.-ft. of torque, matched to a six-speed automatic transmission (a 155-HP 2.0-liter is also standard issue on the more basic models).

They might be a gimmick on most non-V8 cars out there, especially ones with CVT transmissions, but in the Mazda3’s case, a set of wheel-mounted shift paddles really do work as that six-speed is one of the smoothest and most efficient I’ve ever experienced. Combine that with an engine that almost feels turbocharged and you can manually goose the 3 to your heart’s delight, and be consistently satisfied by the results.

Mileage really does come in at 37 highway MPG, even with the slightly larger engine; the higher-end Grand Touring model also comes equipped with a hybrid-inspired brake energy redistribution system that helps complement the mileage figures.

Steering is, true to Mazda standards, precise and full of sporty precision, and the lean and poise of the overall chassis feels more like you’re driving a high-output MazdaSpeed edition than a standard car. The Mazda3 did get just a bit light at high speeds on a 75 MPH freeway, but in regular motoring, it feels absolutely grounded, and certainly has all the power you need.

While still maintaining its basic shape in the functional and stylish five-door model, the 2016 Mazda3 is certainly a more striking-looking vehicle, and even more edgy with an optional appearance package adding a rear spoiler, bumper skirt and dangerously curb-scratching front air dam.

That helps accentuate a much more evocative nose and grille, the flatter and broader-looking hood and produce sharper overall lines. A more expressive mid-body line and hip-like contours above the rear wheels also amp up the car’s reinvented physique.

And indoors, a litany of updates push it well beyond the clean but slightly bland (and just too black on black) interior of the most recent car. My Grand Touring model, priced at just over $30,000 with the options and the blazingly red metallic paint job, featured a cabin worth of red highlight stitching on virtually every leather surface, plus a classy combination of piano black, chrome and aluminum-look trim.

Seating is low, tall and extra grabby for the days you’d like to pretend the car is an upright, passenger-carrying version of the MX-5, with a small, Miata-worthy steering wheel to complement things.

What’s more, the aesthetics successfully highlight a comprehensive but still affordable mix of new attributes. The Mazda3 now features a very slick navigation and communications system, contained in a small tablet-sized screen jutting 3-D style out of the mid-dash area. There are loads of modern music connection goodies and Bose speakers, with all of it managed by an easy-to-use bottletop-styled controller knob and five buttons, all inconspicuously parked at the rear of the center console.

Mazda’s also added an inventive heads-up display above the instrument cluster – a small mirror pops up at ignition to provide the image – plus positives such as heated seats, an actual CD player slot and an ergonomic center armrest with two deep cupholder spots.

That instrumentation is contained in a deep pot with (thank you, Mazda) nothing but a digital speedometer and tachometer, all chromed and futuristic looking, flanked by electronic trip computer and distance-to-empty information. And even the air conditioning controls have been given a clean update, with more chrome bottlecap-styled knobs, digital displays and easy functionality.    

 2016 Mazda3 5-Door Grand Touring

 MSRP: $26,495; as tested: $30,270

 Powertrain: 184-HP 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine; six-speed automatic transmission

 EPA figures: 31 combined (27 city, 37 highway)    
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