2023 Mazda3 Review: A Reminder Of What Matters

  • Unexpectedly rewarding to drive
  • AWD is an affordable option
  • Cabin quality puts rivals to shame
  • Infotainment system can be frustrating
  • Can't have manual transmission and AWD
  • No included service plan

The Mazda3 hatchback feels like a rarity these days. It isn't the cheapest model in Mazda's line-up — its sedan sibling, and the CX-30 crossover, squeezes in with slightly more affordable versions — but its $23,550 (plus $1,065 destination) starting price gives it a significantly lower point of entry than the average new car cost in the U.S. right now. Options like all-wheel drive and a punchy turbocharged engine also help set the Mazda3 apart from the traditional budget fare.

While crossovers and SUVs may command the lion's share of new vehicle sales these days, and that trend looks unlikely to change any time soon, there's a lot to be said for the humble hatchback. In Mazda's case specifically, the Mazda3 is among the more stylish options on the market, for a start. It also borrows some of the automaker's driving verve, and while this is no MX-5 Miata, neither does the humble hatch forget that even buyers on a budget still care about dynamics.

This 2023 Mazda3 2.5 S Carbon Edition is the cheapest way to get all-wheel drive, though the $29,600 (plus destination) you'll pay for that doesn't get you the turbo engine. Instead, it's Mazda's 2.5-liter SKYACTIV-G inline-four under the hood, paired with a six-speed automatic transmission.

Fun is about more than just power

The Mazda3 is one of the (relatively rare) new cars on offer in the U.S. that can be had with a manual transmission, in this case, Mazda's likable 6-speed. It's only offered on select trims, however, and not with AWD.

For most, though, this combination of the naturally-aspirated 2.5L, an automatic gearbox, and power to all four wheels will be a good mix. Power isn't outlandish — 191 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque, versus the much healthier 250 hp and 310 lb-ft of the 2.5L turbo — but it's more than sufficient for typical use. In fact, Mazda used to offer this particular engine as an optional upgrade, and even then it was worth the extra spend.

Regardless of whether you stump for the turbo (which comes with AWD as standard), the Mazda3 is eager. It's a reminder, too, that an entertaining drive isn't just about how much power you have on tap, but how that grunt is harnessed and delivered. A gearbox that is more than willing to downshift when you tap the gas, along with near-perfectly weighted steering will do that.

Plenty of poise but middling economy

The suspension lacks anything so fancy as adaptive dampers, but it doesn't really require them. Mazda's preference is, as we've seen elsewhere, for relatively firm tuning in the name of more agile cornering, and the Mazda3 is no different. While it leaves the hatchback a little less comfortable on poor-quality road surfaces, the lack of body roll as you punt into a turn more than makes up for that.

There's a Sport mode, which reworks the throttle mapping and holds the revs closer to the engine's 6,500 rpm redline. Most of the time, though, the standard mode does just fine. It's also likely to be a little more frugal that way, with the EPA rating the non-turbo Mazda3 AWD hatchback at 26 mpg in the city, 33 mpg on the highway, and 29 mpg combined.

The front-wheel drive version is ever so slightly more economical — at 31 mpg combined — while the turbo engine drops things to 26 mpg at worst. In my own, mixed driving, I saw close to 28 mpg on the Mazda's trip computer. Not entirely terrible, but definitely not the best out there in hatchback land. Then again, few of the Mazda3's rivals have an all-wheel drive option.

Handsome and timeless

What would help would be a splash of electrification, either in the form of a mild hybrid or a plug-in hybrid drivetrain. Mazda has been slow to join the electric revolution, of course, and its MX-30 EV is notorious for being vanishingly hard to find in dealerships around the U.S., as well as mediocre in its range. The new 2024 Mazda CX-90 PHEV feels far more competitive, but a near-$48k three-row SUV is no alternative to a sub-$30k hatch. Here's hoping the tech, at least, spreads further down through Mazda's line-up.

One thing you can't complain about is the Mazda3's cabin. If the exterior is swoopingly handsome, with a bold but not brash grille and strong — but fairly timeless — curves, then the interior is a reminder for affordable rivals to raise their game. Mazda doesn't bother with gimmicks, and there's a charming simplicity to what's on offer here. Simple buttons and knobs for the dual-zone climate control, for instance, along with sensible steering wheel toggles for the media and cruise control.

Elevating it all is Mazda's aesthetic and materials. The red leather seats are eye-catching and comfortable (there's a black option if they're a bit too "boudoir" for your tastes), with heating, along with power lumbar adjustment for the driver. The stitched detailing across the dashboard, along with the leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob look and feel high-end, and the judicious use of chrome — along with aluminum mesh grilles for the 12-speaker Bose audio system — lifts things without feeling chintzy.

A few spec sheet oddities

That's not to say everything is perfect. The 8.8-inch infotainment display isn't the largest screen out there, but far more annoying is the absence of touch. Instead, you'll be navigating via the large scroll wheel in the center console, and while Mazda's UI may be set up for that, it's altogether more of a chore in Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (both of which are standard in wired form).

Adaptive cruise control is standard on all trims, but Mazda's Traffic Jam Assist — which can keep the car in the center of the lane — is exclusive to the most expensive Mazda3. Even then, its lane-centering smarts only work at speeds up to 35 mph. Paddle shifters are limited to the 2.5.S Premium trim and above, and only the top trim gets a 360-degree camera and rear smart brake support. Mazda offers a sunroof on the 2.5 S Preferred trim and above, but it's a dinky thing.

Plenty practical

Generally, though, Mazda's equipment levels are solid. All except the very base trim get blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alerts. Lane departure warnings and lane-keep assist are standard across the board, as are auto high-beams and a driver attention alert. Front smart brake support — Mazda's version of automatic emergency braking — works with other vehicles, pedestrians, and bicycles.

Lending to the practicality, the hatchback's wide rear opening gives plenty of access to the 20.1 cu-ft of cargo space. The rear bench splits 60/4 and folds down, and the headroom is ample in both rows. Mazda even finds space for a temporary spare tire, unlike the puncture repair kit many automakers are foisting on us.

Mazda's standard warranty is 36 months or 36,000 miles, while its powertrain warranty is 60 months or 60,000 miles. Unlike some rivals — such as Hyundai and Honda — the automaker doesn't include the first few years of scheduled maintenance in the sticker price.

2023 Mazda3 Verdict

There are certainly newer, fresher rivals to the Mazda3 on the market. Cars with more technology, or easier infotainment systems. Options with more power, too, and more capable advanced driver assistance (ADAS) gadgets. The latest Honda Civic feels more mature, while the new Toyota Prius pairs borderline-shocking style with much better fuel economy.

Despite all that, there's a charm to the 2023 Mazda3 which can't be ignored. Part of it is the styling, inside and out, which treads a careful — and successful — line between eye-catching and classic.

More, though, it's the fact that Mazda has clearly remembered that a lot of drivers actively enjoy driving, even if they don't have the budget or appetite for a "sports car" by the traditional definition. The overall package feels so much more than the price tag might lead you to expect and proves that appeal needn't rely on gimmicks.