2021 Mazda3 2.5 Turbo Review - Upset Expectations

  • 2.5L turbo engine has more than enough power
  • Handsome styling gets some tasteful sport upgrades
  • AWD is sure-footed but still playful
  • Cabin punches above its class for quality and design
  • Aggressively priced
  • No manual option for purists
  • Exterior design treatment could be too subtle for some

"You can't always get what you want," the Rolling Stones taught me, but then they also said I can't get no satisfaction, and so perhaps only half of the wisdom of an aging rock band is fully applicable to the 2021 Mazda3 2.5 Turbo. The Japanese automaker is known for its unwillingness to compromise on playfulness, and so when word broke last year that it was slotting a turbocharged engine into its lovable little Mazda3, we rightly got excited.

What we wanted, of course, was a return to the glory days of the Mazdaspeed3. Mazda's punchy little hot-hatch was a revelation back in 2007, as driver-friendly as a Miata but practical with it. When it was retired in 2013 it began not only a steady climb through the "Modern-Day Icon" register but a deep, dare I say guttural yearning for a fitting replacement.

2021 Mazda3 2.5 Turbo In-Depth

That's where the wisdom of the 'Stones comes in, because while the 2021 Mazda3 2.5 Turbo may not quite be the Mazdaspeed3 successor we wanted, that doesn't mean it can't satisfy when given the right octane gas and the right road. Outside, it looks much like a regular Mazda3, available in sedan and hatchback body styles – I'd say go for the more practical latter, personally – but under the hood is a surprisingly potent engine.

The Skyactiv-G 2.5 Turbo has 250 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque, just as long as you're willing to feed it 93 octane fuel. Only a cheapskate would opt for 87 octane, and get 227 hp and 310 lb-ft in return. Mazda's i-Activ all-wheel drive, G-Vectoring Control Plus, and six-speed automatic transmission are standard. Yes, that means there's no manual option; for that, you'll need either a regular Mazda3 or to go Miata shopping.

From behind the wheel, I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing. The stick-shift Mazda3 is fine, but not excellent, and I'm of a mind that if you're going to row your own gears then you should do that with the finest transmission out there. If you want power and three pedals then you should head to Honda and grab a Civic Type R instead.

The six-speed automatic may be down a couple of ratios from what most rivals provide, but it doesn't seem to hamper things. Peak torque doesn't land until 2,500 rpm, but you get the vast majority of it before then, and it means the Mazda3 can pull when you stomp on the gas without doing the multiple downshifts that some others require. If you want to overrule things there are paddles on the steering wheel.

What stands out more is just how enjoyable this little Mazda hatch is to drive. Pick-up is quick, with torque lag minimal, and if there's a dead-spot for overtaking power I never found it. You can drive it like a regular Mazda3 and pick up groceries without screeching tires or summoning a legion of hot-hatch driving would-be road racers gagging for a stop sign showdown, but snicking the Sport mode switch wakes up more than enough power to be legitimately entertaining.

Handling is steady and progressive, the AWD delivering the grip while the steering keeps you appraised of traction without shouting about it. Better still, you don't need to be doing license-losing speeds to unlock the fun. While the 2.5 Turbo can go fast, certainly, it's also just as happy whipping around backroads in a way that somehow manages to feel pedestrian in more potent exotics.

As for economy, the hatchback is rated for 23 mpg in the city, 31 mpg on the highway, and 26 mpg combined. The sedan does a little better, but not by much. My own mixed driving ended up with just over 22 mpg on the trip computer, which I suspect will be a more realistic number for owners to expect if they make use of Sport mode and the Mazda3's eagerness. I can forgive it that, frankly, but the meager 12.7 gallon fuel tank means more stopping for fill-ups than you might hope for.

At least you can admire the handsome looks while you pump. Rather than the look-at-me aesthetic of the Mazdaspeed3, the Mazda3 2.5 Turbo opts for a more restrained upgrade to the base car's elegant lines. The hatchback shows the most changes, with a front air dam, rear roof spoiler, rear diffuser, and side sill extensions. The sedan gets a front lower spoiler and a rear lip spoiler.

Both have 18-inch black-painted aluminum alloy wheels and larger tailpipes. Mazda's BBS 18-inch black forged wheels are a pretty, and pretty expensive, option, and missing from my review car. The hatchback starts at $33,750 (plus $945 destination) in Premium Plus spec, which also includes leather seats, parking sensors, a 360-degree camera, navigation, a 12-speaker Bose audio system, and dual-zone climate control.

Adaptive cruise control and an 8.8-inch infotainment screen with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard, along with lane departure warnings, blind spot alerts, and rear cross traffic alerts. You also get heated front seats and a heated steering wheel, plus a power sliding moonroof.

Mazda's cabin quality deserves a special mention, looking particularly lush in black and red. It feels as good as it looks, too, with lots of soft-touch materials and some genuinely nice detailing. Mazda's newest infotainment software is also a welcome relief from its older, uglier iterations.

2021 Mazda3 2.5 Turbo Verdict

Now's the time when I should probably wheel out another Rolling Stones song to wrap things up; "Start Me Up" would fit, or "Wild Horses" perhaps. Really, though, I'm too busy thinking about how any disappointment I might've felt that – on paper at least – the Mazda3 2.5 Turbo wasn't quite a true Mazdaspeed3 descendent evaporated the longer I spent with the car.

Its charm is its duality. Practical hatchback one moment, playful rocket the next. It's priced aggressively and gets the same excellent cabin as its non-turbo siblings, easily good enough to go head-to-head with options in the entry-luxe category above. And while it's not a hooligan on road rubber like the Civic Type R, it's also not an instant target for cops and reprobates with its tasteful styling treatment. It might not have been what we expected, or even what we hoped for, but it turns out the 2021 Mazda3 2.5 Turbo is all the better for that.