2022 Mazda 3 Turbo AWD First Test Review: Is the Better Engine Worth It?03/16/2022
Aspiration toward a higher plane of luxury and refinement is a near-universal notion. Plenty of us Yanks would call it the American dream, but the idea is far from exclusive to those living in the States. Mazda has been working at it for years.
The Japanese automaker has been known for decades as the sportier alternative to similarly priced Hondas and Toyotas (insert the well-worn “zoom-zoom” tagline here), but it’s been striving toward a different brand identity as of late. Based on its product strategy over the past five years and having developed a rear-drive hybrid inline-six platform for the next Mazda 6 and a pair of new SUVs, it’s obvious Mazda is working to go upscale along the lines of Lexus or Acura.
But what of its current lineup? With the optional turbocharged engine, AWD, and the Premium Plus package, our 2022 Mazda 3 test vehicle rang in at a steep for the segment $34,115—more than $10K richer than a base Honda Civic and within three grand of a BMW 228i Gran Coupe. So the question becomes, is a loaded Mazda 3 a proper luxury alternative, or a cheap compact with a handful of extra features?
Test Figures and Driving Impressions
One thing’s for sure, this particular Mazda 3 isn’t your basic front-drive compact sedan with a wheezy four-cylinder. Its optional 2.5-liter turbo inline-four develops 227 hp (or 250 hp on premium fuel) and 310 lb-ft of torque; both numbers are the highest you’ll find in the compact segment this side of a Civic Type R or a Subaru WRX.
Here are the numbers: 0-60 mph in 6.4 seconds and the quarter mile in 14.8 seconds at 94.6 mph. For context, when we tested an AWD Mazda 3 with the standard naturally aspirated four-pot kicking out 186 hp and 186 lb-ft, it reached 60 mph in 8.1 seconds and took 16.2 seconds to run the quarter. (By comparison, our long-term BMW 228i Gran Coupe took 6.0 seconds to hit 60 mph.) Braking from 60 to 0 mph was slightly better in the Mazda 3 turbo car, too, taking 120 feet and 122 feet, respectively, to get to a full stop. That’s quite a bit off the stopping power of the new Honda Civic Si, however, which hauls to 0 mph in just 110 feet.
On the road, this top-spec Mazda 3 delivers a driving experience that’s more refined and mature than you’d expect of this class of vehicle. The turbo-four’s plentiful torque provides a good shove any time you explore the latter half of the throttle’s pedal travel, plus the earlier peak torque disguises the aging six-speed automatic tranny’s lack of cogs compared to some of its peers. Additionally, noise, vibration, and harshness levels from the powertrain are better than some entry-level luxury cars.
The steering is weighty and accurate, even providing a bit of feel. This is one area where Mazda’s sporting history shines through. Ride quality is firmer than a more relaxed compact like the Hyundai Elantra, but that pays off in the 3’s superb body control and stable handling. The platform feels rock-solid through corners and is happy to keep up when you get excited on a twisty two-lane. We had a chance to drive in snow and ice, too; the AWD system shuffled torque fore and aft to keep the little Mazda pointed straight and the driver unworried. The traction control system severely limits power, but you can turn it off and have a bit of fun when you do.
All that said, Mazda’s driver assist system isn’t programmed to be nearly as supportive as those from Honda, Hyundai, Kia, or Toyota. Lane centering hardly ever engages, and the adaptive cruise control occasionally exhibits unnatural braking behavior. If you want something that minimizes fatigue on the highway with modern active safety features, the Mazda 3 isn’t it.
The Mazda 3 easily looks like the most expensive vehicle in the compact segment, with a dash-to-axle spacing that disguises its FWD underpinnings better than competitors like the Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class and BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe. Its LED head- and taillights are distinctively premium, and the way the turn signals blink on strong and slowly fade looks like it’s straight off an Audi.
Inside, the 2022 Mazda 3’s interior layout is minimalist without feeling cheap, and there are no finicky touch buttons; you get expensive-feeling knobs for climate control and volume, which is a huge plus. This is what elegance and class can feel like in a relatively inexpensive vehicle. Materials and build quality feel top notch, too, and the ergonomics are excellent other than the cupholders, which aren’t ideal for taller drinks.
Some staffers experienced issues with the infotainment system (it can take a few too many steps to find basic functions like a radio tuner), but in many ways it comes off as a better-executed version of an older BMW iDrive system. Mazda’s use of a rotary infotainment controller rather than a touchscreen allows the standard 8.8-inch infotainment display to be mounted high on the dash, which means drivers can keep their peripheral vision on the road while selecting a podcast or adding a gas station to their navigation route.
That’s not to say the interior isn’t missing a few features given its nearly $35,000 price point. Even fully loaded, the Mazda 3 lacks cooled seats, wireless Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, rear climate control vents, and a wireless charging pad—all of which are available in lower-priced competitors. It’s also worth noting that the Mazda’s rear seat is the tightest in the segment. Six-footers will be brushing their noggins on the headliner, and sharp impacts aren’t going to be easy on the spine.
Is the Mazda 3 Turbo a Good Car?
The turbocharged and loaded-up 2022 Mazda 3 isn’t a vehicle for everyone. Its back seat is exceedingly small and poorly equipped, the driver-assist tech is way behind those of the competition, and some folks won’t vibe with the infotainment system’s occasionally convoluted layout. There are competitors with more features, too. But would we take it over an entry-level luxury sedan like the BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe? In a heartbeat.
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