Review: 2011 Mazda3 Sport GT Take Two

Brendan McAleer
by Brendan McAleer

Here’s an open secret: the Mazda3 is the auto-journo’s cop-out. “Hey,” inquires the prospective punter, “I’m actually kinda/sorta in the market. What do you recommend?” Nine times out of ten, the sporty little ‘3 is gonna get a plug. Tenth guy wants a truck.

Now around here, obviously that’s not the case. Ask the TTAC boys what you should buy and Jack Baruth is going to punch you in the face and sleep with your wife, Sajeev Mehta will get a far-away look in his eyes thinking of all the non-running personal-luxury-coupe crap-cans he could add to his stable for the price of a new car, Bertel Schmitt’s going to give you a fascinating but interminable lecture on the nuances of some improbable menage a trois between Nissan, Geely and Fisher-Price, and me? Well, I’m new around here. Again.

Which is why I’m going to extoll me a little Zoom-Zoom.

Traditionally, the bit after the jump is where we TTAC scribes dissect the styling of whatever whip we’ve managed to con out of the press guys. Except for Jack who’d be playing a blues riff and eating a baby or something.

However, I can’t be bothered. Look, the Mazda3 has a big goofy smiley face. Who cares. Too much ink has been already shed — unnecessarily — over the “Hai Guyz!” look that Nagare bestowed upon the Mazda3’s once-handsome visage. I’ll say no more than, “I liked the old one better,” and, “But it grows on you.”

Why don’t you take a seat over there? That’s where you’ll find out that the leather-clad seats in the Mazda3 are nicely-bolstered and comfy. You’ll also note that the doors are nicely upholstered and that you can perfectly rest your arm on the armrest and still reach the well-placed shifter. Rough spots? The silver-painted plastic was already chipped on one of the inner door-handles, but that might be just from rough-handling: this ‘3 has had five thousand miles of press fleet duty.

The price gap between the base model ‘3 and my tester is over ten grand. Granted, that’s only in Canadian monopoly money, but you’d better believe that this particular ‘3 is loaded to the gills with more bells than Blitzen and more whistles than the Anachronistic Police Constable Supply Depot.

Normally, gizmos and whatsits confound and annoy me to apoplexy: I could easily compete at a national level in Laptop Frisbee. Taking one look at the eighteen buttons festooning the ‘3’s wheel, I snapped my mental suspenders, hitched up the ol’ beltline and braced myself to issue a barrage of cranky cantankerousness.

But none proved necessary. Mazda’s interpretation of “driver” seems to be, “somebody who doesn’t take their eyes off the road.” Not only is the visibility out of the ‘3 excellent, once you tweak the eight-way power seat to just the right spot, but the interior layout is highly functional. Changing temperature settings or fiddling with the radio were easily accomplished with no more than a sideways glance even during the initial drive. After a week’s familiarity, it was a no-look play.

Those tasks you do need to sneak a peak for are aided and abetted by the twin binnacle layout of the dash, which prominently features a rectangular radio/HVAC display, a smallish navigation screen and, most importantly, an enormous flap where the navi’s memory card goes. That’s annoying, but can be overlooked given how nicely everything else is laid-out. While there’s a cant towards the driver, it’s still a cinch for micro-managing side passengers to use.

Another thing: setting up the bluetooth streaming audio and phone connectivity was easy. What’s more, it was easy to me, and I still haven’t figured how to tweet the kids to get off my dang lawn. Y-chromosome owners will be happy to hear that at no point were instructions needed.

If I had to pick a gee-whiz feature that I absolutely adored, it was the adaptive front lighting system. The AFS on the ‘3 acts like the car is peeking around the corner for you; it’s one of those things you never knew you needed until you’ve had it. On a dark country road it makes an enormous difference, but even in light-polluted areas it’s a great feature to find on a small car.

Space-wise, the Mazda3 Sport’s hatch makes me happy. I like big sedans as much as the next Dr. Mehta, but when you’re picking a do-all small car, I can’t understand people who buy small four-doors with trunks. Coupes? Sure, that’s a fashion statement, but the ‘3 actually looks better as a hatchback and you basically double the practicality quotient. If you’re interested, you can fit four unmounted 225/45/17s, a folding deckchair, a golf umbrella and a kite shaped like an osprey back there and still have room for a moderately-sized heffalump. As tested.

Pootling around town, four adults (well, three adults and me, anyway) had plenty of room. The most common comment was, “Hey, this is pretty nice!” Sounds like faint praise, but that was out of the mouth of a 5-series owner.

Speaking of which, “pootling” is a relative term. Like the bimmer, the Mazda3 is a practical car that’s built by a company that might make the odd styling misstep, but knows a thing or two about vim and zip and verve and oh fine I’ll just say it: zoom-zoom.

With a torquey four-pot providing 167 horsepowers though a six-speed transmission, the ‘3 is all too happy to giddy-up in city traffic. You think its grin looks stupid? Check yourself out in the rearview.

The 2.5L mill might not offer the max output of a Civic Si or Scion tC’s similarly-sized engine offerings, but it has a nice grunty quality down low, particularly in second gear. It’s happy to rev, and the twin-pipes out the back provide a decent soundtrack, but it’s also very easy to access the power from low rpms, making the stop-and-go cut-and-thrust.

Show the 3 some proper corners, and sure there’s a hint of the usual Fail-Wheel-Drive understeer, but it only shows up on slick wet pavement. In which case, slow down, you friggin’ maniac! In the dry, it’s a delight. Let’s pretend they made the 3-series in a four-cylinder front-driver. Yep, that good.

Back on the highway, that grunt makes for decent economy. Stick the nicely-weighted – but perhaps a jot too long-throw – shifter into the highest gear you can manage and watch the average MPG recover from backroads shenanigans. The old 2.3L was always a bit of a pig; a friend’s ’07 returns fuel economy levels not dissimilar from my godawfully thirsty WRX. The 2.5L is much better, averaging out to be solidly in the mid-twenties.

So this is it, my recommendation to you, the semi-drunken personage who buttonholes me at parties and slurs out, “Sssso whatchathink I should get?” A taxi. And a breathmint.

After that, the Mazda3. It’s practical, it’s fun to drive, it’s comfortable, it can be got with plenty of bells and whistles for such a small car, and while it’s usually more expensive than the industry average, they absolutely hold their value better than big-sister ‘6. Mazda usually has Ford-ish sales promotions on too, so hey, it’s even almost-sorta cheap. What more do you want?

On the other hand, if you’re after more than just an off-the-cuff answer, if you want me to give your query my full attention and bring all my (in)considerable mental acuity to bear on the sticky problem of what the best car is going to be for you? Well then, that’s easy. Just go talk to Michael Karesh and buy whatever he says is good.

Mazda provided the vehicle and insurance for this review.

Brendan McAleer
Brendan McAleer

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  • SupaMan SupaMan on Sep 12, 2011

    Solid and hilarious review Brendan! I'm also the resident car guru among family/friends and I usually push people towards Mazda if they love to drive (to Toyota if they merely want an appliance). Mazda really knows how to make a well-sorted platform for the person who loves driving as well a decent value. I drove the new 3 a few years ago and needless to say the driving magic is there, but the exterior (so often panned already) didn't do it for me. I'll admit it has grown on me after a few years but back then that would have stopped me from buying it outright.

  • Eastern Roamer Eastern Roamer on Sep 13, 2011

    Kudos to Mazda for making a fully loaded car available with a manual transmission. All too often these days, it seems that opting to manually shift gears practically means also manually rolling up your windows. I love my '07 Mazda 3 hatchback - leather, Bose speakers, moonroof, three pedals and a stick. If I get a newer one it'll have to be black to hide the Cheshire Cat grill somewhat. I can't comment on the rust issue. I'm in the sunshine state, FL.

  • VoGhost Fantastic work by Honda design. When I first saw the pictures, I thought "Is that a second gen Acura NSX?"
  • V16 2025 VW GLI...or 2025 Honda Civic SI? Same target audience, similar price points. Both are rays of sun in the gray world of SUV'S.
  • FreedMike Said this before and I'll say it again: I'm not that exercised about this whole "pay for a subscription" thing, as long as the deal's reasonable. And here's how you make it reasonable: offer it a monthly charge. Let's say that adaptive headlights are a $500 option on this vehicle, and the subscription is $15 a month, or $540 over a three year lease. So you try the feature for a month, and if you like it, you keep it; if you don't, then you discontinue it, like a Netflix subscription. In any case, you didn't get charged $500 up front the feature. That's not a bad deal.In my case, let's say VW offers an over the air chip reflash that gives me another 25 hp. The total price of the upgrade is $1,000 (which is what a reflash would cost you in the aftermarket). If they offered me a one time monthly subscription for $50 to try it out, I'd take it. In other words, maybe the news isn't all bad.
  • 2ACL A good car, but - at least in this configuration -not one that should command a premium. Its qualities just aren't as enduring as those of Honda's contemporary sports cars. For better or worse, this is a formula they remain able to replicate.
  • Jalop1991 I just read that Tesla's profits are WAY down "as the electric vehicle company has faced both more EV competition from established automakers and a slowing of overall EV sales growth." This Cadillac wouldn't help Tesla at all, but the slowing market of EV sales overall means this should be a halo/boutique car. Regardless, yes, they should make it.