2016 Mazda3 Wins Comparison Test, All The Losers Win Bigly In The Real World

Timothy Cain
by Timothy Cain

Enthusiast praise for the Mazda3 began before the current-generation compact Mazda arrived in late 2013. Previous iterations benefited from hugely positive reviews. “We’re going to love the 3 once it arrives in America,” Automobile wrote in December 2003. Credit for dynamic excellence was the norm a generation later. “Steering is direct and the suspension is firm enough for spirited driving and equally competent at soaking up bumps,” said AutoGuide in early 2009. I haven’t hesitated to get in on the action, writing in my second review of the latest compact Mazda, “The Mazda3 is still the best compact car you can buy.”

It’s therefore not surprising to see that in a five-way compact car comparison for the magazine’s July edition, Car and Driver named the 2016 Mazda3 i Grand Touring the winner of the test. Car and Driver handed the Mazda 203 points, 44-percent more than the fifth-ranked 2016 Nissan Sentra SL achieved.

Industry observers also won’t be surprised to learn that Car and Driver’s fifth-ranked Nissan Sentra produced 139-percent more first-half sales than the Mazda, while the other three losers all roundly outsold the Mazda, as well.

Let’s be clear: the individual compact car buyer isn’t forced to make their buying decision based on a single review. That can be dangerous.

“Dodge’s 2016 Dart compact sedan brings European driving character to a highly stylized American 4-door loaded with features,” Kelley Blue Book’s Joe Tralongo writes, while also pointing out that this car, which even Dodge’s own FCA parent company doesn’t believe has the goods to make it past September, “offers something for everyone in a package that is fuel-efficient, safe and fun.”

Furthermore, popularity contests don’t invariably provide a clear understanding of class leadership, either. After all, Big Macs outsell In-N-Out’s cheeseburger. The fact that the Scion tC outsells the Mazda MX-5 Miata does not make the tC the superior car.

That said, the Mazda3’s knack for generating consistent critical adulation stands in stark contrast to the reaction of the market at large. Sales of the 3 climbed to a three-year high in 2015 but were down 13 percent from the 2012 U.S. sales peak. Through the first-half of 2016, sales of the Mazda3 are down 6.4 percent in a category that’s fallen 6.1 percent. Only 5 percent of the compact cars sold in the United States in 2016’s first six months were Mazda3s. Eight competitors are selling more often. The Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla are selling nearly four times more frequently. The Nissan Sentra and Ford Focus are both selling at least twice as frequently.

Though two of the competitors in Car and Driver’s test, the recently replaced Hyundai Elantra and Chevrolet Cruze, posted significant first-half declines valued at 73,599 sales, the Nissan Sentra (which ranked fifth in the comparo) is up 16 percent to 123,014 sales already this year. Mazda is unlikely to sell 100,000 3s by year’s end.

Meanwhile, the one car that closely challenged the Mazda3 for Car and Driver’s compact title, the new tenth-generation Honda Civic, is up 20 percent, year-over-year, and ranks second overall among passenger cars in 2016. At the current rate of growth, Honda is on track to sell 400,000 Civics in America this year.

The subject of poor Mazda USA sales figures is not a new one here at TTAC. We’ve blamed road noise and cheap-looking base and mid-grade trims. A small dealer network and historic rust concerns are a factor, even as Consumer Reports bestows positive reliability ratings upon Mazda.

Car and Driver calls the Mazda3 “an overachiever in a world where excellence isn’t always rewarded with sales” and says, “In the fun-to-drive category, where few affordable cars even try, Mazda makes the greatest effort and overwhelmingly succeeds.

The credit paid to the 2016 Mazda3 seems not to matter to the overwhelming majority of compact car buyers. Will they care about a refreshed Mazda3 for 2017?

Timothy Cain is the founder of GoodCarBadCar.net, which obsesses over the free and frequent publication of U.S. and Canadian auto sales figures. Follow on Twitter @goodcarbadcar and on Facebook.

Timothy Cain
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