2019 Mazda 3 AWD First Drive Review - Holding It All Down

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis
2019 mazda 3 awd first drive review holding it all down

Earlier this year, Mazda showed off its all-new 3 sedan in Los Angeles. The new compact’s intent is to impress a revised, upscale image on the brand. While the 3 delivered in quality, overall refinement, and driving enjoyment, it managed only middling marks with regard to power.

Now, Mazda has upped its game with a more stylish hatchback variant and the additional capability of an all-wheel drive system. But do style and substance mesh in the more expensive hatchback? We went back to California to find out.

(Disclaimer: Mazda provided round-trip airfare, lodging and food, and presented swag in the form of a tumbler, a winter toque, key chain, and some chocolates.)

Technical Housekeeping

During its presentation, Mazda addressed an item which displeased the B&B in the initial 3 review: the change from multilink to a torsion beam rear suspension. Mazda explained its goal with the rear suspension was not reduced cost, but rather increased car control. The torsion beam design reduced the number of bushings at the rear from 14 to two. The stiffer structure meant fewer degrees of motion over bumps. As a result, damping and spring rates were adjusted to stiffen things up, and softer tires were used over those on the outgoing 3. It’s up to you, dear reader, to accept or refuse the explanation.

Speaking of explanations, Mazda has no firm date on the addition of the innovative SKYACTIV-X engine to the North American 3 lineup. The only commitment representatives made was that the engine would be available in the European market later in 2019.

Mazda also provided a lot of technical information on the 3’s new version of the i-ACTIV all-wheel drive system. A more advanced system than used previously, computers monitor and model individual tire load, shifting torque distribution around for maximum grip. Torque transfer happens in both dry and wet conditions, as the system does not require wheel slippage to re-route power. The idea is to provide more torque at the rear under spirited acceleration. Mazda’s system works in conjunction with the complicated GVC+ (G-Vectoring Control) program to improve overall dynamics and car control. The more advanced combination results in a 70 percent reduction in rear drivetrain loss over a similarly equipped CX-5.

[Get pricing on new and used Mazda 3’s here!]

To demonstrate, Mazda carved a snow course out of deep springtime powder near Lake Tahoe. Tests started with a front-drive 3, progressing to all-wheel drive on all-season tires, then more intense Blizzak winter rubber. While grip improved drastically from the front- to all-wheel drive versions, the course was slightly too short and low-speed to realize significant difference in the tires. Runs also included disabling the GVC to show the effects it has on the car’s control in collaboration with the all-wheel drive. The difference was noticeable in the provided conditions, with a more controlled, smooth feel when the system was active.

Closed course test over, the mapped route covered curvy back highways between Lake Tahoe and the end destination of Sacramento. All cars provided were all-wheel drive, with drive time split between sedan and hatch. As we’ve covered the sedan previously, we’ll focus on the hatchback version today.

New shapes

Mazda pitches the hatchback 3 as a sportier and more aggressive alternative to the sedan. It costs more; $1,000 over the sedan in the same trim, and carries significantly revised exterior styling. Character lines are reduced to a minimum, windows are smaller, and the sleek shape shares only a hood and rocker panels with the sedan. Two options are reserved for the hatchback version: Polymetal Gray paint, and a red leather interior. Our tester had both features, and retailed for around $29,795. Notably, a manual transmission is available in the front-drive hatchback in high trim; Mazda realizes the enthusiast customer wants to shift on their own without an Ace of Base lifestyle.

The hatchback’s shape is undeniably good looking, easily standing out in the compact class against entries like the Subaru Impreza or Volkswagen Golf. An immediate fan of the blue-grey matte hue, impressions carried through to the interior… temporarily. While the red leather and black dash present a sporty look well, the black headliner and additional metal bulk at the rear half of the car make the cabin dark and cave-like. Passengers in the back get a small window to look out, and will have to lean forward a bit if they want to view anything but the intense door panel. The hatch sacrifices rear passenger accommodation in the name of style, and unfortunately provides a smaller cargo area than expected. Two carry-on suitcases and a backpack filled the majority of the cargo area.

The Road to Sacramento

Out on the road, differences in driving experience between the all-wheel drive and front-drive 3 were noticeable. Both versions have the same engine and interior features (see the sedan review for quality, interior, and audio impressions), but all-wheel drive adds 173 pounds to the 3, bringing the hatchback’s weight to 3,255 pounds. Mazda doesn’t make any changes to the 2.5-liter engine or the transmission for all-wheel drive duty. The numbers stay at 186 horsepowers, 186 torques, and six forward speeds.

The ride is still composed, falling on the sporty side of comfortable. On the drive route, slightly rough stretches of highway generated an undesirable level of road noise inside the cabin. The smooth roads for the initial test in southern California did not present the same level of interior noise. Mazda claims the 3 is 10 percent more quiet than the outgoing generation. While the charts and metrics prove it’s true from a quantitative perspective, more road noise isolation on imperfect roads is desired for those who live outside of LA.

Unfortunately that’s not the only complaint with the all-wheel drive version. Recent experience with the front-drive 3 showed just how much the additional weight and complexity of powering all four wheels affected the drive. The adequate front-drive power figure becomes much less so when nearly 200 pounds are added to the weight. Put another way, each horsepower in the engine must propel 5.4 percent more weight in the all-wheel drive version. Straight line acceleration felt unimpressive via seat-of-pants metrics, particularly on any sort of incline. Floored, the engine makes a generous amount of sporty four-cylinder noise, but forward progress does not align. The added heft and planted nature of the drive system makes the 3 less chuckable in the corners — and you won’t be going quite as fast when you get there as you would in the front-drive 3.

It may take a while for drivers to get comfortable doing any sort of aggressive driving in the hatchback if obstacles and traffic loom nearby. The view out of the mailbox rear window is poor, and the enormous swooping c-pillars create the worst blind spots your author has ever experienced. Luckily, blind spot monitors located in the mirrors and in the head-up display warn when there’s a car nearby, and will also deliver auditory warnings if necessary.

We received an additional warning (and a short detainment) by a park ranger who asserted we needed a permit to do commercial-type work in the national park where these exterior shots were taken. He demanded documentation of our handler, which we provided. Mazda had some explaining to do, though all was cleared up after a 10-minute call.

A Basic Conclusion

Drive completed, the brilliant-looking grey paint showed a lot of dirt — worth noting for those in salty or dusty areas who do not religiously wash their ride. And the shine had come off the 3, as well. Because we experienced the front-drive version first, the dampening effect of the all-wheel drive was that much more apparent.

In the case of the new 3, less would seem to be more. It’s great that Mazda is willing to offer a compact in two body styles with all-wheel drive, as some buyers will need it in cold climates. The system works as intended and makes low-grip driving more pleasant. Outside of those subpar conditions, less weight and less dramatic styling should lead the practical customer to a front-drive 3 in sedan format. For the enthusiast, the front-drive hatchback with a manual is an option — saving money up front at the dealer, and down the road at the pump. If Mazda eventually blesses the 3 with the turbo engine from the 6, creating a 3GTX (or whatever), then more may indeed be more.

[Images: Corey Lewis / The Truth About Cars]

Join the conversation
4 of 74 comments
  • Conundrum Conundrum on Mar 25, 2019

    Well, after literally falling asleep reading the other Mazda3 AWD reviews which were clones of each other, once again the Lewis review prevails as the best. Good job. I've sat in several new 3s, and the interiors are spectacularly nice. Too bad about the avoirdupois of the AWD version that roughly rivals my old Legacy GT but lacks the extra 57 hp for clambering up hills. A determined grannie in a new Impreza might be hard to shake off until the road got twisty and bumpy - then the Impreza is all over the place. Had one for a week of zero pleasure, IRS and all. It oversteered and hopped all over the place on bad roads. And no I don't care what road tests say. I played with tire pressures for a day and nothing worked. So if the Mazda drives straight ahead on the highway without need for constant correction and doesn't act like a wayward shay on bumpy corners, it wins against the awful Impreza. I deliberately waited to get a test drive of the 3 AWD until some reviews came out, so I had some idea what to look for. Lazy get up and go, lazy cornering, and road noise, says Mr Lewis. Well, that's a bummer. I dunno, loved the locomotive turbo Mazda6 but it needed AWD, and now the 3 AWD needs a turbo but doesn't get it. Jeez. If the stars align, maybe in a few years a Mazda will beckon me with all the right mechanical bits. The CX-5 turbo you say? 50% more than this 3 AWD in Canada and not all that roomy either and also a high and handsome wobbler - I'm not a crossover fan.

  • Kosmo Kosmo on Mar 26, 2019

    Great review. Every other one (mostly of the sedan) just seemed to be a glowing puff piece.

    • See 1 previous
    • Ajla Ajla on Mar 26, 2019

      @mike978 Call me crazy, but reading through all these comments I think you might be just *slightly* biased in favor of Mazda.

  • Redapple2 I d just buy one already sorted. Too many high level skills (wiring, paint, body panel fitment et. al.) that i dont have. And I dont fancy working 100 s of hours for $3 /hour.
  • 28-Cars-Later I'm actually surprised at this and not sure what to make of it. In recent memory Senator Biden has completely ignored an ecological disaster in Ohio, and then ignored a tragic fire in Hawaii until his handlers were goaded in sending him and his visit turned into it's own disaster, but we skipped nap time for this sh!t show? Seriously? We really are through the looking glass now, "votes" no longer matter (Hillary almost won being the worst presidential candidate since 1984 before he claimed the crown) and outside of Corvette nostalgia Joe doesn't care let alone know what day it happens to be. Could they really be afraid of Trump, who AFAIK has planned no appearance or run his mouth on this issue? Just doesn't make sense, granted this is Clown World so maybe its my fault for trying to find sense in a senseless act.
  • Tassos If you only changed your series to the CORRECT "Possibly Collectible, NOT Daily Driver, NOT Used car of the day", it would sound much more accurate AND TRUTHFUL.Now who would collect THIS heap of trash for whatever misguided reason, nostalgia for a much worse automotive era or whatever, is another question.
  • ToolGuy Price dropped $500 overnight. (Wait 10 more days and you might get it for free?)
  • Slavuta Must be all planned. Increase price of cars, urbanize, 15 minutes cities. Be poor, eat bugs