By on March 25, 2019

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]

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74 Comments on “2019 Mazda 3 AWD First Drive Review – Holding It All Down...”

  • avatar

    Spectacular POS.


    • 0 avatar

      Hardly a POS – well made, reliable and fun to drive. If you want more space and better visibility buy the sedan (or another car). Hardly a major issue. Choice is good.

      • 0 avatar

        “If you want more space and better visibility buy the sedan”

        Are you here all week? And I *always* tip the waitress.

      • 0 avatar

        Not saying its a bad vehicle, but I have noticed that Mazda people like to say “It’s the extreme of awesome reliability.” I have crunched a lot of numbers of Mazda, Toyota, Honda cars for sale in the US at auctions/classified ads and I noticed a lot of Mazda owners plain trade their vehicles in or end up at a corner lot with less than 200,000 miles. Many of the ones with over 200,000 miles are Ford derived models with Ford engine/transmission, where plenty of newer model Toyota or Honda’s can be found with 300,000-400,000 plus miles. Mazda owners just don’t drive the heavy miles like the crazy Toyota/Honda owners do, so therefore there is insufficient data to suggest an Mazda makes awesomely reliable vehicles.

    • 0 avatar

      You still at it. People always bashed mazda for some legroom. “My Elantra…”. And I drove these Mazdas for decades with no issues. Never missed 1 inch of space. New Corolla hatch is way smaller than any Mazda3 that existed till now.

      And yet, I think, this car is a loser for completely different reasons. I myself, if I was on compact market, wouldn’t buy it. And I am the one who preferred Mazdas over Civics and likes for the last 21 years

    • 0 avatar

      “The hatchback’s shape is undeniably good looking, easily standing out in the compact class against entries like the Subaru Impreza or Volkswagen Golf. ”

      Good looking = squashed roof with tiny windows. No thanks. Golf and Impreza are appealing specifically BECAUSE they’ve retained handsome upright shapes with large glass space.

  • avatar

    Why do some carmakers equate “sporty” with “having poor visibility”?

    • 0 avatar

      It’s not that they’ve equated sporty and poor vis, it’s that they’ve equated a stylish exterior with poor visibility.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, this trend needs to die. I want a hatch to be functional and fun, looks like VW is about the only game in town. Hope the Golf is still around when I’m shopping.

    • 0 avatar

      while i will quickly agree that my heart sank when i saw that rear, i also don’t think mazda should be the only one taking a hit for this.
      if you look at all the sporty hatchbacks, this is a problem.

      in a way, i want this (porsche?) look, but WHY does the rear window need to be so small along with the c pillar being so large? should be one or the other…not both.

      if the window was not such a false opening, with almost 4 inches of unusable side glass, i think the side could be worked around.

      not both

  • avatar

    Someone described the hatchback as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I can’t unsee that now.

    • 0 avatar

      “They stuck me with some vehicle I believe they call a Hunchback.”

      “No. I think that would be a Hatchback, Niles.”

      • 0 avatar

        “Because of your show, I rear-ended some wretched little domestic car.”

        • 0 avatar

          Don’t recall that line, but “Frazier,” “Seinfeld,” et. al., were the highlight of sitcoms! Everything today is just dreck!

          I just can’t see why anyone could consider this car, just because of that awful visibility! (Unless they happen to have a recent Camaro in the garage!) Just when you think it’s safe to change a lane, even after a shoulder check, krrrrunnnch!

    • 0 avatar

      and now I have ‘this’ stuck from 1st thing that came into ‘my’ head…

      “We’ve got to find some humpbacks.”

      “Humpbacked…? people?”

  • avatar

    “Stylish”? No. The rear looks like an angrier version of a first-gen Chevy Traverse. The entire rear half was phoned in.

  • avatar

    Good review. All reviews seem to be in agreement that this is a good driving car and if the additional weight and cost of the AWD is too much then save $1400 and buy the same model but without AWD – problem solved.

    The interior design and quality are outstanding at this market segment and price. Shaming many other car brands.

  • avatar

    Saw one in the flesh this weekend – a hatchback in Soul Red, with a light tan interior. It looks impressive. But if Mazda really wants to do the cheaper-Audi thing, they need to give this car some balls, stat.

  • avatar

    Exterior color is blah, interior color is ugly, and together they are hideous.

  • avatar

    Pity Mazda is deciding to choose form over function with their hatchback styling. The previous gens hatchbacks were more wagonish thus making them far more practical.
    The potential reasons could be…
    – To get away from the wagon appearance because wagons are still poison around here.
    – To further differentiate from the CX3 which several people have pointed is LESS practical and MORE expensive than a 3 hatch.
    – Or the worst reason of all, everyone just loves the “4-door coupe” look. (It hurt just to type that)

  • avatar

    Why does this thing have four doors? Looks like not even an average-sized human could sit there upright. Review could maybe have posted a pic of human sitting in back?

    Sloped CUV styling grafted onto a hatchback with disastrous results.

  • avatar

    hoping for Mazda success but no zoom zoom, just zoom barely

    that front hasn’t even the vestige of a bumper, that’s gonna cost someone in the future

  • avatar

    “Mazda realizes the enthusiast customer wants to shift on their own without an Ace of Base lifestyle.”

    Correct for those who wants to shift loaded models. WRONG for me, who likes AceOfBase

    “The adequate front-drive power figure becomes much less so when nearly 200 pounds are added to the weight.” – hahaha ^^^see above^^^. Give me manual Ace of Base

    I think, this is a loser. Used to be poor man’s BMW. Who is your customer now?

    Suggestion. Now, Mazda, that you have a Hatch, make a Wagon.

  • avatar
    R Henry

    Mazda always finds a way to remain in the 2-3% range of US market share. Mazda tries all sorts of unique product offerings, but none is ever really appealing enough to move into the mass market. Each Mazda I have owned (3) has one or two glaring faults that take it out of consideration for the vast majority of potential buyers. I think this car carries on with the tradition, with its lack of grunt (most common Mazda fault) and styling that is polarizing.

  • avatar

    > The hatchback’s shape is undeniably good looking

    This is the ugliest car I have seen in a long time. I am usually pretty forgiving and vastly prefer five doors but in this case I would go for the less practical sedan. The hatch is extremely ugly.

  • avatar

    a torsion beam rear suspension

    back to future

    • 0 avatar

      Yes it seems to be. No detriment to handling or driving feel as said by people who have actually driven the car (ie not you). They made it feel as good while saving cost, space and complexity. Well done.

    • 0 avatar

      “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.”

      Yeah… the goal was reduced cost.

  • avatar

    This is the textbook modern car. Buzzy econobox dressed up like a sociopathic black bunker to the point that you can neither see out of it nor accommodate passengers, and now available with AWD.

    • 0 avatar

      Hardly buzzy or an econobox anymore. Would an econobox have climate control, heads up display, leather wrapped dash, 186hp, 12 speaker bose stereo etc. Times move on, you should too.

  • avatar

    I’ve always liked Mazda styling and their approach to cars. Have never bought one as their approach doesn’t seem to include rust-proofing, top-notch materials or typical Japanese reliability. Beautiful looking car, but, three-strikes against them already.

    • 0 avatar

      ” doesn’t seem to include rust-proofing, top-notch materials or typical Japanese reliability”

      My friend has had many more quality issues 16k miles into his 2017 Civic than he ever did with his 2009 Mazda3 that he put 156k miles on. I’d put Mazda interior materials solidly ahead of Toyota from what I’ve seen in the last several years. Rustproofing, we will see, but I have not seen a single 2010+ Mazda 3 (smiley face body) with rust yet.

  • avatar

    I think the design is gorgeous, I’m surprised how many people have a problem with the rear end of it. The rear seats of my car get used maybe 3x a year, this would look great in my driveway

  • avatar

    I saw one in person at the recent auto show here in Minneapolis. The hatch wasn’t bad, but I could see it getting really annoying pretty quickly. I was pleased to see a return of the J-vin, but the car hits 3/4 of my marks in either format.

    Tried getting my hands on a Compass, to see if the manual AWD model would be liveable, but there was only 1 specced the way I want it within 500 miles. No dice. I test drove a WRX and was underwhelmed by the cheapness exuded by that thing. The search continues. Luckily I still have plenty of time before I have to make a decision to buy out my car, or trade.

    Waiting to see if the CX-30 is released her, will have decent engines, will offer AWD and a manual.

  • avatar

    This is a weird looking car. I’m also not sold on AWD.

  • avatar

    So Saturday was the press embargo day…. really not impressed with the auto press this weekend. Everybody had what amounted to the same review of the Mazda3 delivered with same milquetoast conclusions. Our friend Alex did his usually best, but despite actually having a car to drive he didn’t (or couldn’t) report with his own measured performance figures, just relying on the press release. And nobody called out Mazda on the missing SkyActive X, which one can only assume is vaporware at this point in time.

    • 0 avatar

      Let me help you read.

      “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.”

      I told you not to buy the AWD one if you live anywhere but a winter zone. Not strong enough for you?

      There was no time for journalists to go get their own figures on really anything. Tightly packed schedule.

      • 0 avatar

        > The only commitment representatives made was that the engine would be available in the European market later in 2019.”

        Well yes, everybody reported that and it was technically correct. Hardly anybody bothered following up with “what’s up with that? My point is that kind of thing isn’t time limited on test excursion yet everybody managed to give it a pass without deeper thought… is it not living up to expectations, are they fine tuning it, is good but too expensive… my point being that everybody managed to avoid this in more or less the same way, so it felt like I was watching the same thing as I hopped around.

        • 0 avatar
          Daniel J

          And Mazda would have given more with proding from the auto journos?

        • 0 avatar

          You are complaining for nothing. Skyactive X goes to a large market first, the one most bothered about fuel economy then goes to other markets. Really is this a surprise??
          The conclusions from the reviews I saw were pretty good – drives well, sophisticated, great interior design and quality.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    Nice honest review. It seems the torsion bar rear suspension and small (relative to competitors at least) interior are forgiveable, but a heavy driving 3 isn’t. I’ll wait for the SkyactiveX power unit to pass final judgement,unless Skynet takes out the world and the B&B with it

  • avatar

    A torsion beam is superior to IRS. Quite a discovery Mazda has made. I guess all premium brand manufacturers are scrambling to correct their mistake.

    • 0 avatar

      It depends on the application.

      The smaller the car, assuming it’s not a pure sports car, the more important efficient packaging becomes.

      There is also a big difference between front driven cars, and rear driven ones. A front driver already hampered by a McPherson setup up front, is generally already too “planted” in the rear, for a make who trades on everyday sportiness. Saving space (and money and complexity) by using a simpler rear suspension, can easily be a win-win in that application. While a powerful rwd premium car, needs all the wheel control it can get back there, in order to save Mr. MoreMoneyThanTalent from going off asswards at the first presented opportunity.

      • 0 avatar

        Yes, across the full spectrum of cost/space/complexity/handling torsion beam is a win, all except for the last, handling. I have owned many torsion beam cars (X-11, GLH Turbo, GLI, Fiesta) and driven many more. Some handled well, but the back end was never part of that. On every torsion beam car I have driven, the back end is pulled along for the ride like a trailer. IRS one can feel the back involved in solving the challenge of a curve. But you are right, the need for “zoom” is diminishing—-traffic and busted roads are making it a moot point.

  • avatar

    I’m really shocked at how divisive the hatch’s design has been. I think it’s stupidly gorgeous (practicality concerns aside). It looks like it was designed by humans, not robots or focus groups.

    I realize that the shape has legitimate concerns, in terms of visibility and cargo space, but damn. Everything in this world can’t be about practicality. I haven’t seen a new car design I’ve found this alluring since the 2003 G35.

  • avatar

    I do not like shape and interior is too dark. I myself have AWD Fusion which has 245 hp turbo engine and seems to me faster than FWD Fusion I had before (it had 235 hp). And no torque steering. BTW my Lada (three door hatchback) had 82 hp engine. Yeah it was not fast but it was light and noisy and unreliable, rusting and so on. But 185 hp not enough? I do not know but it is a heavy car!

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

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

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