By on November 20, 2020

2021 Mazda 3 Turbo

In my mid-20s I had a boss who once said to me “We all gotta grow up sometime”.

I don’t remember the specifics of why he said that, other than he wasn’t chewing me out or anything like that. I think maybe we were talking generally about post-college life and the responsibilities of adulthood.

The specifics don’t matter. What does, at least for the purposes of this post, is that the Mazda 3 is learning that lesson. With Mazdaspeed more or less shelved and the manufacturer trying to move the 3 upscale, away from its spunky past, while not leaving the “zoom-zoom” reputation fully behind, the 3 is supposed to be all grown up yet still cool.

Especially when equipped with a turbocharger and all-wheel drive.

(Full disclosure: Mazda loaned me a 3 Turbo for two days and asked journalists to have questions ready for a Zoom call so that I could review this car. The company offered headphones which I declined to take. No flights, meals, or hotels since this was a loan at home.)

My time with the car was short, and Chicago is relatively bereft of truly twisty roads, so I couldn’t dig as deeply into the 3’s character as I’d like. But the short taste I did get shows that Mazda may have accomplished its mission.

2021 Mazda 3 Turbo

The turbo is appreciated when it comes to merging, passing, and fighting your way through urban traffic. That’s because the 2.5-liter boosted four-cylinder offers 227 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque when running on regular gas. Pony up for premium, and you get 250 ponies and 350 lb-ft of twist.

All-wheel drive is standard, and so, too, is a six-speed automatic transmission. If you want a 3 with a stick, you can’t have the turbo. Mazda says this because they don’t have, at the moment, a manual that can both handle the torque output and fit with the engine.

That’s too bad, because a manual might liven this car up even more. Not to mention that it would be placed perfectly – I rested my hand on the shifter while on a freeway drive and the thought of a slick-shifting manual in a turbo-four with all-wheel drive stirred some feelings.

2021 Mazda 3 Turbo

Speaking of stirring, you can select Sport mode to stir up more aggressive handling and steering responses. It tightens things up nicely, but even when it’s off, the car is responsive to steering inputs with a nicely weighted system that never feels light or artificial.

Back to that turbo for a sec – one of the nicer things about it is that peak twist is available as low as 2,000 rpm (2,500 if you’re running premium fuel). You can summon it easily for passing or just because you get a wild hair. This car’s got beans.

Part of maturity is being buttoned-up when you aren’t letting loose, and the 3 Turbo is nicely composed on the freeway. Harsh impacts do get felt – a couple of Chicago potholes were quite jarring – but the ride is never so stiff that it punishes. I spent most of my last morning in the car on the interstate, making a mad dash to Chicago’s far suburbs to help our sister sites out on a project, and the car never tired me out nor made me wish for a softer suspension setup.

2021 Mazda 3 Turbo

On the topic of suspension setups, it’s independent MacPherson strut up front and torsion beam out back.

The turbocharged 3 reminded me a bit of the Volkswagen Jetta GLI – a mature compact that can haul friends and family around in comfort in style, and still play when the mood strikes. Of course, the GLI is sedan only – this car is sedan or hatch – and available with three pedals. Not to mention it doesn’t have all-wheel drive.

I was loaned a hatch, and while I didn’t need hatchback utility, it’s nice to know it’s there. I did notice that rear-seat legroom seemed cramped, at least if the front seat is set far back for long-legged drivers like yours truly.

There were other minor flaws I noticed. The materials are nice, and the gauges clear and easy to read, but Mazda needs to spend some time tweaking the controls when it’s refresh time. Tuning the radio is an exercise in frustration that requires an odd manipulation of the console-mounted volume knob, and that doesn’t change just because most buyers will set their presets and forget about it. There’s also some key info – such as current tire pressure – that requires some menu diving.

2021 Mazda 3 Turbo

Other quirks charm – the jingle that sounds when a car is detected in your blind spot and the blinker is on is pleasant. Then again, the lane-keep assist acts with an aggressiveness usually only shown by car salespeople at month’s end, and at least once it misread the lane lines and tried to send me into the curb.

I’m also not sure how I feel about the car’s styling – it looks like a sedan that got pushed in by a semi that didn’t brake in time. I know I may be in the minority here – a lot of car folks I know dig the design. And the rear spoiler and front air dam are nice-looking. Maybe I just still have too much love for previous-gen 3s.

The cabin is far more handsome, at least, even with it being all black and only occasionally relieved by chrome (or chrome-looking) trim. And the floating infotainment screen, while a wee bit small, integrates better than most.

Most importantly, controls are logically laid out and easy to use. No diving into the owner’s manual to figure out what something does or where the controls for a key function are located.

Just another way in which the 3 Turbo works well as a functional commuter, despite the willingness to cut loose.

2021 Mazda 3 Turbo

 

Standard features include 18-inch wheels, LED headlamps and DRLs, adaptive front lighting, electronic parking brake, dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, heated steering wheel, leatherette seats, keyless starting, 60/40 split-fold rear seat, 7-inch gauge-cluster display, Bluetooth, Bose audio, 8.8-inch infotainment screen, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, satellite radio, Pandora internet streaming radio, two USB ports, keyless entry, driver-attention alert, lane-keep assist, lane-departure alert, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, head-up display, smart brake support, and radar cruise control.

The Premium Plus package adds the gloss-black rear spoiler, leather seats, front and rear parking sensors, front air dam, brake support that works in reverse, navigation, rear cross-traffic braking, 360-degree camera, traffic-jam assist, and traffic-sign recognition.

A Turbo hatch starts at $30,900 and a Premium Plus model will set you back $33,750. Three of the paint colors cost extra, gloss-black BBS wheels are $918.95 per wheel, and the aero kit is $1,075 with Premium Plus and $,1700 without. Destination is $945, $990 in Alaska.

2021 Mazda 3 Turbo

Fuel economy is rated at 23 mpg city/31 mpg highway/26 mpg combined. The computer, which I did not reset upon the start of the loan, was indicating about 24.5 mpg over a variety of city, suburban, and expressway driving.

As an overall package, this is a sporty compact that’s easy to live with. Not as high-strung as a Civic Si (and definitely not nearly as high-strung as the Civic Type R) or Subaru WRX, the 3 Turbo reminds not just of the GLI but the similarly refined VW GTI. It feels just upscale enough, it’s relatively polished in relaxed driving, and it never sacrifices utility or comfort for sport.

Yeah, a manual would make it a bit more fun, but there’s still a nice balance between party and professional at play here. We all know that person who’s completely straight-laced at the office but the life of the party on the weekend. That’s the 3 Turbo.

Business on the weekday, party on the weekend. Who says growing up can’t be fun?

[Images © 2020 Tim Healey/TTAC]

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53 Comments on “2021 Mazda 3 Turbo Premium Plus First Drive – Maturing Gracefully...”


  • avatar
    thegamper

    I had to really look to find the nod to the standard AWD. Think it would have been more of a centerpiece of the story.

    Personally, I think this is a really incredible looking hatch, paint and wheels are very nice as well. At $33-35K it is rather costly for a small car, but not completely bonkers considering you are getting a fantastic interior, loads of equipment, All wheel drive, 300 lb-ft of torque, etc. I sat in one not all that long ago and agree that the back seat is a bit cramped which is a shame because I think it is one of the things that really detracts from what is otherwise a great overall package.

    Anyway, my assessment is that at $30k this would be a slam dunk for hatchback intenders, at $35k, not so much. Given the low volume this will sell in, maybe the high price makes more sense. It will still get its lunch eaten everyday by the CX-30 and CX-5 and unfortunately, this seemingly fantastic little hatch is destined for obscurity and a future nailed to showroom floors. For those looking for something stylish, unique, sporty and compact, they will hopefully appreciate this and be thankful it exists at all.

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      If the platform costs are being amortized mostly by the CX-30 and CX-5 does it make economic sense to build this despite likely modest sales? I would assume Mazda executives ran the numbers and said yes.

    • 0 avatar
      Steve Biro

      I like this car… but I’m not paying north of $30K for it. Mazda’s need to move upmakret is at odds with my need to remain liquid.

      Also… can any or all of nannies be turned off – and remain off through key cycles? I don’t understand why you’re not including this information with all reviews. The answer is different for different vehicles – and matters to many of us.

      • 0 avatar
        Tim Healey

        I rarely turn nannies off when testing, though I do try out drive modes. I’ll take your feedback under advisement and try to address that in the future, at least with kinds of cars in which drivers might turn off the nannies.

        I assume you’re talking about VSC/ESC. If you’re talking about the driver-aid stuff, that’s trickier, though again, if we can, we’ll answer that question. Speaking generally, I find ACC and lane-keep systems are usually able to be turned off or adjusted, but not AEB/BSM/RCT systems.

    • 0 avatar
      Tim Healey

      I led off one of the early paragraphs with the standard AWD. To me, the turbo engine and upscale aim is an even bigger story that the AWD.

    • 0 avatar
      RHD

      Give it a manual transmission and a real parking brake, and it’s a winner.

      Second point:
      All that electronic crap is really not necessary, and is included just because everyone else is including it. Smart brake support that works in reverse? How about you just push the pedal and the car slows down and stops? And lane-keeping alerts are only necessary for women who can’t keep off their cell phones.

  • avatar
    tonycd

    Other testers have commented that losing IRS has cost this car a measure of finesse when cornering over less than perfect pavement. Interested to hear your observations on that.

  • avatar
    ajla

    I think Mazda built the car they wanted to here. But, I also think they delivered Worcestershire Sauce flavored ice cream. $30K-$35K is a lot of money for a pleb brand compact that doesn’t wear a performance trim badge. Such a thing has never really been successful in the US, and that was when people were still buying cars instead of CUVs and trucks.

    This clangs into a lot of stuff, from upper trim midsize sedans (including other Mazda turbos) to the entry level offerings from premium brands, to more performance-oriented compacts. I just think the market for this is razor thin. Most Mazda3 intenders would be happiest saving $8K+ with a 2.5S while shoppers in the $30K range won’t even bother looking at it.

    • 0 avatar

      Same price as the A3, which comes with buckets of badge prestige, and most buyers care more about that than the 25 horse power difference.

      • 0 avatar
        stuki

        Even setting aside supposed “prestige”, the A3 is as big inside, yet almost 10 inches shorter. It’s remarkably efficiently packaged.

        While Americans in general have long since demonstrated they give a raised F150 about packaging efficiency; they have also ditto about compact cars. Among the minority who still do shop for compact cars, compact does still matter. And the Golf/GTI/A3 is hard to top in that regard.

      • 0 avatar
        blppt

        About that “on paper” 25hp difference—both this car and the A3 turn in almost identical 0-60 and 1/4 mi times/trap speed (C&D).

        That being said, I had an A3 Quattro for 3 years on a lease and was generally unimpressed.

    • 0 avatar
      RedRocket

      This looks like another case of Mazda aiming at a market that does not actually exist except for their shrinking cadre of fanbois. This is overpriced, has hideous styling, poor interior room, and the all-black so-called “premium” interior looks like that of every other econobox. While the turbo engine was badly needed to alleviate the typically underpowered Mazda product lineup, it is still saddled with the obsolete 6-speed autobox. Inside, Mazda’s infotainment systems are far behind just about every other manufacturer. I really do wonder if they are heading towards a cliff in this market as just about every other brand passes them by.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      I guess if you really want a softer AWD GTI with a slushbox this is the car for you. That does seem like a small market though.

      Seems like most would just pay a bit more for a Golf R though (yes, I know we are between Rs right now). Or for the sedan version, less for a WRX and live with it’s more econobox nature if AWD is a must, or slightly more for the rather nicer S3. Or if AWD is not a need, MUCH less for a GLI. The GLI is a flat out bargain at the real world prices VW sells them for.

      • 0 avatar
        blppt

        Golf Rs even when they were making them were tough to find, and often shadily marked up by VW dealers. You’d have a better chance of getting a deal on a (theoretically more expensive) S3.

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    Do you have any indication about what the lowest tier is where you can get a sunroof, heated seats, plus turbo? I know for 2020, obviously without the turbo, you had to get the premium package for all of the goodies.

  • avatar

    From my time with the NA model, I’d definitely not want that black interior in the hatchback, which is cave-dark at the rear even with red seats.

    • 0 avatar
      thegamper

      This is a problem for a lot of vehicles and brands in my opinion. I have tried and failed to find something other than black on the past few purchases. I’m not to the point where I will torpedo a vehicle purchase because I cant have something other than black, but I am definitely on the lookout for something else every time.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      I used to feel that way, but after owning two cars with black interiors I prefer it. Wears better than the mouse-gray and ho-hum-beige alternatives, and most of the time I’m looking at the road anyways. I find black less distracting.

      • 0 avatar
        ajla

        There are a few exceptions (generally with higher-end $70K+ stuff) but I’m most often in the black interior camp.
        That and automatic transmissions are the two places where normie market preferences align with my own.

      • 0 avatar

        Black gives way to blue.

      • 0 avatar
        ect

        My previous car – Mercedes B-Class – had a black interior, and I’ve put up with it in rental cars. When everything is black (like cellphones, tablets, etc.), it’s very hard to find anything.

        The car before that was an A4 Avant that I factory-ordered in a dark green metallic (reminiscent of British racing Green to my addled senior mind), with a grey interior. The salesman commented, when I came to pick it up, that a number of people had commented quite favourably on how good the colour combination looked. He then added that of course the dealership would never order such a colour combination for inventory. Of course…

        My current car (Sportage SX) again has a varied interior, which is much more to my liking than the standard black, and played a role in my selection.

    • 0 avatar
      punkairwaves

      I bought my current car new in 2008 and owned the one before that for a dozen years. After two decades of black interiors I’ve thought about getting something lighter if I decide to go shopping again. But then I remember my mom’s Buick with a tan interior. She has kept it clean over the years, but there’s still something about the interior that looks tired compared to my cars which have hauled around a lot of kids and outdoor equipment.

      • 0 avatar
        RedRocket

        Thing is, nobody (except maybe Porsche) offers an all-color interior like your mom’s Buick from decades ago did. Today they all are mostly black, and if they have color it is just seating surfaces and maybe some inserts on the door panels. The problem with this Mazda interior is the same as most every other black interior these days – it does not offer any relief in terms of contrasting tones to make it look like something other than a coal mine inside.

        • 0 avatar
          la834

          Lincoln offers a lovely all-burgundy interior on the Aviator and Navigator, as well as an all-blue on those two vehicles and the Continental sedan. Their smaller crossovers offer blue and brown interiors though those are fully color-keyed. Unfortunately the colorful interiors require stepping up to the top line Black Label trim.

    • 0 avatar
      Varezhka

      The dark headliner in the hatch really does darken that interior.
      I do wish it was lighter colored like the sedan, but I guess that was considered un-sporty.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    I think Mazda will have more success w/ an AWD 6 2.5t. I can see someone wanting the extra room over a 3. It will drive better than a Legacy GT,look better and be faster than a n/a awd Camry. And since the Accord doesn’t come w/ a manual anymore the 6 vs. Accord will be a coin toss for the enthusiast leaning family sedan buyer.

  • avatar
    watersketch

    I was the same on interiors, but now that I’ve tried black there is no going back.

    Looks good even when it’s messy and warms up nicely on a cold sunny day.

  • avatar
    JMII

    Does Mazada still embarrass you if the car doesn’t have the NAV option? I rented one once and when I went to the NAV screen it displayed a message similar to “visit your local Mazda dealer to have this feature activated” with a digital compass above it. I found that very cringe worthy. I’ve never seen this approach in an other vehicle.

    • 0 avatar
      dwford

      Have you seen the nasty flat black bezel around the base screen in the new Hyundai Elantra? Total horror but to avoid it you have to spring for the Limited trim.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      But the nice thing is that instead of paying your dealer $500-700 for that Nav option, you can just buy the SD Card from Amazon for $80. BTDT with my Fiata, which of course had the Mazda Nav system. Still used Android Auto instead modt of the time, but it was occasionally useful.

      I’ll also say that I really liked the “iDrive light” infotainments system second only to actual iDrive among cars I have driven with such things. A touchscreen you never have to touch is fine by me. I assume they have not ruined it in these latest cars. I didn’t really mess with it in the 3 I test drove since I was mostly along for the ride with a friend who was looking at them (and ultimately bought a GTI).

      • 0 avatar
        tankinbeans

        The upgraded infotainment system is certainly faster to load and more responsive than the old system. Instead of having to sit for upwards of two minutes, give or take, to wait for it to load, it’s just up and running.

        Not quite UConnect fast, but seems less glitchy.

  • avatar
    Dan

    Was doing your photo session next to that racist graffiti intentional?

    • 0 avatar
      Tim Healey

      I don’t know why I am replying to this, but here goes:

      1) Black Lives Matter, at least as a concept, is not racist. This should not be controversial.

      2). That said, while I saw the drawings on the ground, I didn’t read what they said. I am familiar with that part of the Chicago suburbs and I knew that covered bridge was there and I wanted it in the background. I didn’t notice the “Black Lives Matter” message.

  • avatar
    dwford

    At $33-35k is Mazda expecting the 3 to be cross shopped with the base Mercedes A-class?

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      Alex Dykes (Alex on Autos) specifically mentioned the CLA. He felt that the interior was premium enough.

      He singled out the CLA for starting at nearly the same price but being easy to option out to $60K whereas the Mazda could only be pushed to $40K and that was only if you get the silly overpriced dealer installed wheel and tire package.

  • avatar
    turbo_awd

    Wife had an ’05 Mazda 3 sedan with the 2.3 auto. Fun little car, traded it in for a minivan when it couldn’t hold a Bob twin stroller. I told her she should have gotten the hatch :-)

    Fast forward to ’19 and the wife wants a zippy car for around town due to lanes getting downsized for bigger bike lanes, etc. Sat in the 3 hatch, and immediately got out again. SO tiny. And the turbo wasn’t available at that point. Ended up with a CPO ’16 GTI that feels roomier and nicer.

    At one point, I had hopes of a new Mazdaspeed 3/6 to replace the aging LGT. Oh well, so far, the Stinger’s been amazing. We’ll see how the dealer handles the recall, though.

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    “the lane-keep assist acts with an aggressiveness usually only shown by car salespeople at month’s end, and at least once it misread the lane lines and tried to send me into the curb.” Unacceptable and unforgiveable. Absolute fail. I was seriously interested in this car as a replacement for both my Infiniti G37S toy and our Focus SE daily driver. Not any more.

    As I commented yesterday, under Perils of Driver Disengagement, this is an example of an “aid” that makes an otherwise excellent vehicle undesirable compared to its predecessor.

  • avatar
    Oberkanone

    Love this car. Dislike the price. Subaru Impreza 5 door is getting our money.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    So let’s keep it in perspective.

    The sedan version of the 2.5 turbo starts at $29,900 and the hatch starts at $30,900 (not much of a price penalty either way.)

    The standard features list is long, the interiors have gone upmarket, AWD is standard. After a model year or two the prices will come down in real world terms.

    This seems like a great commuter for someone who has an all-weather commute, wants to get decent fuel economy, doesn’t trust VW, and likes the refined nature of the Mazda.

    It’s a good candidate to replace my TourX when the time comes.

    (Oh and to everyone saying – “Yeah but an A3” by the time I get the options I want on an A3 the price is much higher than I’m comfortable with.)

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      It is for someone that requires AWD, wants reasonable power, favors refinement and features over outright dynamics, has a hard budget limit of $35k (but can afford at least $30K), doesn’t care about badges, and doesn’t trust VW.

      It isn’t a bad car or anything, I just don’t think there is a big audience here.

      Plus you bought a Regal wagon, so it isn’t like you are Mr.Marketshare :)

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        Damning with faint praise I know but this Mazda 3 turbo makes more “business” sense to me than the VW Arteon.

        • 0 avatar
          NG5

          I drove a VW GTI that was trimmed up to the same cost and the interior design was worse than the Mazda 3 of this gen I sat in. Maybe the Audi would be better but I don’t think Americans can get the A3 hatch, so it’s kind of incomparable to me. The only other hatch I can think of with AWD is the Impreza with the CVT and… no.

          Not to mention I think Mazda just leapfrogged Toyota in overall reliability per CR and this platform is their biggest seller (3, CX-5, and CX-30). It seems like a very solid longterm ownership prospect.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    @thegamper–Agree about black interiors especially in hot weather. I had a black truck with black leather interior which was extremely hot during the Summer and it took a while for the air conditioning to cool the interior. I liked the looks of the interior but a black interior would be a deal breaker for me buying a vehicle. I now have 2 vehicles with beige interiors and 1 with gray. One vehicle I had in the past had a blue interior and the silver exterior had a tint of blue–I really liked the blue interior.

  • avatar
    monkeydelmagico

    Currently drive a 2016 6 sedan. I’m interested in this new turbo AWD. Couldn’t really determine from the reviews how well the car handles and feels. Feels like Mazda has continued to slowly move away from Zoom.

    Local Mazda dealer is great so will have to put this on my must drive list. Really do not dig the back half re-design of the newest hatchy. Might end up with the sedan instead.

    For the people comparing to Golf R…. it’s a stretch fiscally from what I see. Golf R is expensive.

  • avatar
    Daniel J

    For everyone moaning about price, the price is inline with inflation depending on the trim in comparison with the mazdaspeed3.

    The red interior is nice.

    The more interesting choice will be the CX-30 AWD with the turbo when it is released.

    In regards to the Audio A3, the costs of the DCT would keep me from buying. That, and the Audio service center stays twice as busy as the Mazda, as they are the at the same dealership where I live.

    I wish my Mazda 6 with the turbo had AWD, but it was never mandatory.

  • avatar
    eldaino12

    I want to love this car. I dig the styling, I dig that its awd and still undercuts something like an a3 or golf r while offering something in the neighborhood of similar power.

    But I cannot get over how small this interior feels and IS. Would it be a cheaper to own long term prospect thank my mk7 gti? maybe, at least in fwd, not turbo form.

    But holy hell a rear facing car seat? forget it. A huge downgrade in rear hatch space. Doesnt the sedan make a better case for cargo capacity? That flies in the face of everything have a hatch is supposed to solve.

    I agree with many here; the market for someone who wants to opt for a nicely appointed hatch from a non luxury make that makes a ton of compromises in packing is…very niche. One of the nice things about my GTI is that it works, even for 2 kids, in a pinch. (admittedly, at the limit of what a vehicle of this size can do for that many folks and all their stuff.) A civic hatch, while maybe not as nice as a gti or 3, would also do well, as its downright cavernous by comparison.

    The 3, as compelling as it is, is too expensive and lacks some much needed utility.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    The need for the “commuter” will be declining rapidly as time moves on.

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