2021 Mazda 3 Turbo Premium Plus First Drive - Maturing Gracefully

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

More by Tim Healey

Join the conversation
5 of 64 comments
  • FreedMike FreedMike on Nov 23, 2020

    Everyone talks about how "limited" this market is, but it may be larger than you think. A sedan version of this starts at thirty, and at that price point, you've got the GTI, the Jetta GLI, and the Subaru WRX. This is as quick as the VWs, and has AWD, which the VWs don't. And it's going to be a far more civilized ride than a WRX. Meanwhile it'll offer a nicely appointed interior and similar performance to entry-lux cars like the A3, A-class, and BMW's Gran-whatever, for a lot less money. And you won't have to lay out five hundred bucks every time you roll into the dealer for service. Mazda won't sell a ton of these, but every one they sell will find a happy owner. In the long run, that might be a winning strategy.

    • See 2 previous
    • 28-Cars-Later 28-Cars-Later on Nov 24, 2020

      @ajla Mazda's future is to tread water further, at least in USDM.

  • Legacygt Legacygt on Dec 14, 2020

    I think Mazda is making some of the best looking cars right now and I love hatches. But this review is spot on. Something is wrong with the styling of this car and I think it's a simple fix. If they added a fender or shoulder line above the rear wheel, that back section would look a lot better.

  • Alan This outcome was certain.The US, Australia and Canada need to approach this differently. A policy towards plug in hybrids should of been a first step. As in CAFE gradually tighten FE from there.There's no reason why you can't have a 2 litre F-150 with electric motors putting out 400-500hp. A 2 litre turbo is good for 200hp more than enough to move a pickup.Also increase fuel tax/excise every year to fill the void in loss of revenue.
  • Doug brockman hardly. Their goals remain to punish us by mandating unsafe unreliable unaffordable battery powered cars
  • Lorenzo It looks like the curves are out and the boxy look is back. There's an upright windscreen, a decided lack of view obstructing swoop in the rear side panels, and you can even see out of the back window. Is Lexus borrowing from the G-Class Mercedes, or the Range Rover?
  • Lorenzo Didn't those guys actually test drive cars? I was told that one drove like an old lady, another like a maniac, and the third like a nervous middle aged commuter who needs to get to work on time and can't afford big repair bills, and they got together to pass judgement within their individual expertise. No?
  • Lorenzo Aw, I don't care what they call the models, as long as they don't use those dots over the O's.