2021 Mazda 3 Review

2021 Mazda 3 - The sophisticated entry level sedan gets a turbo boost to add it to its good looks.


The Mazda3 was first introduced for the 2004 model year as both a 4-door sedan and a 5-door hatchback.  It has continued to offer both body styles ever since. It was most recently revamped in 2019 for its fourth generation and became a global model for Mazda. While it has been praised for its stylish exterior (including World Car Design of the Year), premium interior, and sharp handling... fans wanted more power. For 2021, the big news in the Mazda3 lineup is the addition of that power. It comes in the form of a Skyactiv-G 2.5L Turbo 4-cylinder engine that produces 250 horsepower and 320lb-ft. of torque paired with standard all-wheel drive and a six-speed automatic transmission. The Mazda3 comes in seven total trims for the sedan or six trims for the hatchback. Trim levels include the 2.0 Sedan, 2.5 S, Select, Preferred, Premium, 2.5 Turbo, or the 2.5 Turbo Premium Plus. Prices start at $20,650 for a base 2.0 Sedan and can climb up to a starting price of $32,600 for the 2.5 Turbo Premium Plus Sedan. Hatchback models start slightly higher at $22,650 for the 2.5 S Hatchback and top out at $33,900 for the 2.5 Turbo Premium Plus Hatchback. Competition includes vehicles like the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Corolla, and Volkswagen Jetta.

The biggest changes for the 2021 model year take place under the hood which further created three new trims for the car. The new 2.5 S, 2.5 Turbo, and 2.5 Turbo Premium Plus are all new and available on both the sedan and hatchback.  The base 2.0 trim gets a power boost generating 155 horsepower, but the big news is the addition of the turbocharged 2.5-liter four cylinder the produces either 227 or 250 horsepower, depending on if you use regular or premium fuel. A third engine option also carries over from 2020 and is a 2.5L 4-cylinder that offers 186 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque. Standard transmission on all models is a 6-speed automatic and available on the AWD hatchback only is a 6-speed manual.

With engine options that appeal to a variety of buyers, the most common will likely be the standard 2.5L which will still provide sufficient power and better than most road handline. The new 2.5L Turbo will appeal to those enthusiasts who prefer a more spirited drive. The turbo model put an instant smile on my face as I pulled around the corner and hit the gas. Acceleration was impressive going from 0-60 in less than six seconds. The car handled like a dream with tight, responsive steering. I would expect the 3 to be a very fun vehicle to drive on an autocross circuit or through a serpentine experience. Like many other Mazdas, the ride is athletic and refined making it a true driver's car. The car felt comfortably grounded at all speeds with an overall smooth ride.

Offerred exclusively on the turbo models is a sport mode that optimizes gear shifting. It will automatically downshift under braking and avoid unnecessary shifting mid-corner to provide a more dynamic ride. The front suspension was also retuned with stiffer springs to maintain the aforementioned ride comfort. Mazda offers both front and all-wheel drive variants, but the turbo model comes standard with the AWD. The i-Activ AWD system improves low-traction performance in inclement weather or unstable terrain, but also adds to the performance by keeping the car grounded while taking corners quickly.

Overall fuel economy will range with the trim level and type of fuel used in the car. Opting for premium 93 Octane fuel will give your Mazda maximum performance. The new turbo model is rated at 23/32/27 city/highway/combined MPG for the sedan while hatchbacks drop 1 MPG. Over the course of my week of generally combined, but slightly heavy-footed driving, I averaged 27.1 MPG.  Overall fuel economy is comparable with competitors. The Mazda3 does come with a relatively small 12.7-gallon fuel tank that will offer around 265 miles of range.

Exterior styling hasn't changed much since the overhaul two years ago.  The styling is bold with a very prominent front end that include the large grille flanked by menacing LED headlights. The grille is outlined in chrome that extends under the headlights and around to the fenders.  Turbo models add either a front lower spoiler (sedan) or a front air dam (hatchback) for an even more aggressive and sporty appearance. Mazda3 maintains a smooth profile that includes subtle touches such as chrome lined windows or flattened wheel arches that are filled with 16,17, or 18-inch wheels. The largest wheels are the 18-inch BBS black forged wheels that come wrapped in 215/45 Bridgestone Turanza tires. The hatchback has a very unique profile with lower, elongated roofline compared to other hatchbacks like the Volkswagen GTI or Honda Civic. The c-pillar in the hatchback does create some blind spots, but modern camera technology counters that when parking. Around back is where the two versions of the Mazda3 are distinctly different (for obvious reasons). Both models feature a dual exhaust and LED taillights. License plates have been dropped to the bumper for both as well which differs from the previous generation where they were within the rear decklid and hatch. Turbo models get the addition of a rear spoiler.

Hopping inside the 3, most will be pleasantly surprised by the refinement and sophistication that Mazda offers in an entry level sedan. Drivers will face a tradition analog gauge cluster that is made up of three circles. The center digital speedometer offers a variety of customizable screens to highlight important information to the driver. Mazda also offers a head-up display that is impressively crisp in resolution. Mazda utilizes a traditional gear shifter in the center stack that includes an automatic tiptronic option. A sport mode switch is placed next to the gear shifter for an even more dynamic driving experience.

Like other Mazdas, the 3's 8.8-inch infotainment screen sits atop the dash just out of arms reach. The screen is controlled via a jog dial just below the gear shifter or through steering wheel controls. While a touchscreen would be nice (assuming the screen was closer), the jog dial is pretty intuitive after a couple days of driving. The dial turns, tilts, and presses down to select much in the way a computer mouse operates. All but the base models integrate with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Climate controls are traditional buttons and knobs that are placed at the center of the dash below the infotainment screen. Other available features include a heated steering wheel, heated seats, a 12-speaker Bose premium audio system, and a moonroof.

The front seats are comfortable with a touch a sportiness in them. Base models will come in cloth, while higher trims are available in synthetic leather or genuine leather.  The seat position is lower giving it more of a sports car feel than a basic rental car. At 5'9" I felt there was plenty of leg and headroom in both front seats with sufficient support. Rear seats offer a tighter experience with less head & legroom than some of its competitors. Three kids did fit across the back, but it was tight with one of them in a car seat that utilized the 3's LATCH system.

The Mazda3 looks great outside with its sculpted design, but that minimizes its cargo capacity inside. The sedan offers 13.2 cubic feet of trunk space which is below average for the class.  The hatchback offers more at 20.1 cubic feet which aligns closely with other hatches in the class. Rear seats in both models do fold flat offering expanded space into the rear seats if needed.

The Mazda3 continues to carry high safety rating from NHTSA and is an IIHS Top Safety pick. Standard safety features include automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keep assist, automatic high beams, adaptive cruise control, and a driver-attention monitor.  Additional available features include blind spot monitoring, Mazda radar cruise control with stop & go, 360-degree monitor, rear cross traffic alert and more. Features like the 360-degree monitor combined with the front and rear parking sensors compensate for some of the visibility problems noted in the hatchback models. For urban commuters, the traffic jam assist feature utilizes Mazda's radar cruise control with low-speed steering assist at speeds of up t0 40 MPH.

The Mazda3 has become a benchmark in quality and refinement for other compact sedans in the segment. Mazda has built an affordable and fun-to-drive little powerhouse with the new 2.5 turbo option that is creeping in on VW GTI and Honda Civic Type R driving dynamics. I've always been a fan of the Mazda3 (I owned a 2008 model before buying an SUV) and it has only improved with each generation. Every driver should appreciate the high-quality materials inside, the smooth and agile handling (even in non-turbo models), and its stylish, but non-offensive looks on the outside will still be appealing several years down the road. It might cost a little more than an Elantra, Forte or a Sentra, but you really are getting a "premium" compact sedan with the Mazda3.

First Impression Summary:

Test Vehicle: 2021 Mazda3 2.5 Turbo with Premium Plus Package AWD Sedan

* Exterior Color: Machine Gray Metallic

* Interior Color: Black Leather

* Notable Options: Machine Gray Metallic ($495)

* MSRP as tested: $34,015

Jim OBrill

Jim is Director of Marketing for the Chicago Automobile Trade Association and Chicago Auto Show and a co-host of Drive Chicago Radio on WLS 890 AM Chicago. His passion for cars started young and he’s often referred to as the ‘car-guy’ among family and friends. As a former auto detailer, he has an eye for identifying solid used cars and tags along on many car buying adventures. Early in his career he worked at several car dealerships in various areas of the business. As a co-host on Drive Chicago and member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, Jim has had opportunities to attend track school and drive vehicles on multiple circuits such as Road America and Gingerman Raceway. With a background in photography, taking pictures of vehicles has always been a hobby.

Jim also enjoys the trails and taking trucks like his 4Runner off road. He has a special appreciation for older cars and can often be found spending free time at cruise nights or home washing one his four vehicles. Jim resides in the northwest suburbs with his wife and three kids. Follow Jim on Instagram at @jpcars22 for new vehicle content or @forgotten_survivors.312 for shots of older cars still on the streets of Chicagoland.