In recent years, luxury automakers such as Lexus and Mercedes-Benz launched compact cars at the low ends of their lineups, betting on the idea that urban-dwelling, well-heeled buyers would prefer a car with smaller dimensions. Mazda reaches up-market with the 2014 Mazda3, pushing the latest generation of this economy car to compete with the luxury compacts.
But where the luxury makers set a base of about $30,000 for their offerings, the Mazda3's price remains solidly amongst the economy set.
Mazda managed to make the Mazda3 look and drive as well as the new cars from the luxury competition. Even its tech features compare well with these new up-market compacts, although in practice some of those features proved buggy, and could have done with some refinement.
The Mazda3 I reviewed was the five-door hatchback, a form I prefer over the available sedan for its looks and practicality. In design, the Mazda3 has a delicious curviness in all its lines, and looks like no other car on the road. The nose is surprisingly long and the front fenders arch upward, creating a dramatic dip at the A pillars.
The low roofline at the rear gives it a little gangster swagger, but the back of the Mazda3 seems to cut off too abruptly. There seemed so little to the back end that I assumed the cargo area would be non-existent. Opening the hatch, I could see there was room for more than a couple grocery bags, at least. The official rating for the cargo area is 20.2 cubic feet, far from the largest in its set. Fold down the rear seats, though, and the rated space goes up to 47.1 cubic feet.
This particular Mazda3, with "s" and "Grand Touring" added to the name, sported the most expensive trim in the lineup. At this trim level every cabin tech and driver-assistance feature comes standard. Not only did this Mazda3 have a navigation system, but it also came with a head-up display, lane-departure warning, and a blind-spot monitor.
The new infotainment system, called Mazda Connect, consists of a 7-inch color screen perched on the dashboard, and a set of hard controls down on the console. From the configuration of these controls, it looks like Mazda is borrowing from the European automakers. Mazda Connect comes standard on the Mazda3 i Grand Touring, s Touring, and on the s Grand Touring.
With this system, a home screen shows large icons for cabin tech functions such as navigation, stereo, and phone, and lets the driver scroll through and select items using the console dial. The dial also works as a push button, and moves laterally and vertically. Similar to BMW's iDrive and Audi's MMI, navigating menus is quick and easy, but entering alphanumeric characters is tedious. However, the Mazda3's LCD is also a touch screen, so I could lean forward and tap letters in with the onscreen keyboard.
I found the interface intuitive to use, and I liked how Mazda put all the audio sources on one screen, rather than separating broadcast and local storage. However, one morning I started up the car and found that the buttons were not responsive, leaving me stuck on the navigation screen. It took a restart of the car, rebooting Mazda Connect, to restore its functionality.
Voice command allows hands-free control for some of the cabin tech, such as making phone calls by contact name and entering addresses for navigation in a single string. But it did not have the ability to recognize artist, album, or song names from media in the car.
The navigation system showed maps in good resolution, with perspective and plan views. I wasn't crazy about the gray color scheme, but it included rendered buildings in downtown areas; rich graphics for upcoming turns; lane guidance; and the current speed limit. Turn and lane guidance also projected on the head-up display.
But the navigation system suffered from a couple of problems. First, in areas with tall buildings or trees, it was prone to losing its GPS fix. That led to unnecessary route recalculating and voice prompts. Second, the live traffic implementation is kind of bizarre. Under an Apps menu, far removed from navigation in the menus, I found a map showing traffic ingested from the FM data broadcast. That live traffic was not integrated with navigation at all.
Mazda Connect has the ability to show traffic on its map screen, but the car needs to be tethered to a data source with Wi-Fi. Some Android phones allow data tethering, or you could keep a Wi-Fi hot spot in the car, but all that seems a little ridiculous. I would very much like to see Mazda integrate the FM-derived live traffic with the navigation system, so the car could actively calculate routes around traffic jams.
Tethering the car to a data source also enables fuel price information online location search through Google.
Mazda Connect includes Pandora, Stitcher, and Aha Radio in its list of audio sources, but those apps were integrated through my phone. The Mazda3 uses one of the most advanced implementations of Bluetooth I've seen for phone connectivity. It allowed phone calls, of course, but Mazda included a Bluetooth standard called Host Controller Interface. The standard let me browse and select music from my iPhone through the car's interface without the phone having to be cabled to the car. Android 4.2 devices should also support the Host Controller Interface standard.
So far, the only other car I've seen supporting this standard is the Acura RLX Sport Hybrid.
Among the Mazda3's other audio sources were two USB ports in the console, HD Radio, and satellite radio. Traditionalists will be annoyed to find the volume knob sitting on the console next to the Mazda Connect controls, but Mazda has always found odd spots to place the volume knob.
The head-up display is a very interesting feature which is virtually unheard of in compact cars. But the implementation in the Mazda3 is a little weird. Instead of a projection on the windshield, there is clear plastic panel that pops up from the dashboard. Mazda should have fixed it in place, as the panel did not always deploy all the way when I started the car. I occasionally found myself having to flick the panel so I could see the display.