My buddy Dave has driven the same, busted-down 2003 Ford Focus for the last decade. He’s both a grownup and a professional now, and his trusty rust bucket has got to go. Far from a car guy, Dave really only knows that he wants a hatchback and a compact form factor. He’s a designer by trade, so I figured that, when advising him on the matter, something that was shapely might win out over something that perfectly suited his needs.
During Dave’s protracted decision-making process (he’s not a fast man), it was convenient that I had a 2016 Mazda3 five-door scheduled for a week-long test. The 3 and the Subaru Impreza were high on his list of candidates, and it was interesting for me to look at the car through the eyes of a potential buyer.
- Styling is a big draw for the Mazda3. If you really have to have a hatchback the current Ford Focus is also quite attractive, as is Hyundai’s Elantra GT, though I prefer Mazda’s interior treatment to both. Other options are more polarizing, in the forms of the new Scion iM and the lovable-but-homely Impreza. Dave cleared liked the looks of the Mazda the best, overall.
- This is a terrific-handling small car. I grew up on front-drive Hondas and Nissans that traded “momentum” thrills for outright power, and Mazda seems to be the one current automaker that believes in that strategy. Throwing the 3 from one bend to the next is always rewarding, with flat cornering and super-quick turn-in the prize for aggressive drivers. Light steering effort is still good in terms of road feel, and I had plenty of confidence about what my tires were up to as I sped along. Dave didn’t care much about the handling, but he was impressed that the car was quieter than his elderly Ford on the highway, and that the heater was strong enough for him to leave the windows down in December – to each his own, I guess.
- It’s easy to impress an old-car driver with tech and amenities of any new car. But the Mazda still offers a great feature set, even relative to the rest of the competitors. I don’t love accessing the infotainment system via the central controller, but the touchscreen display gives options for access. At the top-level Grand Touring model I tested, the navigation system is standard, too, which isn’t the case for similar trims across the segment.
- While the base five-door price of $18,545 is quite competitive, start adding options to a Grand Touring 3 and you’re quickly going to hit the ceiling of the compact segment. My tester was a whopping $30,270 as I drove it, with the rakish appearance package accounting for some $1,750 of that premium. Compare that rate with a decked out Focus Titanium – especially with the aggressive lease rates that can be had from the Blue Oval – and someone like Dave will really have to think about monthly budgets versus long-term value. Pricing and residuals is an area, too, where the also expensive Impreza holds its own (especially in cold weather climates like Michigan, where four-wheel drive is a distinct advantage).
- The power from the bigger, SkyActiv 2.5-liter four-cylinder is quite good, but I don’t think it’s worth the tradeoff in terms of fuel economy versus Mazda’s 2.0-liter option. That extra half-liter of displacement gets you about 30 more horsepower, and the car did feel quick, but the smaller engine is still quite sweet. I’d pocket the two gees, in return for lower fuel costs and a tiny bit less zoom.
- For me – a car guy – Mazda’s eight-speed automatic transmission is clearly second-rate compared to the excellent available manual box. Yes, its smooth and shifts are virtually seamless, but it’s anything but exciting to use, in a car that can be occasionally thrilling to drive. Of course, my buddy doesn’t care a bit about it, not even considering a manual trans for any car he’s looking at. Americans… what can I say?
- Ford Focus
- Hyundai Elantra GT
- Kia Rio 5 Door
- Scion iM
- Subaru Impreza