Why The Best Alternative To The Mazda 6 Might Be The Mazda 3

2014 Mazda 3
The 2014 Mazda 3 5-door.
Regular TireKicker readers know that we hold Mazda in high regard around here.  The reasons are simple:

They make some very good cars.

They make no mediocre or bad cars.

They are much more fun to drive than the competition.

In fact, we've always been more than a bit puzzled that Mazda isn't a lot further up the sales charts in America.  Some wondered if Mazda could go it alone after its separation from longtime semi-partner Ford, but the fact is, the product has only gotten better...see the current Mazda 6, which occupies a fairly high ranking in the TireKicker Best Cars in the right sidebar of this very website, and which, for our money, is the best family sedan you can buy (which is saying something, since both the Nissan Altima and Honda Accord are good enough to land on that same top ten list).

So now, we have an all-new Mazda 3...and it is every bit as good as the Mazda 6, just smaller.

2014 Mazda 3 5-door
The 2014 Mazda 3 5-door.
The Mazda 3's roots go all the way back to such cars as the GLC, 323 and the Protege', which were fine for their time, but the 3 is on another level entirely....the first compact Mazda to suggest that your reasons for choosing a 3 instead of a 6 might be based on size requirements and efficiency and that making such a choice should not require an adjustment in your expectations of quality and fun.

Especially equipped in the top-of-the-line S Grand Touring trim, you give up virtually nothing in terms of fit, finish and features in downsizing from the 6 to the 3.  Prepare for a bit of sticker shock if you plan to play at that level, though.  For while you can get a Mazda 3 base four-door for $16,945, the S Grand Touring five-door puts you into another price class entirely, with a base price of $26,495.

We've driven both that model and an i Grand Touring four-door recently.  Let's start with the S Grand Touring five-door.  The sculptured good looks jive with Mazda's new design language.   The "giant grin" grille is gone, and the stylists are now no longer working with rulers and bars of soap as their inspiration.  The curves are organic, sensuous and frankly, a surprise...eliciting "nice car!" comments.  And when was the last time a compact five-door did that?

2014 Mazda 3 interior
2014 Mazda 3 interior.

The great thing about the S Grand Touring is that it doesn't ever let you down from that first impression, backing it all up with performance (a 2.5-liter, 184 horsepower engine, 18-inch alloy wheels, rain-sensing wipers, a moonroof, fog lamps, leather-trimmed seats (the driver's chair is an 8-way power unit), dual-zone automatic climate control, power windows and locks, a 7-inch color screen, a Bose 9-speaker audio system including Pandora, Aha, Stitcher, SiriusXM and HD Radio as well as blind spot monitoring and a rear-view camera.

It's fast, tight and comfortable.  The drivers' car really comes to light on twisting mountain roads, which we had an opportunity to enjoy during the week we had the S Grand Touring 5-door for review.  And the performance doesn't come with a mileage penalty.  The EPA estimate is 28 city/38 highway...and unlike the Mazda 6 we drove recently, the 3 S Grand Touring got within striking distance of those numbers (a little lighter foot and we would have hit those targets).

All that goes a long way toward establishing the 3 S Grand Touring as a premium compact, which helps justify that premium price.  But our tester came with options  (Cargo mat, $75; Soul Red metallic paint, $300; a rear bumper guard, $100; scuff plates and door sill trim plates, $125; and the GT Technology package...regenerative braking, active grille shutters, high beam control, lane departure warning and smart city brake support, $1,800) that pushed the price with $795 destination charge to....


Now, not only is that within walking distance of 30 large...it's also only about $2,500 less than the Mazda 6 we reviewed.  Conventional American wisdom says "go for the 6"...but there are some considerations.  Both cars use the same engine...the 3 is lighter, so it will have better performance.  The 3 gets 2 mpg more than the 6 in city driving, the highway estimates are identical. The correct answer is to pick the car that better suits your lifestyle.  Buying cars by the pound is so 1958.

2014 Mazda 3 4-door
2014 Mazda 3 4-door.

Finally, a few words about the Mazda 3 4-door i Grand Touring.  It's nice, and comes with a base price $2,700 less than the 5-door S Grand Touring.  You get a bump in gas mileage (30 city/41 highway), but that comes from a smaller engine (a 2-liter 155-horsepower four).  In most instances, you won't notice it.  But punch it going up a freeway on-ramp and you'll notice it then.  The wheels are 16s instead of 18s...the seat trim is leatherette instead of leather.  And you give up the convenience of the hatch from the five-door for a conventional trunk.  But you can (and we did) get an example for a bottom-line price less than $25,000.

If cost were no object, our choice would be the 5-door S Grand Touring without question.  But in the world of compact cars, it's reasonable to assume that for many, cost is an object....and frankly, while $25,000 is less than $30,000, 25 is still a chunk of change for a compact car. The good news is that if you're spending either of those amounts on a Mazda 3, you're buying the best in class.