2014 Mazda3 sedan: the new benchmark?

The last few years were tough for Mazda. The company decided to focus on developing brand-new powertrains and platforms for its line-up of cars and trucks, which required a massive investment.

VANCOUVER (British Columbia) – That development, which has become what they call SKYACTIV technology, is now being applied to every Mazda model that gets introduced or redesigned. After the 2013 Mazda CX-5 and the 2014 Mazda6, it was the Mazda3's turn to get SKYACTIVated from head to toe.

And since their compact car represents 30% of their global sales, redesigning the 2014 Mazda3 probably was a very stressful period for the company; messing up their best-selling car would've spelled disaster, especially the sedan since it represents about two-thirds of total Mazda3 sales.

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Thankfully for them, and for the consumer, they created a brilliant little car.

Mazda brought us to the beautiful city of Vancouver, where huge investments seem to be a popular activity. We zipped through its urban areas and outskirts in the new sedan version of the 2014 Mazda3, in order to figure out if this new car will spell trouble for its competition, namely the Honda Civic, the Toyota Corolla and the Hyundai Elantra; three models that currently surpass it on the Canadian sales charts.

Source of motivation

As we previously mentioned in our first drive of the 2014 Mazda3 Sport hatchback, two engines are available. A 155-hp 2.0L four-cylinder unit, which was previously offered on the GS for the last two years, now powers the GX and GS trims; for 2014, however, it gains better mid-range torque thanks to exhaust plumbing that Mazda wasn't able to fit in the outgoing car.

Escaping the city aboard the 2.0-litre Mazda3 was fun, and the engine proved sufficiently powerful for the hilly boroughs of Vancouver. Rowing through the six-speed manual transmission's gears also proved amusing, and a delight with its light clutch action and crisp throws. A six-speed automatic is optional.

The sportiest version of the Mazda3 is once again the GT, and includes a 2.5L engine that produces 184 hp. The GT loses its manual gearbox but gains paddle shifters and a Sport mode with the now-standard automatic. While the bigger engine makes for a faster car, in normal driving the 2.0L engine is fine for us.

Fuel economy wasn't one of the car's strong points before the SKYACTIV engines came along. Compared to the old MZR four-cylinder units, the new ones are more efficient around town by about 2 L/100km, despite being more powerful. During our drive, we recorded an average of 7.3 L/100km with the 2.0L engine and 7.7 with the 2.5L mill. Much better.

More on-board technology

The route Mazda took us on didn't really challenge the car's handling characteristics, which are nonetheless among the best in its class. However, we did get to try out their new multimedia system called MazdaConnect.

Using a dash-mounted 7-inch display and a console-mounted multifunction controller – a setup that wouldn't look out of place in a German luxury car – the system has been thoroughly engineered to be user-friendly without being distracting.

The controller can obviously be used with looking at it, and three main buttons allow easy access to phone, navigation and audio menus. The driver can also quickly reach his or her favourite radio stations or addresses, and the controller is flanked by a volume adjustment knob. The screen is also touch-sensitive for entering addresses more quickly, but only when the car is stopped (good idea).

GT models also get Active Driving Display, which provides information to the driver in his or her eyesight. But instead of using the windshield as some other systems do, Mazda's setup includes a small, curved and transparent visor that gives the impression that the readout is further away in front of the driver, which reduces our eyes' refocus time between close and far-away objects.

Although the MazdaConnect system can integrate Facebook and Twitter feeds as well as apps such like aha and Stitcher radio, don't expect to read them on the Active Driving Display; if it isn't relevant to the drive, it won't be displayed in front of the driver. Once you get familiarized with the system, it works extremely well, and as promised, doesn't require much brain power like other infotainment systems do. The system is also upgradable for adding future features and apps developed by third-party providers, so it won't feel like a Commodore 64 two years from now.

In addition to MazdaConnect, which aims to please the Millenials, everyone will be pleased to know that the 2014 Mazda3 can now be equipped with a lane-departure warning system, auto-adjusting high beams and a brake assist system that can stop the car by itself or reduce the force of an impact at speeds between 4 and 30 km/h. A blind-spot monitor is also available, as it was on the outgoing generation, but gains rear cross-traffic alert, handy when backing out of a shopping mall parking spot. However, all these features are part of the optional Technology Package, available only on the GT and that pushes the car's price to just under $30K.

Curvaceous bod

While the current Mazda3 has been aging well, there are so many on the road that its looks have become way too familiar. The brand's stylists took care of that using their KODO design philosophy. The sedan keeps its long nose/short deck styling, and its overall look has definitely gained maturity without losing its sporty flair. The new 3 boasts bodywork that is both sexy and slippery; the sedan's drag coefficient is a low 0.255 when equipped with active grille shutters, while the hatchback's is slightly higher at 0.275. In short, those numbers make the new 3 one of most aerodynamic vehicles on the road today.

The 2014 Mazda3's sophisticated new look actually looks better in person than in pictures; at least, under the cloudy Vancouver sky. The GT notably gets some extra goodies such as HID headlights as well as LED daytime running lamps and taillights. In addition, those looking for a little personalization will be able to purchase an aerodynamic body kit, which was designed in North America and will be sold worldwide.

Inside, fit and finish is much improved, and blends in well with the car's bodywork. On the other hand, passenger space has only been marginally increased, and the back seat is still as tight as before. The sedan's trunk volume increases slightly from 335 to 350 litres, and the opening is a little wider – welcome but small improvements. In contrast, the 3 Sport five-door gets a more noteworthy gain, from 481 to 572 litres.

Same MSRPs, different features

In order to add the new multimedia system and the SKYACTIV powertrains, Mazda Canada figures customers won't mind a little equipment reshuffling. The base GX still starts at $16K for the sedan and $17K for the Sport hatchback, and adds Bluetooth connectivity, but the optional A/C is a pricey $1,600.

The mid-level GS's price is unchanged at $19,695 (add a grand for the five-door here too), and this trim should continue to be the most popular choice. On the other hand, its heated seats, leather-wrapped wheel and rain-sensing wipers were moved over to a $500 Convenience Package in favour of the MazdaConnect system, a rearview camera and an SD card slot for the sound system. As before, a power sunroof is optional. The top-shelf GT now lists for $25,855 and up.

The new 2014 Mazda3 is pretty darn good, and had to be in the very competitive compact-car segment, which is the biggest one in Canada. The basic elements we always liked about the 3 are still there – like its youthful and sporty character – but it has improved in many ways.

Which brings us to the conclusion that this might be the best compact on the market right now. Fuel-efficient, dynamic, attractive, refined and loaded with new technology, the Mazda3 is proof that the company's investments were worth the risk.

FAMILY RATING

3.5/5: Tight rear-seat legroom means the front seat must be moved forward to accommodate a child seat. The Mazda3 sedan's trunk has a wider opening than before, so fitting a baby stroller is a little easier.

In collaboration with Canadian Tire.

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