2021 Mazda3 Turbo first drive review: Mazdaspeed for grownups

The Mazdaspeed3 was a blisteringly fun car that took a regular ol’ hatchback and gave it a big juvenile kick in the powertrain. But the inexorable march of time affects us all, and in Mazda’s case, the automaker has grown up a lot over the past few years. It’s no surprise, then, that despite some impressive on-paper figures, the 2021 Mazda3 Turbo acts more like a retired hot hatch that just wants to sit on the deck and grill all day.

Maturity is the name of the game with the 2021 Mazda3 Turbo, not hooliganism. Yes, its 2.5-liter turbocharged I4 puts out 250 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque with premium gas (227 hp and 310 lb-ft, respectively, on 87-octane), but even with that big ol’ twist, the Mazda3 never feels like it’s bursting forth from a corner. Instead, the tuning makes the engine feel most at home at lower revs, delivering its torque in a way that’s far smoother than, say, a car that attempts to friction-weld my back to the seat. No matter where the tachometer needle is, though, the engine itself sounds great, with a hint of turbo whistle and a bass-heavy warble.

The six-speed automatic transmission’s long gearing is, uh, geared toward non-sprightly situations. When the going gets twisty, it takes a fair bit of time to work through each gear, and with torque arriving early, the whole shebang feels like it peters out a bit at higher revs, which doesn’t really encourage rapid-fire pulls of the steering-wheel paddles. Switching into Sport mode holds gears through corners and downshifts more aggressively under braking, in addition to perking up throttle response. Looking for a manual transmission? Sorry, pal.

I find the most satisfying moments to come from highway on-ramps and shooting gaps in traffic, where that effortlessness is best appreciated, rather than throwing my tester into a tight corner and trying to squeeze every inch of the powertrain for more hustle. That’s probably for the best, given the Turbo’s estimated fuel economy of 23 miles per gallon city and 31 mpg highway, which is only OK for a compact hatchback.

Even though sinuous forest two-lanes don’t feel like the Mazda3 Turbo’s favorite place to be, it’s apparent that the car’s chassis tuning is more than ready to tackle these roads. The slightly stiffer front dampers mean lateral weight transfer doesn’t feel ponderous, and the new front knuckle makes for tight and responsive steering. Suitably thick Bridgestone Turanza all-season tires make sure regular day-to-day driving prioritizes smoothness — a pleasant departure from nearly every other automaker’s desire to wear the thinnest rubber possible, which can turn a stiff-ish car from composure to consternation in a hurry. The Mazda3 Turbo’s standard all-wheel drive also promotes a balanced response when exiting turns; I don’t find any Mazdaspeed3 crab-walking nonsense here if I accidentally goose it a little too early. Less dramatic? Sure. But you know who likes predictability and a lack of histrionics? Grownups.

No matter how it drives, the 2021 Mazda3 Turbo looks absolutely bitchin’ in my tester’s five-door form. Equipped with the optional Premium Package, black accents on the lower air dam, rear wing and rear diffuser look properly mean against the $495 Machine Gray Metallic paint. The optional 18-inch black BBS wheels look fab, too. Like every other Mazda3, it has a body generally devoid of eye-searing sharp angles, instead opting for a more rounded appearance that doesn’t elicit a bunch of Gundam references, which alone is proof that the Mazda3 is growing up.

But no part of the Mazda3 exhibits maturity like the interior. Brands that position themselves as premium could learn a thing or two. The design is simple, and what lines are there aren’t overwrought to hell and back. My tester’s two-tone motif covers half the dashboard in crimson leather that’s soft and cushioned enough to fit in with the Germans. The Turbo’s 12-speaker Bose audio system breaks up the leather with some flashy aluminum shrouds. Even the switchgear on the wheel and center console feel expensive. Not bad for a car falling under the average new-car transaction price.

Even the tech is all grown up. Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot come packed into an 8.8-inch screen running the latest version of Mazda Connect, which has a minimalist interface that is easy on the eyes. It takes some getting used to, since the dial on the center console is the sole way of interacting with the display, but owners should find it sufficiently easy to master. I used to hit Mazda hard for its low-quality backup cameras, but even that’s been remedied; this Mazda3 Turbo shows what’s behind me in high definition, and there’s even a surround-view monitor and parking sensors thrown into the mix. It’s all very impressive, considering you don’t need to pile on options packages. The head-up display is no longer relegated to a crappy piece of flip-up plastic, too.

Once again, Mazda is showing that it can do fancy better than some established luxury automakers, whether it’s the simple elegance of the infotainment system or the dashes of red leather throughout the cabin.

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

I haven’t even broached the topic of safety yet. There’s a whole bunch of standard kit here, too, like automatic emergency braking (that also works when reversing), blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capabilities, lane-departure warning and a new hands-on Traffic Jam Assist that combines ACC with steering inputs when under 40 mph.

Nobody should have to sell the farm to pick up a 2021 Mazda3 Turbo, either. The sedan starts at $30,845 including $945 for destination, while the hatch’s base price is $31,845. Throw in the Premium Plus Package and the two vehicles end up running $33,395 and $34,695, respectively. It might not be the bonkers little hot hatch that Mazdaspeed aficionados were hoping for, but with ample torque and a smooth delivery, the Mazda3 Turbo could be the right purchase for folks who aren’t yet ready to give up all the fun things in life.


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