2021 Mazda 3 Turbo First Impressions

The fourth generation Mazda 3 has been universally praised by critics and car enthusiasts, but it struggles to position itself in today’s ever changing market. It is no secret that Mazda has been trying to elevate its brand to a near-premium level in recent years. The handsome exterior, above class interior, and German like handing of the Mazda 3 certainly reflect those efforts. One thing that has kept the Mazda 3 from directly competing with the entry-level premium vehicles like the Audi A3, Mercedes A-Class, and BMW 2 series has been its humble 186hp 2.5L naturally aspirated engine. While the engine is more than capable of pushing the car around town, most of its premium rivals pack at least 220 ponies under the hood. 

Mazda has always been a company that listens, and it has finally decided to address this shortcoming. The 2021 Mazda 3 GT now comes with a Skyactiv-G 2.5 turbocharged engine that produces an impressive 250 hp of power and 320 lb-ft of torque (with premium fuel). The last time Mazda put a turbocharged engine in a Mazda 3 was for the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 - a fun hot hatch that was loud and unrefined. 

Would the new Mazda 3 Turbo be another Mazdaspeed3? Thanks to Mazda Canada, I was invited to test drive the 2021 Mazda 3 GT AWD Turbo for its COVID-19 conscious launch event. Mazda Canada thoughtfully delivered the car to my driveway with a pre-programmed GPS route that takes us through the mountains to really put the new Mazda 3 through its paces. It also had us visit a few local shops along the way.

Below are my first impressions of the car. 
First Impressions
Let me get the obvious out of the way for you eager Mazdaspeed fans. The new 2021 Mazda 3 GT is NOT a MazdaSpeed3 replacement, nor does it pretend to be. It is obvious from the fact the turbo Mazda 3 looks almost identical to ones equipped with naturally aspirated engines. You won’t find an oversized spoiler, fake air vents, or model specific body trims on the standard turbo 3. Instead, a small “Turbo” trunk badge, slightly larger tailpipes, 18” black alloy wheels, and gloss black exterior mirror housings are all that distinguish the Turbo 3 from its less powerful siblings. An optional appearance package is available for the Turbo hatch. It includes a front air dam, a rear roof spoiler, a rear diffuser, and side sill extensions. They are not overly aggressive looking, but enhance the sporty appearance of the Turbo 3. Our tester did not come with the appearance package, but the 2021 Mazda 3 GT is still easily one of the best looking compact cars on the road. 

Stepping inside the car, you would be forgiven for mistaking the interior of the Turbo 3 with an Audi or a BMW. Mazda generously appointed the cabin with premium materials and our tester comes with a gorgeous red and black interior color scheme. Our GT trim tester also comes with a head-up display, a 12-speaker Bose sound system, leather heated seat and heated steering wheel. With the Premium package, you also get parking sensors, a 360 surround view camera system, auto-dimming mirrors, and active traffic jam assist that is built right into the adaptive cruise control system. These are the optional features that will cost you significantly more in an European luxury car. Unfortunately, while Mazda pampers the driver, passengers do get less than what they normally get in a premium-brand car. The front passenger seat is only manually adjustable, and there are no dedicated air vents for the rear passengers, and no charging ports at the back of the center console. 

Now the most existing feature of the new GT is the available turbocharged engine. The Skyactiv-G 2.5 turbocharged engine produces an impressive 250 hp of power and a whopping 320 lb-ft of torque (with premium fuel). This massive low end torque plays a big role in how the car feels on the road. Mazda has also tweaked the car to account for the added grunt. Those tweaks include stiffer front springs and dampers, reinforced front knuckles, a revised standard torque-vectoring AWD system that sends three times more power to the rear axle than before, and a reprogrammed Sport mode that allows for quicker gearbox response time. 

The upgrades are immediately noticeable after spending a few seconds behind the steering wheel. Surprisingly, the massive low end torque is not delivered in a more violent fashion. Instead, the engine and the mated six speed automatic transmission delivered the torque and power in a very refined, linear fashion. In standard mode, the transmission feels slightly hesitant, but that hesitation is almost entirely eliminated in Sport mode. I would leave the car in Sport mode all the time, but it tends to hold gears for too long at higher speeds. I wish there was a way to customize the transmission response. The drivetrain really shines in delivering mid-range power. It makes passing cars on highways and existing turns on mountain roads so satisfying. At no point do I feel the need for more power, and the engine seems to deliver whatever asked of it so effortlessly. The revised AWD system does such a fantastic job of torque vectoring that even in pouring driving conditions, the Turbo Mazda 3 never slips or slides even once during our test drive. The car handles so well that I almost wish a little bit of drama can be added to make the ride more thrilling. 

Ultimately the Turbo Mazda 3 is not a ferocious hot hatch like the Civic Type R or the old MazdaSpeed3. It is polished, smooth, and composed, like a 18 year old Macallan. From the driver’s point of view, the Mazda 3 GT Turbo is on par with its premium-brand competitors, but includes more standard features at a lower price. On the other hand, people gravitate toward premium brands for more than their cars’ specs and drivability. The good people at Mazda are fighting a tough battle, but I believe the company is on the right track. If they can somehow reduce the price of the Turbo Mazda 3 even further, it will be an irresistible offer that simply can’t be overlooked. 


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