In the middle of the New York auto show floor each year sits the exotic car stand featuring the latest from storied makes like Lamborghini, Bentley, Bugatti and Koenigsegg. It’s hard to notice anything else nearby.
Yet Mazda, with its stunning Kai Concept, managed to compete
This luscious, candy-red hatchback was a show-stopper. I didn’t know whether to stare at it or lick it. Like the Cadillac Escala or Buick Avista concepts, the Kai Concept design study signaled the Mazda’s future. But it was hard to believe this work of art could become a $25,000 production car.
The 2019 Mazda 3 is now on dealer lots and is the Kai Concept incarnate save for larger mirrors and smaller wheels. Wrapped in Soul Red, it’s the most stunning hatch the segment has seen. From its long hood to curvaceous rump, it looks like a Mazda compact and a Mercedes GT Coupe had a love child.
With a driver-focused interior, all-wheel drive and manual-box option, the Mazda 3 hatch is just an engine away from enthusiast nirvana.
Not that the 186-horsepower four-banger is a deal-breaker. Smooth and quiet, it lacks the 200-plus horsepower turbo option of some segment competitors. But passing up the Mazda 3 over a turbo is like complaining that Carrie Underwood can’t play a Wurlitzer organ.
It arrives at a time when the sedan segment has fallen out of favor in SUV nation. Ford, Chevy and Chrysler have all pulled out of the compact segment.
Mazda is all-in with the new 3. It’s about the joy of driving. It’s a bright-yellow detour sign off the road to autonomy.
With this fourth-generation compact, Mazda continues like fellow performance brand Volkswagen to split its compact offerings between sedan and hatch. V-dub badges its sedan (Jetta) and hatchback (Golf) separately. Not Mazda. But the four-door and five-door invite different customers.
So different are their exteriors that they only share a hood. The sedan’s nice, but — as readers know — I’m a hatchaholic.
Jumping into the 3 hatch (3 stands for the number of laps you’ll make around this lovely creature before getting in) in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, I enjoyed the car as much inside as outside. The steering wheel is planted, the body controlled, the six-speed tranny like butter.
It begs to be pushed. Pushed to the point that you ask if there’s more under the hood. It’s a question Mazda won’t answer for now.
My favorite car in the segment, the turbocharged 220-horse VW Golf GTI, is not threatened here. Yet.
Though its minimalist good looks, alluring interior and athletic handling appeal to the same customer as the GTI, Mazda stops short of offering a GTI challenger even though it has the tool in the toolbox to do it: Mazda’s 2.5-liter turbo-four that produces 310 pound-feet of torque and 250-horsepower.
But the 3 still has plenty to tempt buyers. For example, the 2.5-liter inline-4 cylinder that does come standard produces 186 horses and 185 pound-feet of torque. And it blows away every other standard engine in the segment, including Golf — all the while getting good fuel economy (34.7 mpg under my lead foot). Its stylish looks are for all Ford Fiesta and Focus refugees who are aching for an aesthetically pleasing hatch.
There’s not just hatchback utility, but an all-wheel drive system that expands Mazda’s demographic into all-season Middle America. The system is good. Very good. I flogged it around a mountain snow course like a Finnish rally driver, the 3 never putting a foot wrong.
The AWD play is a bold challenge to Subaru’s exclusivity in segment. But the Mazda is a more premium animal than the Impreza while offering similar standard features.
The minimalist, sculpted interior is luxury-class. There is a strong whiff of Alfa Romeo Giulia here, from sweeping horizontal dash lines to analog gauges to remote-rotary-operated info screen. There’s even a delicious Alfa-red interior option.
The ergonomic detail is obsessive. It comes from a development team that studied Princeton psychologist George Miller’s cognitive learning theories about short-term memory in order to assist the 3’s ergonomics.
The 3 hatch is easy to build. Starting at $24,495 (the sedan begins at $21,895) the car comes standard with 8.8-inch screen, push-button start, 18-inch wheels, leatherette seats, adaptive cruise-control and blind-spot assist.
You’ll appreciate that last feature because the hatch’s racy C-pillar could hide New Hampshire. It’s huge.
Like its Mazda 6 and CX-5 siblings about which I’ve raved, 3 comes with i-Activsense, an instrument-display-based graphic that constantly informs you of other vehicles around your car. Innovated by Tesla, Mazda has made this tech its own.
Still, this is where 3 customers might depart from the hatch. Stunning outside, it might not be comfortable for drivers who have to spend a lot of time in traffic — and rear-seat passengers might pine for more sunlight.
Add AWD to your hatch for more grip and Soul Red paint for curb appeal and you’ll be the envy of the block for just $26,490 — competitive with an Impreza but with more everything. Heck, you’ll wonder why people bother to buy a similarly equipped $40,000 AWD Audi A3.
Forget adding a navigation system — phone apps are better. Mazda’s generous center console allows plenty of room to stow your phone and hook in to Apple CarPlay or Android Auto — and the standard 8.8-inch display offers good graphics.
That knee in your back is your rear passengers again — 6-footers cramped relative to, say, a roomy Golf or Civic. But they’ll be reassured by the 3’s well-engineered ride dynamics and quieted cabin.
Credit more attention to detail as the 3’s engineering team calked all the gaps from the previous gen car. The four isn’t buzzy at high revs, but makes a nice warm growl under acceleration. Dude, you ask, every Mazda is spawn of the Miata sports car — so where’s the manual shifter?
Smartly, Mazda has packaged it with the 3’s premium trim, recognizing manuals are no longer a value play but a feature craved by enthusiasts. Thus equipped, a premium manual (available with FWD only) will set you back $28,395 — competitive with a manual GTI. And if Mazda sells enough of them, the business case for an AWD manual with 250-horsepower would be irresistible.
That would be a sight next to the exotics at the New York show.