My expectations were pushed to extraordinary heights at the very first glance.
The 2019 Mazda3 Sport GT, painted in a rich, blood-red metallic with just a hint of orange, took my breath away. Mazda calls this colour “Soul Red Crystal Metallic” and it’s an extra $450. Gorgeous. It’s the sort of eye-catching look you’d expect in a Jaguar or an Audi. That was my first clue.
The spec sheet filled in the details. The base price of a Mazda3 Sport, the hatchback version of a model also sold as a sedan, is $28,920, all in. That means freight and dealer prep included. The racier Sport GT is $30,220, all-in, plus the luscious paint job.
And for that you get a snappy, beautifully finished four-door hatch with an infotainment interface that is genius in its simplicity; a strong and smooth 186 horsepower four-cylinder that is fuel efficient (9.2 litres/100 city, 6.6 highway) thanks in part to standard cylinder deactivation; and, most entertaining of all – which says a lot about a car this nimble – is the six-speed manual gearbox that one can shift with the flick of a finger.
I was floored.
The gear changes were so wonderfully light and smooth. Not even the Germans have mastered such creamy responses from a manual. Not yet, anyway. Yes, only one or two per cent of all car buyers want a manual these days, but for those of us who still enjoy shifting for ourselves, this transaxle is a gift.
What sealed the deal for me was the cabin design. This by far is the most refined $30,000 car in the world. It’s also one of the most refined cars in the world at any price. Mazda is not a particularly profitable car company and now I could see precisely why: the company is delivering here a premium car for the price of a Toyota Corolla/Honda Civic/Hyundai Elantra/Ford Focus/Chevrolet Cruze/you-name-it commuter car.
Now to be clear: the Sport GT I tested was a front-driver; if you want all-wheel drive, as so many do, you must take the six-speed automatic gearbox and the price jumps $3,000, and the car’s weight goes up, too. If this were my car, I’d want the slimmer manual and all the fun it delivers.
What is shocking, really, is how Mazda’s engineers have managed to tune a pretty pedestrian steering and suspension layout to such perfection. I mean, the front suspension is nothing special: independent MacPherson struts, coils, and stabilizer bars, while in the back is a torsion beam arrangement that boils down to a modern interpretation of a nicely sprung horse-drawn carriage. Yet is all works so well – comfortable in a straight line, corner-hugging joy when carving apexes.
The Sport GT’s cabin comes standard with decent black leather upholstery. It’s fine and the seat cushions are adequate. The packaging in the cabin, however, left me gob-smacked.
I would encourage the Germans – BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz – to do a deep dive into what Mazda’s designers have managed here. In particular, take in the seven-inch display of the instrument cluster and, more importantly, the 8.8-inch centre-screen touchscreen that manages infotainment and such.
The centre screen is superbly integrated, unlike the throw-an-iPad-on-the-dash efforts from BMW in particular and Audi and Merc, as well. For the Germans, this vital component appears to be an afterthought; Mazda’s designers clearly studied how such a key 2019 ingredient in any new car should look and function.
The only true rival to the Mazda3 Sport GT is Volkswagen’s GTI and it starts at $30,845. I’d encourage you to test drive one in Tornado Red. Drive these two back-to-back. Then compare the two, feature-for-feature.
You’ll find that the VW is a delight to drive, but that once you start adding features that are standard on the Mazda – leather, driving nannies, etc. – the final financial bite is thousands more than the Mazda. You, like me, might conclude, that Mazda wins the dollars-and-cents competition, while also being a sensory delight.
2019 Mazda3 Sport GT
Base price: $28,400. As tested with options, freight and PDI: $30,545.
Engine: 2.5-litre I4 (186 horsepower/186 lb-ft of torque).
Transmission: six-speed manual.
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.2 city/6.6 hwy.