On the surface, the Mazda 3 Turbo is a bit confusing. A turbocharged engine and all-wheel-drive in a small hatchback should be a recipe for juvenile delinquency, but Mazda’s turning up its nose at Ken Block wannabes, instead marketing the Mazda 3 Turbo as a premium compact car. While it seemed like a strange move at first, Mazda’s premium pieces all seem to be falling into place. After all, Mazda announced its first crossover on a rear-wheel-drive architecture this year, signaling genuine ambition to steal sales from the Germans. Now that the future of Mazda seems clear, it feels like a good time to take stock in the present. That’s why I borrowed a 2022 Mazda 3 Turbo for a week of daily driving.
[Full disclosure: Mazda Canada graciously let me borrow this press car for a week, so long as I returned it with a full tank of fuel and wrote an article on it. I must say, there’s nothing quite like pushing that button for 93 octane gasoline after a week of driving.]
So, what answer am I looking to get from this anti-hot hatch? Well, it’s a two-part question. The first is a case of fun. Mazda used to be the Zoom Zoom automaker, so is this ridiculously torque-rich small car fun yet mature enough to tempt capacitive-touch haters away from a Volkswagen GTI? The second is a bit more broad. Can Mazda actually pull off a move upscale, or will the Japanese brand be stuck in the same purgatory plaguing Acura and Buick? Miller High Life may be the Champagne of beers, but you sure as hell don’t see Max Verstappen spraying a brewski on the podium. [Editor’s note: This Miller beer reference is a bit odd, but I’ll allow it. -DT]
What Makes It Tick?
Let’s start with the Turbo part of the Mazda 3 Turbo. After all, when you’re aiming for the entry-level premium segment, you’ll need a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. This little compact car cranks out a very reasonable 250 horsepower (186 kW). That’s nine more horsepower than a Golf GTI, 29 more than a Mercedes-Benz CLA 250, and 22 more than a BMW 228i Gran Coupe. However, torque on tap is more than reasonable; Mazda’s turbocharged engine cranks out 320 lb.-ft. (434 Nm) of torque, an absolute tidal wave in this segment. That’s 25 lb.-ft. more than an Audi S3 or AMG CLA 35, and only 12 lb.-ft. shy of the BMW M235i Gran Coupe. That’s a diesel-like profile from a gasoline engine – how the hell did Mazda manage to make all that torque?
While tuning certainly plays a role in an engine’s power profile, Mazda’s turbocharged motor benefits from above average displacement. While the CLA 250, 228i Gran Coupe, and Volkswagen GTI all feature two-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engines, Mazda’s four-banger clocks in at 2.5 liters. An added half liter of displacement in a premium compact car may feel like cheating in beer league bowling, but the result isn’t exactly insignificant. All things being equal, more displacement will generally equal more torque — more air, more fuel, bigger bang. However, engines are so much more than their power figures. There’s a whole lot going on between when exhaust gas exits the cylinders and when compressed air enters the engine, and Mazda’s gone to great lengths to make its turbocharged engine feel responsive.
Below 1,620 rpm, a valve in the engine’s exhaust manifold restricts exhaust gas flow to the turbocharger, increasing exhaust gas velocity and spooling the turbo quickly. It’s a bit like switching a hose nozzle from shower to jet – you end up with much higher velocity and thus pressure, perfect for blasting away bird shit or really anything with significant resistance. Once engine speed reaches 1,620 rpm, the valve in the exhaust manifold opens for maximum flow. Pair the complexity of a valve with the scavenging properties of a short 4-3-1 exhaust manifold, shake and serve in a hurricane glass with a tiny little umbrella to effectively stamp out turbo lag. It’s certainly a bizarre method of aiding response, but this is Mazda so it should work brilliantly.
Right, that’s the exhaust side sorted, what about the intake side? Well, air enters the filter through a snorkel that actually runs over and around the core support. It would’ve been so easy to draw air from the wheel well or the leading edge of the hood, but doing it properly ensures that noise attenuation measures can do their job and that air going into the turbocharger is actually cold. Once that air makes its way past the filter and gets compressed by the turbocharger, it leaves the turbocharger for the throttle body through a rigid plastic charge pipe, reinforced by some strategic ribbing.
The cylinder head sits to the left of the charge pipe, battery to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you.
So, we have 17.5 psi generating some serious heat, how are we going to cool the charge? An air-to-air intercooler seems like the cheap and easy solution, but Mazda isn’t about cheap and easy. How does a water-to-air intercooler integrated with the intake manifold sound? Complex, sure, but it’s fairly compact. A cool charge is fairly critical for preventing detonation; I bet water-to-air intercooling does a solid job of preventing heat-soak. Plus there are packaging advantages, as it can be a pain in the butt to run piping from the turbocharger out to the front of the cooling module.
[Editor’s Note: There are quite a few advantages of a water-cooled intercooler, despite the added weight/cost/complexity (you need a pump and bottle, plus two heat exchangers instead of one. Turbo lag mitigation is one of them (since the air doesn’t have to travel as far out of the turbo before entering the engine), launch performance is another, packaging (as Thomas noted) is yet another. You can read a little more about it here. -DT]
That charge air-cooling system mitigates lag by reducing air volume between the turbocharger and throttle body, and helps the Mazda’s boosted engine to make 310 lb.-ft. (420 Nm) of torque on regular 87-octane gas. Not bad.
So you could call the Mazda 3 Turbo’s engine is state of the art; but the same description wouldn’t be appropriate for the gearbox bolted to it. A six-speed automatic gearbox would’ve been fairly advanced when Fergie was still part of the Black Eyed Peas, but it just seems old for 2022.
It’s a bit of a shame, especially considering that Mazda already has a manual gearbox capable of harnessing the 2.5 Turbo’s torque. The Mk1 CX-5 was available with a manual behind a 2.2-liter turbodiesel engine making 310 lb.-ft. (420 Nm) of torque. Ah well. Hey, at least the automatic gearbox has a transmission cooler with a neat beehive-style adapter to manage transmission fluid temperature. [Editor’s note: I usually call this a “plate style” or “stack style” heat exchanger. It looks like it might use liquid coolant to keep transmission oil temperatures in check, possibly even heating the fluid to improve fuel economy shortly after startup. -DT]
So the six-speed automatic gearbox is a touch outdated, but the Mazda 3 Turbo’s all-wheel-drive system is right up to date. While the all-wheel-drive system in the old CX-5 always sent at least 2 percent of the engine’s torque to the rear wheels, the 3’s all-wheel-drive system can completely disconnect the rear axle for reduced parasitic drag. In the past, this sort of arrangement required the front wheels to slip before torque got shunted rearward, but this is the modern era. While 2019 and 2020 Mazda 3s with AWD monitor ambient air temperature and wiper use to shuffle torque proactively rather than reactively, new models including this Turbo take a simpler approach. See, the seventh-generation architecture’s vehicle dynamics model relies primarily on the G-sensor and yaw sensor to shuffle torque to whichever tires have the most traction before slip occurs, enhancing corner exit traction in dry conditions over the old system. Oh, and this all-wheel-drive system also does something interesting on corner entry.
See, an even front-to-rear torque split running through a clutch-type transfer case (or Power Transfer Unit) like the one on the Mazda 3 Turbo increases straight-line traction but can make it difficult for a car to turn. If you’ve ever locked a truck in 4WD and tried to go around a corner off-throttle, you know exactly what yaw damping feels like. Thankfully, Mazda’s thought of this.
As soon as the steering wheel on the 3 Turbo starts to turn, the all-wheel-drive system stops varying its torque split even if you’re on the throttle (without doing anything radical like decouple the transfer case clutch). Once the driver reaches the apex of a corner and starts unwinding the steering wheel, variable torque distribution resumes. As Mazda’s Vehicle Dynamics Manager Dave Coleman said, “This strategy gives more consistent turn-in response without compromising traction.”
Moving along to the rear end of the Mazda 3 Turbo, things take a turn for the weird. By now I’m sure you’ve heard of the torsion beam rear suspension on the latest Mazda 3. It’s a design compromise that’s much simpler than the outgoing car’s multi-link rear suspension and thus easier for Mazda’s engineers to tune, albeit at the sacrifice of some ride and handling perks like camber gain under compression and cross-axle isolation. What you may not have realized is how the rear differential is mounted pretty far behind the centerline of the rear wheels. Both CV shafts have to come forward to meet with the hubs — seems like a pretty odd arrangement.
Of course, a massive focus in developing this latest Mazda 3 was keeping things quiet on the inside. I mean come on, quietness is a key attribute of any premium vehicle. As such, Mazda’s focused on seals, padding, and air deflection like the final’s tomorrow.
The hood seal goes all the way around the hood, and it’s mounted on the body side for aesthetic purposes. It’s little touches like that which elevate a vehicle from good to nice. As for the wheel well liners, they’re plastic up front and a mix of plastic and felt out back. The felt rear wheel well liners extend roughly to the cut line for the rear bumper, at which point plastic takes over for the sake of durability. Smart. [Editor’s note: Fiber wheel-liners have become hot in the industry as NVH-mitigation measures. -DT].
Also smart: Check out the extent of sound damping blankets. Not only do they cover the firewall and hood, the underside of the engine cover has its own little sound reduction blanket to cut the harsh tick of direct fuel injectors doing their thing.
Other things worth noting? The long dash-to-axle ratio Mazda’s become known for allows for unreal space around the master cylinder and ABS distribution block. Sure, they’re technically under the cowl, but look at all the room for activities! You could host a rugby match down there.
Also cool, check out the beefy castings for the engine mounts. Mazda’s been using hydraulic-bushed engine mounts for more than a decade, but these seriously sturdy aluminum mounts look ripe to handle the torque of the turbo motor.
How Does It Look?
Well, tremendous if I’m being honest. Look, in a world of hideously overwrought grilles and enough character lines for five or six cars, Mazda has kept things simple and classy. A sloping line here, a relief there, and hey presto, a great-looking car. The 3 is no exception, especially in hatchback form. It reminds me a lot of the Alfa Romeo Brera, one of the prettiest cars of the 2000s. Fantastic haunches, a low and well-defined hoodline, minimalist styling and some neat old-school surfacing all put in serious work here.
It takes some serious effort to make a design with this many compound curves look as sharp as a tailored suit, but Mazda’s styling team has really pulled it off. A handful of sharp elements like the leading edge of the nose and the lower character line on the bodyside add a certain crispness, while compound curves stretch and squeeze the sheetmetal with fabulous tension. While I’d gladly swap the black alloy wheels for something less invisible, most details are very strong. I particularly love the rifling in the headlamps, properly complex bit of work that elevates each lamp to jewelry status.
Moving farther back on the car, things get even better-looking. The Mazda’s C-pillar is enormous, although it’s also a bit of an optical illusion. The greenhouse tapers towards the rear, thickening up the pillar, while a single subtle sloping character line on the roof rail drives home a coupe-like roofline that doesn’t actually exist. Adding more drama to the C-pillar is its uninterrupted nature, a solid area of positive space from the wheel arch lip to the roof makes it look like there’s an enormous amount of tumblehome going on. The result is a bellissimo rear three-quarter view and a surprisingly practical cargo area.
How Does It Drive?
Right, let’s start with the engine. Would you like good news or bad news first? The bad news is that above 5,000 RPM, this thing just falls on its face like a scooter kid attempting a front flip for the first time. It’s pretty textbook for modern turbocharged four-cylinder engines and makes me yearn for the days when a turbo motor had no guts until 3,000 rpm, at which point all hell broke loose and it felt like you were rear-ended by a Shinkansen. Ride the wave to just shy of fuel cut, bangshift into third to keep things on the boil, widen your grin even more. Ah well, I guess that era’s well and truly over.
The good news is that this 2.5-liter turbocharged engine is absolutely prodigal from just off idle all the way through the midrange. From 1,700 rpm to 4,500 rpm you just get this immense surge of torque to the point where you don’t really care that you only get six gears to choose from. More importantly, the engine makes a buttery growl under load, think GTI but with the edges wet-sanded down with 3,000 grit. It’s Otis Redding in an Armani jacket. Fabulous.
What this means on the road is that the Mazda 3 Turbo is simply brilliant at overtaking. It doesn’t constantly fumble about trying to decide if sixth gear or seventh gear would best accomplish its goal, it just picks a damn gear, builds boost, and shoots 100 yards down the road without so much as a trace.
It reminds me so much of the old mid-2000s Saab 9-5 Aero, including the automatic gearbox’s mushy downshifts. Alright, maybe that’s a little unfair, but downshifts in manual mode aren’t any quicker than those from a well-calibrated 17-year-old ZF 6HP. Mazda’s automatic blows any CVT out of the water, but the dual-clutch transmissions and modern automatics proliferating the entry-level luxury segment are much more urgent.
Simmer down a bit though, and another wonderful powertrain characteristic arises. Puttering about town is absolutely effortless. There’s no aggressive creep as you release the brake pedal like on many cars with dual-clutch transmissions, no aggressive transmission logic forcing the engine up into the midrange, the Mazda 3 Turbo simply loafs around between 1,200 and 2,200 rpm without a bother in the world. Lovely. Of course, all this torque comes with a cost. This thing guzzles harder than a college freshman with a fake ID on Thirsty Thursday. I saw 25 mpg (9.4 L/100km), a bit disappointing considering my highway-heavy driving mix.
As for the torsion beam rear suspension, it’s good but not perfect. Because a torsion beam is a rigid link between both rear wheels, an action on one wheel has an effect on the opposite wheel. As a result, potholes that would be craters in Europe and smooth road in Michigan are sometimes felt with both ass cheeks. Moreover, really rough patches of pavement can knock the rear end around a bit. What can I say, 60 percent of the time, the rear suspension works 100 percent of the time. Besides, there’s more to suspension than just geometry. The damping and spring rates are smooth and compliant without being floaty. No secondary body motions to reminisce, the 3 just takes a set, stays off the bump stops, and shrugs it off. Perfect.
The front suspension tuning is even better, a pretty textbook case of how to set up a MacPherson strut suspension. The springs and dampers feel well-matched, and there’s surprisingly little roll. The steering’s quite good too. It’s not quite as feelsome as the outgoing Volkswagen GTI, but the odd wriggle of life makes its way up through the column from time to time. There’s still a little bit of road camber pull and the occasional light tug when one wheel hits a dip. More importantly, the weighting is absolutely lovely. It’s as steady on-center as an experienced tattoo artist and weight builds beautifully and linearly with steering angle. In fact, cornering is almost too beautiful.
See, Mazda has some software going on beneath the surface to smooth out drivers’ inputs. Called G-Vectoring Control Plus, this system on the 3 will microscopically manage weight transfer through actions like cutting a tiny bit of torque when you turn the steering wheel and brushing the brake on the outside front tire to settle things out of turns. It’s supposed to be invisible, but it doesn’t quite nail this goal. An experienced driver can occasionally feel that brushing of the brake just ever so slightly, mostly due to unexpectedly little front-to-rear corner exit weight transfer. Is G-Vectoring Control control plus bad? Hardly, although it can help an average driver feel a little bit smoother.
Indeed, everything stays smooth and confident right up until the point where the tires’ sidewalls resign from the obnoxious business of rigidity. See, Mazda’s employed four Bridgestone Turanza EL440s to stick the Mazda 3 Turbo to the road and they simply aren’t great. The tread pattern isn’t particularly quiet and the sidewalls are super flexible. As a result, you hit sidewall roll very early if you’re chucking the Mazda 3 Turbo down an on-ramp, not the most confidence-inspiring feeling in the world. While Bridgestone may have brand equity, it would be nice to see something a little more stable like the Michelin Pilot Sport All Season 4 or Continental ExtremeContact DWS 06 Plus on this top-trim turbocharged model.
Performance is great and all, but quietness matters more when commuting. So how does Mazda’s newfound focus on NVH come into play here? Well, all the felt and seals and underbody aero seem to have done the trick. It’s not just quiet inside the Mazda 3, it’s dead silent. You could practice for an audition as a deathcore band’s vocalist inside this car and passing pedestrians wouldn’t hear a thing. It’s so quiet that at 60 mph, the only noise your brain can discern is how unbelievably bad the Bose stereo is. Hey, that’s not the worst problem to have.
[Editor’s Note: We here at The Autopian are pro-rear muffler air deflector (see the 3’s above), with the second-gen Nissan Rogue being our current king in this area. -DT].
What’s The Interior Like?
Well, my test car was specced with the black interior which, while a bit of a cave, is a great opportunity to get analytical. So, let’s dissect this cabin. The graining on the plastics isn’t quite as tight as that on an Audi A3, but everything has this nice satin sheen and there are loads of soft-touch materials at play. More importantly, the mix of materials isn’t dour. The steering wheel and shift knob are upholstered in smooth-grain leather like a posh wallet, the door speaker grilles are cold aluminum, the headliner is black as to not attract stains, and the armrests are covered in deep, sumptuous foam that’ll make most luxury car owners jealous.
Oh, and all of this is before I even get to the good part. Holy shit, the design inside this car is phenomenal. Every switch is artfully sculpted, the driver-focused air vent to the right of the gauge cluster feels very E36 3-Series, the screen is a nifty trapezoid, and the dashboard is built out of thick steak-cut layers, almost like the Simcoe WaveDeck on Toronto’s waterfront. It’s a bit tricky to get a true sense of the shapes going on in here from photos, so it’s definitely an interior worth checking out in person.
Mind you, good interior design is often tempered by poor ergonomics. The inside of an Aston Martin Rapide may look tremendous, but you’d need toothpicks for fingers to operate any of the buttons on the center stack. Thankfully, Mazda has absolutely nailed usability in this thing. There’s no capacitive-touch anything, just well-weighted buttons and knobs. The HVAC controls have their own display, every single labeled switch is illuminated at night, the heated steering wheel switch is right next to the driver’s heated seat switch. It’s just a nice case of thoughtful, human-centric design. What’s not so nice is the super shiny black plastic on the center console. Between dust and fingerprints, piano black should be a no-go on any horizontal surface. To add insult to injury, one piano black panel was already scratched. Ouch.
Some of the tech in this Mazda is really brilliant, but some of it is a bit frustrating. For instance, you can either view a digital speedometer or your average fuel economy in numerical value, not both at the same time. Oh sure, you do get a heads-up display as an option, but it’s a bit dim when viewed through polarized sunglasses. Thankfully, the knob-based infotainment system is marvelously minimalist. Tap right from the home screen to enter Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, where using Waze is a doddle.
In a few days, you’ll be able to flag speed traps and slowdowns without taking your eyes off of the road. Excellent. Right next to the infotainment controller is one of the best volume knobs I’ve experienced in a new car. It’s not milled from a solid chunk of Inconel or even as satisfying to twirl as the volume knob in a Lexus ES, but it jogs left and right to skip through audio tracks, a feature that’s worth its weight in myrrh.
Honestly, the big tech let-down is the Bose stereo. As I mentioned before, it’s just plain bad. Sub-bass and kick drums bleed together into a series of sloppy thuds while the 10 kHz band is far too boosted, imbuing instruments like cymbals with an annoying sizzle. The 500 Hz band feels almost scooped, there’s just so little information from bass guitars or even low E-string notes on a six-string guitar getting through to the listener. It all adds up to a sound signature that’s not great for anything, be it the indie rock playfulness of Good Shoes or the crisp drums of Kid Cudi’s earlier tracks. Adding insult to injury, I’ve driven a mid-range CX-30 (basically a Mazda 3 crossover with cladding) with the standard eight-speaker audio system and found that with a few little equalizer tweaks, it was actually rather good.
As for the boring practicality stuff, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Mazda 3 Turbo in hatchback form is about as versatile as a sack of potatoes. There’s plenty of space for my five-foot-eleven-inch frame to sit behind myself, although the tunnel for the driveshaft is quite high. Consider this hatchback a four-plus-one with the center rear seat only suitable for short trips. The lip for the cargo area is also annoyingly high, although there’s a tiny bit more space back there than a GTI with the seats up. Figure 20.1 cubic feet (569 L) to 19.9 (564 L). Front seat comfort is good, with solid lumbar support and bolstering. A touch more upper back support would be nice, but that’s just me. You might not be built quite as strangely as I am.
What’s The Verdict?
Is the Mazda 3 Turbo enough to tempt capacitive-touch haters out of their GTIs? Well, yes and no. It’s genuinely quick, has excellent damping, and the steering’s actually quite good, but the car’s lacking a certain rowdiness.
The GTI is fun because of the limited-slip diff and choice of quick dual-clutch transmission or manual gearbox. A touch of anti-social behavior in an otherwise sensible package. Weirdly, it’s a similar story with most of the Mazda 3 Turbo’s competitors. The Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 is no longer a turd, the current one has a nice interior to go with a snappy dual-clutch gearbox and blow-off valve noises louder than farting after getting a Brazilian wax. A five-door Mini Cooper S is an absolute riot, even if the iDrive wheel spins the wrong way. Compared to these rivals, the Mazda just lacks immediacy.
After everyone who’s driven a Mazdaspeed3 is done speedrunning the five stages of grief, they’ll find an astonishingly good car behind the weight of Mazda’s sport compact heritage. The Mazda 3 Turbo has absolutely nailed premium harder than a 10-pound sledgehammer driving a stake into Dracula’s heart. The interior is gorgeous, one of the best on the market under $50,000. Sure, a BMW 2-Series Gran Coupe may feature nicer materials, but the 3’s interior has design on lock. The infotainment is head-of-the-class – minimalist, fast, easy to use. So much less clunky than the trackpad-addled mess Mercedes calls MBUX and the tile-based iDrive 7 in the 2-Series Gran Coupe. Add in beautiful styling, a tidal wave of torque, and incredible noise control, and you get a fantastic picture of where Mazda’s headed.
After a week in this exceptionally lovely hatchback, I have pretty high hopes for Mazda’s next big step. The fundamentals are all here, great design, superb quietness, and excellent attention to detail. Unlike Acura’s insistence on transverse platforms, Mazda’s investment in a dedicated rear-wheel-drive platform for larger vehicles bodes well for having customers take the brand’s premium aspirations seriously. Plus, there’s no entry-level marque using identical platforms to steal some thunder. Every piece of switchgear is purely Mazda, something that can’t be said for most Lexus products. So, if you’re looking to treat yourself to a posh small car, it’s worth taking a look at a loaded Mazda 3 Turbo. At $35,765 including a $1,015 freight fee ($38,500 including a $1,750 freight fee if you’re Canadian like me), it isn’t exactly cheap, but it’s pretty solid value compared to the German competition.
Who Should Buy One?
So, who should buy this car? I say: recent grads working in tech who don’t want to look like douchebags, empty-nesters with a flair for design, anyone who had Maps by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as a ringtone, “treat yourself” thirty-somethings, soft-spoken bespectacled professional creatives, people who brunch hard and often, gracefully-aging hipsters.
Lead photo credit: Thomas Hundal