2019 Mazda 3 AWD First Drive Review – Holding It All Down

Earlier this year, Mazda showed off its all-new 3 sedan in Los Angeles. The new compact’s intent is to impress a revised, upscale image on the brand. While the 3 delivered in quality, overall refinement, and driving enjoyment, it managed only middling marks with regard to power.

Now, Mazda has upped its game with a more stylish hatchback variant and the additional capability of an all-wheel drive system. But do style and substance mesh in the more expensive hatchback? We went back to California to find out.

(Disclaimer: Mazda provided round-trip airfare, lodging and food, and presented swag in the form of a tumbler, a winter toque, key chain, and some chocolates.)

Technical Housekeeping

During its presentation, Mazda addressed an item which displeased the B&B in the initial 3 review: the change from multilink to a torsion beam rear suspension. Mazda explained its goal with the rear suspension was not reduced cost, but rather increased car control. The torsion beam design reduced the number of bushings at the rear from 14 to two. The stiffer structure meant fewer degrees of motion over bumps. As a result, damping and spring rates were adjusted to stiffen things up, and softer tires were used over those on the outgoing 3. It’s up to you, dear reader, to accept or refuse the explanation.

Speaking of explanations, Mazda has no firm date on the addition of the innovative SKYACTIV-X engine to the North American 3 lineup. The only commitment representatives made was that the engine would be available in the European market later in 2019.

Mazda also provided a lot of technical information on the 3’s new version of the i-ACTIV all-wheel drive system. A more advanced system than used previously, computers monitor and model individual tire load, shifting torque distribution around for maximum grip. Torque transfer happens in both dry and wet conditions, as the system does not require wheel slippage to re-route power. The idea is to provide more torque at the rear under spirited acceleration. Mazda’s system works in conjunction with the complicated GVC+ (G-Vectoring Control) program to improve overall dynamics and car control. The more advanced combination results in a 70 percent reduction in rear drivetrain loss over a similarly equipped CX-5.

[Get pricing on new and used Mazda 3’s here!]

To demonstrate, Mazda carved a snow course out of deep springtime powder near Lake Tahoe. Tests started with a front-drive 3, progressing to all-wheel drive on all-season tires, then more intense Blizzak winter rubber. While grip improved drastically from the front- to all-wheel drive versions, the course was slightly too short and low-speed to realize significant difference in the tires. Runs also included disabling the GVC to show the effects it has on the car’s control in collaboration with the all-wheel drive. The difference was noticeable in the provided conditions, with a more controlled, smooth feel when the system was active.

Closed course test over, the mapped route covered curvy back highways between Lake Tahoe and the end destination of Sacramento. All cars provided were all-wheel drive, with drive time split between sedan and hatch. As we’ve covered the sedan previously, we’ll focus on the hatchback version today.

New shapes

Mazda pitches the hatchback 3 as a sportier and more aggressive alternative to the sedan. It costs more; $1,000 over the sedan in the same trim, and carries significantly revised exterior styling. Character lines are reduced to a minimum, windows are smaller, and the sleek shape shares only a hood and rocker panels with the sedan. Two options are reserved for the hatchback version: Polymetal Gray paint, and a red leather interior. Our tester had both features, and retailed for around $29,795. Notably, a manual transmission is available in the front-drive hatchback in high trim; Mazda realizes the enthusiast customer wants to shift on their own without an Ace of Base lifestyle.

The hatchback’s shape is undeniably good looking, easily standing out in the compact class against entries like the Subaru Impreza or Volkswagen Golf. An immediate fan of the blue-grey matte hue, impressions carried through to the interior… temporarily. While the red leather and black dash present a sporty look well, the black headliner and additional metal bulk at the rear half of the car make the cabin dark and cave-like. Passengers in the back get a small window to look out, and will have to lean forward a bit if they want to view anything but the intense door panel. The hatch sacrifices rear passenger accommodation in the name of style, and unfortunately provides a smaller cargo area than expected. Two carry-on suitcases and a backpack filled the majority of the cargo area.

The Road to Sacramento

Out on the road, differences in driving experience between the all-wheel drive and front-drive 3 were noticeable. Both versions have the same engine and interior features (see the sedan review for quality, interior, and audio impressions), but all-wheel drive adds 173 pounds to the 3, bringing the hatchback’s weight to 3,255 pounds. Mazda doesn’t make any changes to the 2.5-liter engine or the transmission for all-wheel drive duty. The numbers stay at 186 horsepowers, 186 torques, and six forward speeds.

The ride is still composed, falling on the sporty side of comfortable. On the drive route, slightly rough stretches of highway generated an undesirable level of road noise inside the cabin. The smooth roads for the initial test in southern California did not present the same level of interior noise. Mazda claims the 3 is 10 percent more quiet than the outgoing generation. While the charts and metrics prove it’s true from a quantitative perspective, more road noise isolation on imperfect roads is desired for those who live outside of LA.

Unfortunately that’s not the only complaint with the all-wheel drive version. Recent experience with the front-drive 3 showed just how much the additional weight and complexity of powering all four wheels affected the drive. The adequate front-drive power figure becomes much less so when nearly 200 pounds are added to the weight. Put another way, each horsepower in the engine must propel 5.4 percent more weight in the all-wheel drive version. Straight line acceleration felt unimpressive via seat-of-pants metrics, particularly on any sort of incline. Floored, the engine makes a generous amount of sporty four-cylinder noise, but forward progress does not align. The added heft and planted nature of the drive system makes the 3 less chuckable in the corners — and you won’t be going quite as fast when you get there as you would in the front-drive 3.

It may take a while for drivers to get comfortable doing any sort of aggressive driving in the hatchback if obstacles and traffic loom nearby. The view out of the mailbox rear window is poor, and the enormous swooping c-pillars create the worst blind spots your author has ever experienced. Luckily, blind spot monitors located in the mirrors and in the head-up display warn when there’s a car nearby, and will also deliver auditory warnings if necessary.

We received an additional warning (and a short detainment) by a park ranger who asserted we needed a permit to do commercial-type work in the national park where these exterior shots were taken. He demanded documentation of our handler, which we provided. Mazda had some explaining to do, though all was cleared up after a 10-minute call.

A Basic Conclusion

Drive completed, the brilliant-looking grey paint showed a lot of dirt — worth noting for those in salty or dusty areas who do not religiously wash their ride. And the shine had come off the 3, as well. Because we experienced the front-drive version first, the dampening effect of the all-wheel drive was that much more apparent.

In the case of the new 3, less would seem to be more. It’s great that Mazda is willing to offer a compact in two body styles with all-wheel drive, as some buyers will need it in cold climates. The system works as intended and makes low-grip driving more pleasant. Outside of those subpar conditions, less weight and less dramatic styling should lead the practical customer to a front-drive 3 in sedan format. For the enthusiast, the front-drive hatchback with a manual is an option — saving money up front at the dealer, and down the road at the pump. If Mazda eventually blesses the 3 with the turbo engine from the 6, creating a 3GTX (or whatever), then more may indeed be more.

[Images: Corey Lewis / The Truth About Cars]

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