First drive: 2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo Hatchback rekindles an old flame

A few days with the 2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo hatchback reminded me of reuniting with an ex. The strong attachment I once felt for the hatch a few years ago was rekindled with a new shape, a more sophisticated interior, and a powerful new turbocharged engine. 

The thrills were there, and more exciting than before, but when it came time to live together as an everyday driver for a week, old problems resurfaced and new ones appeared. Was it the car—or was it me?

After a full redesign for 2019, the big news for 2021 was the return of a turbocharged engine. The last turbocharged Mazda 3 was the Mazdaspeed 3 hot hatch in 2013. The 2.5 Turbo model comes with all-wheel drive and a 6-speed automatic transmission, so it is not a Speed successor, not a hot hatch. 

The 2.5-liter turbo-4 makes 227 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque (with 93 octane fuel, it can make 250 hp and 320 lb-ft) with virtually no turbo lag and, sadly for Mazdaspeed fans, no torque steer. This Mazda 3 with all-wheel drive is more planted and evenly balanced, and once it hits about 2,200 rpm it rockets ahead and pushes the corners of the lips to the ears. It hits 60 mph in under six seconds, and the 6-speed automatic goes deep in the red before a shift. 

The powertrain finally matches the Mazda 3’s best attribute, its handling. Even though the 2019 redesign replaced the independent rear suspension with a more rigid torsion beam rear axle that causes the 3 to skip more than grip on broad sweeping turns such as on a cloverleaf ramp, the hatch is still fun to drive. The Mazda 3 hatchback uses a torque vectoring system that helps shift weight in sharp turns to keep all four corners down, keep the steering precise, and the speed up. The hatch is loud at highway speeds, but that’s kind of expected in the smaller package of the hatchback, where the cargo hold’s essentially an open echo chamber.

2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo Hatchback

2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo Hatchback

2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo Hatchback

2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo Hatchback

2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo Hatchback

2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo Hatchback

Curiously, perhaps disappointingly, Mazda’s excellent 6-speed manual, with its short throws and fluid clutch pedal, is offered only on the Mazda 3 Premium hatch with the naturally aspirated 2.5-liter inline-4.

The logic behind that limitation gives us the best understanding of Mazda’s intent with the 2.5 Turbo. It’s all grown up, and consistent with the brand’s maturation into the premium segment. The 2.5 Turbo Premium Plus represents the top of the Mazda 3 line, much like the sophisticated Signature trim on other Mazda models. 

And this is where we ran into our problem, with all the baggage called “features” that come with the turbo engine. The cheapest 2.5T costs $30,855, including destination. The hatchback model adds $1,000. The 2.5T Premium Plus model I tested cost $33,395 and adds leather seats, navigation, a surround-view camera system, a rear lip spoiler, and some safety features for about $2,500 more than the 2.5T.  

It splits the cost difference between a less expensive Hyundai Veloster N and the Honda Civic Type R, both of which are more fun to drive. 

The high price for a turbocharged hatch with all-wheel drive nearly bumps your shopping scope to the true hot hatches, or, if that’s not your jam, out of the compact hatch segment entirely. It leads to wandering eyes, which is bad for any relationship.

Then there are the little daily annoyances Mazda employs in the name of safety. To open the gas door to fill the tank, you have to hit the unlock button on the fob or from inside the car. The electronic parking brake needs to be disengaged every time you start the engine. The incessant beeps and warnings from all the safety systems need reprogramming to stop their yammering.

2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo Hatchback

2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo Hatchback

2021 Mazda 3

2021 Mazda 3

2021 Mazda 3

2021 Mazda 3

The advanced driver assist systems aren’t as sophisticated as the competition. The lane control system  torques the wheel and flashes an alert in the instrument cluster, but doesn’t keep the hatch centered in the lane like rivals’ comprehensive safety systems. Sure, you could get used to it, but it’s the little things that conspire to major aggravations. 

There are bigger things, too. The hatchback offers roughly 20 cubic feet of cargo volume compared to the 13 cubic feet in the trunk of the sedan, even though the hatch is 8.0 inches shorter. The inside is tight. In a normal driving position that my 5-foot-8 frame prefers low, my back suffered from the pointed knees of my 14-year-old behind me, who is shorter than me. There’s no fitting four adults in comfort, and the Mazda 3 had been such a good car for the mid-20s, versatile enough to be the only car you need between graduation and being in the family way. Getting car seats in the back would be a pain. 

The biggest shortcoming is Mazda’s 8.8-inch display screen for infotainment. I’m fine with no touchscreen, and agree with Mazda that it’s safer in theory to use a console dial or steering wheel controls to avoid looking down from the road. But Mazda’s system requires too many steps. Even if audio presets are favorited, it still takes a series of clicks to change stations, and it can’t be done with steering wheel controls. Those buttons instead rewind or forward the current song. It’s better to use Apple CarPlay and your own playlists all the time, and makes the satellite radio option more of a hassle than it’s worth. The only good thing about the dial is how easy it is to zoom in and out of the map display. 

The 2.5T takes the Mazda 3 out of the affordable sports car realm into something more evolved and refined. But the annoyances as an everyday driver take away more than those features add. 

After less than a week together, I went from being reminded of why I loved it in the first place to why we were no longer compatible. Maybe I had grown, maybe the Mazda 3 had grown, but whatever the case, we had both grown apart. 

Mazda provided a 2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo hatchback to bring you this firsthand report.  

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