It was 6:00 AM on Sunday morning and I half-shuffled to the driver’s door of the 2019 Mazda3 AWD hatchback. My first five days with the gray hatchback were full of sunshine. But as I set off for Dominion Raceway, heavy rain fell from the sky in Washington, D.C. and didn’t promise to let up all day.

Mazda wanted me to drive the 2019 Mazda3 AWD hatchback so badly that they dropped one off with a full tank of gas for the week. They did this after I told them of my intentions to take it to a track day. Zoom zoom, indeed.

What Is It?

The Mazda3 has been a long-time favorite of weekend motorsports warriors and, well, everyone else. First introduced in 2004 to replace the compact Protege, the Mazda3 offered sharp looks, a fun-to-drive chassis, and enough practicality in both sedan and hatchback forms. Now in its fourth generation, the perky little Mazda3 has grown up a bit in demeanor, if not size.

All 2019 Mazda3 variants come with the same SkyActiv-G 2.5 liter four-cylinder engine, which makes 186 horsepower and the same amount of torque. The gist of SkyActiv-G is that the engine uses a higher compression ratio to help with both fuel economy and power. In the 2019 Mazda3, the engine is naturally-aspirated and paired to either a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission.

2020 Mazda3 AWD hatchback front

This newest generation of Mazda3 also offers all-wheel drive, a Mazda3 first. However, AWD cannot be paired with the manual transmission. Regardless of drive wheels, there’s been much made of the switch from independent rear suspension to a torsion beam out back. It’s cheaper to produce and theoretically doesn’t allow the car to handle as well. More on that in a bit.

The car Mazda provided was an AWD hatchback with the Premium package. With a few options added, the MSRP of my tester was roughly $31,245.

Daily Driving the 2019 Mazda3 AWD

This car makes a great first impression. Everyone universally loved the exterior styling (though that beautiful C-pillar makes for one hell of a blind spot) and admired the red leather interior. The interior layout is refreshingly simple with great ergonomics. Buttons have a solid feel and everything is nicely backlit at night. In general, everything feels more upscale than one would expect from the brand.

I’m not entirely sold on the drivetrain. We’ll talk about drive wheels later, but this is one car where I found myself actively wishing for a manual transmission. The 2.5L SkyActiv-G fancypants engine needs to be revved to make power, yet the automatic tries to keep the revs down for the sake of fuel economy. In traffic and at lighter throttle, it’s a bit of a dog. Yes, you can slot the shifter into “M” and use the paddle shifters to allow more RPM, but it doesn’t feel quite right. The character of the early Mazda3 has been lost with this drivetrain setup.

Much has been made of the infotainment requiring a knob and buttons to operate, a la BMW iDrive. The wide screen is set far back and is not a touchscreen. It’s great. Anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong. The knob you spin is nicely weighted and allows easy, repeatable movements with less distraction compared to a touchscreen. And that’s good, because trying to change the SiriusXM station takes an inordinate amount of twists and presses. Otherwise, the user interface of the Mazda system is quite good, even projecting navigation directions onto the windshield with the Premium package’s heads-up display.

Mazda also includes i-ActivSense, their term for driver assistance technology. Everything worked well in general, though one feature reads road signs and displays them in the gauge cluster. It was unnerving to glance down and see, literally, a red STOP sign on the dash.

Taking the 2019 Mazda3 AWD on the Racetrack

I thought this track day would have a different outcome. In my head, I’d be pushing the Mazda3 to its limit around Dominion Raceway, taking mental notes of how that torsion beam rear suspension really felt as the tires chattered away through each corner. In reality, we saw a very heavy rainfall combine with a track that doesn’t drain very well.

Most drivers, from the beginner group up to the advanced/instructor group, were taking things very slowly, if at all. Many woke up, looked at the forecast, and rolled over in bed, forfeiting their entry fee. I, on the other hand, put all my trust in the Mazda3’s tires and all-wheel drive system and, as the kids say, sent it.

2020 Mazda3 AWD hatchback rear

With the car in Sport mode, transmission in Manual mode, and traction control fully enabled, I started out slowly and built speed with confidence. After a few laps, I figured the car out and kept the hammer down.

Mazda claims almost 50 percent of the engine’s power can be sent to the rear wheels. Mazda also claims the software controlling the AWD system is what makes it special, looking at pitch, yaw, driver inputs, and tire load to help distribute power. The Mazda3 AWD is not using a typical “slip ‘n’ grip” all-wheel drive system. And that’s a great thing.

I entered some corners a bit hot, lifted throttle as in front-wheel drive to allow the car to rotate, and stood on the power again. Mazda’s AWD made it a non-issue. In corners where I drove with more uh, grace, the system worked to keep my speeds high and the car predictable. I told some of the other drivers how I was working to rotate the car or keep power down through standing water, and they were all amazed. All-wheel drive in general is a helpful tool in bad weather, and Mazda’s system is very clever indeed.

On the track, my complaints about the drivetrain disappeared. The paddle shifters were responsive and allowed both hands on the wheel at all times. Mazda’s programming ensured no random gear changes, unless I called for them. And the power that was lacking lower in the revs wasn’t a problem given the car had room to run out each gear between shifts.

‘Zoom Zoom’ is Alive and Well

We are far from the days of Mazda’s cheeky “Zoom Zoom” marketing campaign, and the 2019 Mazda3 AWD doesn’t really have that playful nature about it as older models did. And that’s okay. Mazda as a brand is working to grow up and doing a very good job of it.

The 2019 Mazda3 AWD is all grown up, but the corporate jinba ittai DNA is alive and well, somewhere behind that expensive-looking red dashboard.

Note: This article initially listed the test vehicle as a 2020 model year, when in fact it was a 2019. The 2019 and 2020 Mazda3 are visually and mechanically identical, with slight pricing and standard equipment variances between model years.

2 COMMENTS

  1. As soon as I read that it’s available with a manual, I thought, “I bet Jake wishes this would’ve been a stick.” Sure enough! A competent and nicely packaged car for the price. And kudos to Mazda for throwing you the keys even knowing what you’d put it through 🙂

    • Two little quirks with Mazda offering a manual on this car, though… it is only available on the Premium (top level) trim and only in FWD. I’m down for the Premium requirement because this car is gorgeous when equipped that way, but I wish they could hook this AWD system to a three-pedal transmission. That would be super fun.

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