Most small cars conceived are for simple, economical transportation. You buy a small car because you want to get good gas mileage and not pay too much.
Many of today’s leading small sedans and hatchbacks can rightly be called economy cars. Models like the Hyundai Elantra and Toyota Corolla are far from basic, rudimentary transportation, but they’re more about affordability than a luxury.
On the other end of the spectrum, you get truly premium products like the Mercedes-Benz A-Class and Audi A3, which cram many of their brands’ high-end virtues into smaller and less expensive — but still pricey — packages.
Somewhere in the middle, you have the 2020 Mazda3.
The Mazda3 was fully redesigned for 2019 and gained a few more standard features this year. It’s the fourth generation of a model that popularized the idea of a more “premium” economy car back in 2004 when it combined an extra-composed suspension with an upscale interior and lots of available features. And from a luxury standpoint, the latest Mazda3 is better than ever, even though prices start at an attainable $22,420.
Let’s start with the style. Mazda straightened out the curves on last year’s model, creating a cleaner and more premium design. The sedan’s slim headlights and taillights are classy complements to its well-proportioned body. And the five-door hatchback we tested looks like a hunkered-down sports coupe rather than a sensible cargo-hauler.
The interior is genuinely dazzling for this price point, better than some luxury cars.’ The driver’s seat welcomes you into a supportive embrace. Every dashboard surface feels more luxurious than you’d expect at this price point. The buttons, knobs and switches move with polished perfection. The infotainment screen is better-integrated into the dash than before, and its graphics have become sharper.
It is also a premium-feeling car once you get moving. It has more power than typical compact economy sedans, which helps it accelerate with authority and without tons of extra noise. It feels rock-solid, nothing like cheap cars that feel like they’re wandering down the road. Don’t count on an extra-cushy ride — big bumps can jolt the cabin — but like a good luxury sports sedan, the suspension feels like it has the situation under control.
Another neat perk to the Mazda3 is its newly available all-wheel-drive system, which costs about $1,500 and is optional on nearly all Mazda3 trim levels. That’s a standard feature on luxury-brand cars, but in the compact economy class, the only other all-wheel-drive option is the much less fancy Subaru Impreza.
That said, if you are looking for a simple, straightforward, affordable economy car, the Mazda3 might not be your best fit. Its voluptuous styling leaves it with a cramped back seat and pinched rear visibility, particularly on the hatchback. Its firm steering feels excellent at higher speeds but takes extra effort in low-speed maneuvers. And while the car’s price tag isn’t too crazy, you can get better deals — and its operating expenses rise due to the Mazda3’s disappointing gas mileage.
Let’s dwell a bit on that last point. The most efficient 2020 Mazda3 manages EPA estimates of 30 miles per gallon in mixed driving, compared to 32 mpg for the previous-generation Mazda3 and up to 36 mpg for the Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra. That’s because the Mazda3 has a big 2.5-liter 186-horsepower engine, and its six-speed automatic transmission is less advanced or efficiency-focused than most competitors’ transmissions with more gears or continuously variable operation. The last-generation Mazda3 also offered this 2.5-liter, but buyers could instead choose a thriftier yet still peppy 2.0-liter.
If you want all-wheel-drive, mileage plummets further, to as little as 27 mpg in mixed driving. Our all-wheel-drive test car managed about 29 mpg during a week that included more highway than city conditions. For comparison, the Subaru Impreza has EPA ratings of 31 mpg in mixed driving with its standard all-wheel-drive system, though we averaged just 27 mpg when we tested one.
One last point we’d like to flag: Past Mazda3s have focused heavily on their zippy handling, in line with Mazda’s famous “zoom zoom” tagline. But Mazda replaced “zoom zoom” a few years ago with “driving matters,” and that’s in line with the new Mazda3’s experience.
It’s still a great driving car, just as long as you’re looking for a solid overall driving experience, rather than a maximum of “zoom-ness.” Pushing the new Mazda3 hard around a curve, you lose the feeling of connection between driver and road, leaving more guesswork about how the car is behaving. Auto aficionados who appreciate a finely engineered car will still love their time behind the wheel of a Mazda3, though performance enthusiasts may miss the old model.
Overall, the 2020 Mazda3 stands out in its class for a high-end feel at relatively affordable prices. Lots of economy cars focus on the economy basics, serving the needs of most buyers. But if you want something that feels higher-grade, and you’re not prioritizing interior space and fuel economy, you won’t find a better compact car than the Mazda3 for less than $30,000.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.