2020 Mazda3 sacrifices fuel economy for AWD option

The Mazda3 fills the narrow niche between true economy sedans and hatchbacks, and premium compact models from Acura, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz. It costs more than the popular Japanese and Korean subcompacts, but is more refined and more stylish — plus, it’s a true driver’s car, with handling and overall quality to rival the European models.

As part of a 2019 redesign, the Mazda3 became available with all-wheel drive. While the Mazda3 lacks sufficient road clearance — just 5.5 inches — to run in the dirt, the AWD option improves its all-weather capability compared with front-wheel-drive versions. For greater versatility, the crossover CX3 is the Mazda compact of choice.

Unfortunately, all-wheel drive exacts a price, in terms of initial cost, long-term cash outlay and even driving enjoyment. Mazda’s AWD system reduces fuel economy from 35 mpg combined city and highway fuel economy, to 32. This is a bit of a double whammy for Mazda, which competes with fuel-sipping compacts like the Honda Civic (up to 42 mpg on the highway) and Hyundai Elantra (up to 41 mpg). The AWD option also excludes Mazda’s excellent 6-speed manual transmission, available only in front-wheel-drive models.

A base Mazda3 Hatchback, with front-wheel drive, starts at $23,700. The Mazda3 sedan’s base price is $21,500. Our loaded Mazda3 Hatchback Premium, with all-wheel drive and a host of tech and comfort features, had a sticker price of $32,065.

2020 Mazda3 Hatchback AWD Premium

Price: $32,065

Engine: 2.5-liter inline Four, 186 horsepower, 186 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: 6-speed shiftable automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Weight: 3,255 lb.

Suspension: MacPherson strut front, torsion-beam rear

Wheels: 18x7-in. alloy

Tires: 215/45R18 all-season

Seating capacity: 5

Luggage capacity: 20.2 cu. ft.

Maximum cargo capacity: 47.1 cu. ft.

Fuel capacity: 13.2 gal.

Fuel economy: 24 mpg city, 32 mpg highway

Fuel type: Regular unleaded

Mazda stands alone in its segment in offering an AWD compact sedan or hatchback. Drivers in New England and other snowy places may judge the higher costs of AWD well worth paying for the added safety and security.

Speaking of safety, the Mazda3 is among the best — earning 5-star ratings in government crash tests, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Top Safety Pick designation.

As always, we found the Mazda3 to be meticulously assembled, with commendably low levels of wind noise. It rides smoothly and exhibits the sharpest handling qualities we’ve ever experienced in an economy car. The 186-horsepower inline 4-cylinder engine and 6-speed transmission work well together. Power, while not explosive, gets a significant boost when the driver flips the switch to “Sport” mode.

Everywhere we went during our week with the Mazda3, it seemed someone was moved to praise the car’s good looks. Indeed, the long hood and sculpted rear quarters leave a good impression. Visibility to the rear is somewhat compromised by the styling, but that issue is ameliorated to the vanishing point by the blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert and rear-view camera. Also a hit with those who gave the Mazda3 a once-over was the Soul Red Crystal Metallic paint.

The only weak spot was rear-seat knee room. Drivers and front passengers had to give their seat adjustments a workout, moving them forward whenever an adult or even a child sat in back.

Mazda has done some tweaks to the audio system, but it still seems to require more clicks and twists of the control knob than necessary. Still, the placement of the controls — basically, a large knob between the front seats — is helpful.

Steven Macoy (semacoy@gmail.com) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel.