Way back in the early ‘90s, Mazda was poised to make a power move. With the Japanese bubble economy at full roar, Hiroshima’s braintrust was about to join rivals Honda (Acura), Toyota (Lexus) and Nissan (Infiniti) by unleashing an in-house luxury brand of its own on the North American market. Alas, the island country’s assets soon came hurtling back down to earth, plunging it into a recession and restricting Mazda’s would-be premium player (dubbed “Efini”) to within its own borders.
Over the past several years, Mazda has once again sought to carve out a more upscale niche for itself, particularly in the SUV segment, where models like the CX-5 and larger CX-9 present surprisingly well turned-out interiors and pleasing on-road personalities. Its most daring effort, however, has been the Mazda 3 entry-level sedan and hatchback, with each of these recently redesigned models providing amenities and style that make contemporary small cars on either side of the Pacific feel like they’re a step behind when it comes to cosseting customers.
With the addition of the 2021 Mazda 3 Turbo to the lineup, that one-up now extends across a new ocean to tweak the brand-conscious nose of cars from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi. Make no mistake: this all-wheel drive, turbocharged contender is every inch a match for the lower rungs of the German luxury ladder.
Big Power, Bigger Grip
How does Mazda’s bread-and-butter small-car platform work its way into the same conversation as models like the Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class and the Audi A3? Truth be told, the Mazda 3’s underpinnings have long been lauded for their cut-above capabilities in the corners, providing unexpected athleticism even when found as a base model. Pony up extra cash for the top-flight trim level and the interior trappings of the 3 push beyond their price point and into the ranks of the truly plush. They’re certainly on par with (or even better than) some of the more plasticky Teutonic cabins available.
The Turbo also brings two previously missing ingredients to the table that finally vault the Mazda 3 across the chasm that had divided it from mainstream luxury consideration. The first is power. Replacing its naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine with a turbocharged version borrowed from Mazda’s SUV program, the 3 Turbo churns out 250 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque. This represents a massive upgrade over what longtime Mazda fans are used to from the 3, and puts the model on even footing with all but the competition-spec versions of BMW et al.’s similarly sized entries.
Speaking of footing: just as important as the 3 Turbo’s newfound muscle is the standard all-wheel drive system it uses to keep it under control. With four wheels channeling the Mazda’s obstreperous output, acceleration is linear and predictable even while cornering, and wet weather and snowy roads are dispatched with a calm confidence.
No Boy Racers, Please
It’s important to underscore the fact that despite its gaudy horsepower numbers, the 2021 Mazda 3 Turbo is not a hot hatch or a sports sedan. There’s no real bias in the vehicle’s suspension tune that might sacrifice stability or smoothness in favor of being able to change direction at a moment’s notice, and its surging torque delivery favors an open-palmed push in the rpm mid-range that imparts impressive highway passing power and from-a-roll acceleration.
These characteristics separate the 3 Turbo from its more frenetic Japanese and Korean counterparts and instead impart it with a pleasing all-around performance package that is just as impressive to drive in traffic during day-to-day commuting as it is on a longer road trip or spirited back roads detour. Able to hit 60 mph from a standing start in just over five and a half seconds, the Mazda is a fender or more past the door of a Mercedes-Benz CLA250 or Audi A3 in a straight line, and once the curves arrive, it holds its own with commendable poise.
Great Package, Surprising Badge
Are there any areas where Mazda comes up short in courting customers who might be tempted to bypass Benz and take a chance on the 3 Turbo’s alluring cabin, muscular drivetrain and $30,000 starting price tag?
Perhaps the biggest letdown in the 3 is a problem endemic to Mazdas everywhere. The vehicle’s infotainment system, which relies on a rotary knob tucked into the center console, is far from intuitive to use, and its many sub-menus and lack of on-screen real estate place it well behind Audi’s excellent MMI interface and of course BMW’s iDrive. On the mechanical side of the equation, a six-speed automatic remains the only gearbox offered with the turbo, and it’s hard not to imagine the fuel efficiency gains and extra bite off the line that an extra few ratios could impart, particularly in a world where eight speeds are now the minimum for most manufacturers.
Everywhere else, the 2021 Mazda 3 Turbo is an impressive offering that has all the trappings of luxury legitimacy without a big ask for the badge on the hood. As either a smart sedan or a practical hatch, the 3 Turbo puts in a performance that should have brand bosses in Stuttgart and Munich looking over their shoulders, and in doing so finally realizes a decades-old premium car dream from Japan’s long left-out automaker.
This article was featured in the InsideHook newsletter. Sign up now.