Mazda, known throughout the 21st Century as the “Zoom-Zoom” car company, has a message for car buyers: “Driving Matters.” Its new slogan may resonate with car buyers in this age of increasingly autonomous, electrified vehicles. And its motto shows in every car it builds.
Mazda is most famous for its Miata two-seat roadster, officially dubbed the MX-5 Miata, though that's such a mouthful that everyone in America dispenses with the alphanumeric MX-5 designation. Since its debut in 1989, the Miata has blown away all earlier records as the bestselling sports car in the world.
Lots of companies would like you to think their sports car DNA suffuses the rest of their product lineups. With Mazdas, however, it consistently shows.
All of its sedans – and even its SUVs – are among the most fun to drive in their categories. They aren't the fastest, but they have agile handling, flat cornering, and instantaneous steering response. They have crisp-shifting transmissions that never leave them feeling like slugs, even though they rarely have the most power in their class.
Honestly, many Mazdas are prone to some of the deficiencies of sports cars as well: Their engines can be noisier than more mainstream models. Especially on the highway, lots of road and engine noise comes through to the cabin and can sometimes leave passengers shouting at each other to have a conversation. The latest Mazdas ride fairly well, but they're no match for the best-riding cars in their classes. And to get that sporty handling and to feel peppy without big, powerful engines, Mazdas are often a touch smaller than other cars in their classes. Most have comfortable back seats and plenty of room inside. But they're not the cavernous living rooms that even other small cars have lately become.
That light weight gives rise to Mazdas' other advantage: fuel economy. The company has repeatedly been named the most efficient car company in America, despite having no hybrids or electric cars. (It also has no heavy pickups or vans, and just one largish SUV, so that helps.) In truth, Mazda is a tiny company compared with other household automotive brands. Since Ford Motor Company sold a major stake in Mazda in 2009, Mazda hasn't had the research budget to develop its own hybrids. So it has carved out the niche it can – as an automaker that offers both sporty driving and fuel efficiency.
The company recently finished revamping its whole lineup with its Skyactiv suite of fuel-efficiency technologies: lightweight bodies, four-cylinder engines with direct fuel injection, and overdrive six-speed automatic transmissions (standard in most models, though you can also order a stick shift in most and save a few bucks).
Most Mazdas also have very good reliability, which seems likely to improve as Mazda simplifies its lineup and focuses on tried-and-true gas engines.
This combination has brought almost universal critical praise and left most Mazdas near the top our ratings in most classes. Their sporty driving-focused personalities, however, aren't for everybody.
Driving does matter, at least to Mazda and its expanding base of dedicated customers. In fact, it must matter more than passenger space and quiet refinement. Nevertheless, it's refreshing to see a car company that knows its mission and follows it with laser focus. If nothing else, it makes it easy for buyers to decide whether Mazdas are their type of car. Let's start out by looking at Mazda's bread-and-butter model, the Mazda3 compact.
Available as a sedan or a hatchback, this small car may be the best thing Mazda builds. It has better sound insulation and feels more refined than either the larger Mazda6 or the small SUVs in Mazda's lineup.
The back seat will fit grown-ups, even for longish outings, though they won't have the stretch-out room that they might in a brand-new Honda Civic or a Subaru Impreza. Six-footers won't find their heads jammed against the roof or their knees digging into the front seat back.
Its interior gets rave reviews for the comfort and quality of materials as well. Some reviewers compare it favorably against luxury cars. The 7-inch touch-screen infotainment system gets mixed reviews, but it has a BMW-like knob controller with clearer graphics and fewer confusing choices.
Mazda3s come well equipped with features such as Bluetooth audio streaming, a sunroof, and two-tone heated leather seats for not much money. Blind spot monitoring is available on the relatively affordable Touring trim level. The 3 comes in three trim levels, Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring, each with a choice of two engines, a 155-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder in 3 i models and a 184-horsepower 2.5-liter four in 3 s versions.
With the base engine, the Mazda3 i is one of the most fuel-efficient compact cars on the market. It has plenty of power for passing, merging, and highway driving and doesn't really feel slow thanks to Mazda's Skyactiv light-weighting strategy. You can get a six-speed stick shift with either engine. The six-speed automatic is relaxed and efficient on the highway, yet quick and snappy when you ask for more power. The six-speed stick is crisp and snappy, but can't match the mileage of the automatic.
The top-of-the-line Mazda3 s is available with Mazda's semi-hybrid i-ELOOP system, which uses the alternator to provide a little bit of braking regeneration and stores it in the standard lead-acid 12-volt starter battery. This takes some electrical load off the engine to improve fuel economy. Mazda3s with i-ELOOP get 1 mpg better than those without it. It's included in the $2,600 Technology Package on 3 s Grand Tourings, which is steep if you don't need the rest of the tech equipment.
This latest Mazda3 topped a lot of lists of the best small car when it debuted in 2014. A newly redesigned, roomier, and more refined Honda Civic is now tied with the Mazda3 in our small-car rankings, but it's the only car that is. The Civic is a little more efficient, roomier, and refined. But if driving matters to you, and you want a small car that's fun, it's still hard to beat the Mazda3.
The Mazda6 is the company's beautifully sculpted midsize sedan that might be even more fun to drive than the compact Mazda3. The downside is that it also feels less refined than the 3, and in the very competitive midsize sedan class, it winds up fifth in our rankings.
To get a sense of how competitive midsize sedans are, consider that the top four models – the all-new Chevrolet Malibu, the Honda Accord, the Hyundai Sonata, and the Toyota Camry – all tie for first place.
That the Mazda6 finishes right behind them is testament the fact the “Driving Matters” to most car reviewers as much as it does to Mazda. Sometimes it matters more than other features, such as a roomy back seat or a quiet interior – two places where the Mazda6 falls short of many other midsize sedans.
The Mazda6 is plenty big for what most drivers do with a midsize sedan: commute, ferry kids around to their activities, and occasionally go to lunch or dinner with adults in the back seat. Even on longer weekend tours, grownups will fit fine in the back seat, they just won't have as much room to stretch out as in a Honda Accord.
The noise levels in the Mazda6 are a bigger concern. Most reviewers may be willing to overlook them for the Mazda6's direct, almost telepathic handling, firm brakes, and right-now steering. But the noise becomes tiresome for average drivers after even a short drive.
The interior isn't quite as nicely finished as that in the Mazda3, either. Plastics are soft to the touch and nicely grained, but many feel unduly rubbery. And there are lots of hard plastics on the front surface of the dashboard facing the driver too.
Otherwise, the Mazda6 feels a lot like the Mazda3, only a little bigger and a little sharper. The larger 184-horsepower four-cylinder engine is standard, and the i-ELOOP quasi-hybrid system is available, as are active safety features such as blind spot monitoring and forward collision alert. Even without the i-ELOOP system, Mazda6s get an impressive 32 mpg in combined EPA city and highway testing. That's among the best fuel economy ratings of any midsize sedan (though again, it's a little smaller than the rest.) The Hyundai Sonata is the only non-hybrid that does better.
Buyers have a lot of choices when it comes to midsize sedans, but the Mazda6 stands out as the sportiest affordable option.
There's a reason the Miata has become the best-selling sports car in the world over its 27-year history. Not only is it one of the most fun sports cars on the market, it's also the most affordable to buy and to own.
Others may be faster, have higher horsepower numbers, and have a more impressive rumble. They may even beat the Miata around a track. None, however, can match the Miata's joie de verve on everyday streets. As one reviewer put it, the beauty of the Miata is that you can be going the speed limit and nobody outside can tell what a ball you're having. That's the beauty of having an engaging, responsive car that isn't actually very fast.
Though its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine has only 155 hp, hardly any reviewers wished for more. With the six-speed stick shift that most reviewers tested, the Miata feels involving every time you run it up to speed. It's got just enough power to push the limits of its finely balanced handling and let you carve corners like you're wielding a machete.
At the same time, the new Miata is large enough for drivers taller than six feet. Similar to other Mazdas, the three trim levels are Sport, Club, and Grand Touring. Club models and up get the same 7-inch MazdaConnect touch-screen infotainment system with its rotary controller as found in other Mazdas. Nor are other creature comforts sparse. Even base Miata Sports come with a leather steering wheel, shifter, and hand brake. Grand Tourings come with all-important heated seats, so you can drive your convertible earlier in the spring and later into the fall.
For sports car buyers who want more weather protection and security, Mazda is introducing a new hard-top convertible Miata this fall. Called the MX-5 Miata RF, it stands for retractable fastback, with a flying buttress roof that that turns the car into more of an elegant targa than a full convertible. Either way, it promises the same driving enjoyment and simplicity of ownership that have made Miatas famous.
Compared to sports cars that cost more (and that's just about all of them), the Miata also benefits from Mazda's bulletproof reliability and relatively cheap repair and maintenance costs, making it an easy choice to buy and to own.