Since its debut in 2004 as a Protége replacement, the Mazda3 has been a perennial favorite for buyers wanting a fun-enough, practical sedan or hatchback. Many enthusiasts have flocked to the Mazda3 as well, both in naturally-aspirated form and – for a few model years over two generations – in turbocharged Mazdaspeed3 “hot hatchback” guise. As the Mazda3 has evolved over the years, so has Mazda as a company. They’re less Zoom-Zoom now, instead using a staid “Feel Alive” slogan as part of their push upmarket to a near-luxury sort of car company. After 2013, the cracked-out, overpowered ‘Speed3 was deemed unworthy of Mazda’s product plans and was discontinued.
Mazda’s push toward nice-over-sporty has still produced some excellent “driver’s cars,” but with grown-up interiors and classy styling that really do set the bar. The current Mazda3 is no exception, drawing near-universal praise since its launch in 2019. I drove one then, a 2019 Mazda3 hatchback with all-wheel drive, and found it excellent if a bit… stately in acceleration. For 2021, Mazda has finally brought forced induction back to the little 3 in the form of the 2021 Mazda3 Turbo AWD.
What Is It?
This is a 2021 Mazda3 Turbo Premium Plus. It’s the fastest and nicest Mazda3 you can buy, and while the turbocharged engine is also offered in the Mazda3 sedan, the Premium Plus trim level is a hatchback exclusive.
Speaking of speed, the turbocharged engine up front is the same 2.5 liter four cylinder you’ll find in Mazda’s crossover line – CX-30, CX-5, and CX-9 alike. In all of them, and this Mazda3, it produces 250 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque on premium gasoline. Throw a tank of lower-octane 87 at it, and it’ll still output 227 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. There’s no manual transmission here, just a torque-converter automatic with six somewhat-long ratios and standard paddle shifters. Every Mazda3 Turbo spins all four wheels with standard “i-ACTIV” all-wheel drive.
Though Mazda offers some beautiful paint colors (Soul Red Crystal, Deep Crystal Blue) and interior colors (white and red), my test vehicle was painted a shade of blueish-gray called Polymetal, with a black interior. It was plenty nice, but other combinations would have felt more premium.
My 2021 Mazda3 Turbo Premium Plus arrived with a MSRP of $34,820.
We All Grow Up, Eventually
This 2021 Mazda3 Turbo is a very different animal than the old Mazdaspeed3 variants of the last decade. It’s a grunty, torque-first drivetrain that’s punchy down low and produces more than enough power and torque, but doesn’t feel particularly thrilling as the tachometer sweeps toward its highest markings. You don’t have to work hard for the speed, and the low-revving engine ends up propelling the hatchback with deceptive swiftness.
With no manual transmission available, the only way to pick your gears is to slot the shifter to “M” and use the paddles. Keep your right foot down hard, but not so hard that you hit the kickdown switch under the throttle pedal. With your foot out of the kickdown, the transmission will stay in the gear of your choice and the engine will, somewhat unhappily, bang off the rev limiter. Click the kickdown switch, however, and even in Manual mode, the transmission will upshift for you at redline. It’s a clever trick, and I truly didn’t mind the automatic upshifts as I generally care about manual gear selection in corners over all else.
And throw the Mazda3 Turbo through a corner and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. There are no trick adjustable dampers here and the nicely-weighted, precise-enough steering doesn’t change much, if at all, in Sport mode. No matter – Mazda has set the car up very well. I appreciated the simplicity of it all. No fussing around with drive modes, just drive the damn car and enjoy a balanced setup. It’s comfy enough for a daily commute and capable enough to be enjoyed on back roads.
What the 2021 Mazda3 Turbo is not is rowdy. The Mazdaspeed of yore has been told to put on a suit, get a job, and start acting its age. It’s grown up a bit, but is still down for the occasional weekend party and all-day brunch.
…But Is It Fun?
On paper, the 2021 Mazda3 Turbo hits every mark. It’s quicker from 0-60 than the old Mazdaspeed3, puts power down better both in a straight line and through corners, and is worlds nicer otherwise while doing so. It’s a very well-done car and would be a great choice for just about anyone, doubly so with forced induction to alleviate any concerns of “feeling slow.” It punches above its weight in feature content and fit and finish, and has drawn comparisons to entry-level Mercedes-Benz and Audi products (of which, I’d be very happy with the Mazda).
It’s all very good in theory and in practice. The 2021 Mazda3 Turbo is an excellent “one car” solution that can be dressed up for work days and date nights and dressed down for the occasional autocross or track day or mountain road blast. It’s remarkably nice, remarkably competent, and remarkably quick.
The seats and driving position are great; the minimalist steering wheel offers plenty of controls without being distracting. The interior as a whole is just… really well done. Mazda’s latest knob-driven infotainment is generally excellent and (to me) safer to use at speed than a touchscreen. It’s paired to a very good Bose sound system that should keep most ears happy. Driver assistance technology is, of course, included and generally works well, though I longed for lane centering instead of just lane departure warnings.
Mirriam-Webster defines “fun” as both providing “amusement or enjoyment” and more specifically, “playful, often boisterous action.” The 2021 Mazda3 Turbo absolutely provides amusement and enjoyment, but it’s neither playful or boisterous.
So then, that’s a lot of words to say the Mazda3 Turbo is excellent, but not playful. YFMV: Your Fun May Vary.
Back in 2016, then-president of Mazda North American Operations Masahiro Moro told the automotive press that “As a brand we are trying to elevate again a little bit more, because execution of Mazda MPS or Mazdaspeed3 or whatever you call it was a little bit – I am not afraid to say it – childish.”
Since then, Moro has been promoted to Mazda’s CEO and Mazda’s product lineup has matured more with each year. Growing up a bit isn’t a bad thing, as the company’s sales figures remain strong.
I just wish there was a bit more drama and flair, some visceral excitement to liven things up. But that’s not “new Mazda,” the Zoom-Zoominess is gone and likely not coming back. The 2021 Mazda3 Turbo is very nice and plenty quick, but lacking that special-something element of soul that made older Mazdas feel so scrappy and eager.