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2017 Mazda 3 5-Door Grand Touring Review – It’s The One To Have, Not The One You’ll Buy

2017 Mazda 3 5-Door - Image: © Timothy Cain/The Truth About Cars

American consumers acquire more than 200,000 new compact cars every month. Only 4 percent of those cars are Mazda 3s.

Compact car buyers are far more likely to drive away from a new car dealer in a Corolla, Civic, Sentra, Elantra, or Cruze; more likely to choose a Focus, Jetta, or Forte, too.

While U.S. sales of compact cars are down 4 percent this year, Mazda 3 volume is down 11 percent.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the more popular compacts. The 2017 Mazda 3 is better than those cars. And this particular 2017 Mazda 3, a hatchback in top Grand Touring trim with the 2.5-liter engine upgrade and — oh my goodness, a manual transmission — is better than other Mazda 3s.

But you remain unconvinced.

I think I know why.

Oh, there’s plenty that appeals to the enthusiast driver, but there are issues with the Mazda 3 that creep up across most of Mazda’s lineup.

2017 Mazda 3 hatchback GT - Image: © Timothy Cain/The Truth About Cars

First, the Dunlop SP Sport 5000 tires loudly hum an unmelodious tune, not just at high speeds, but at every speed. It’s difficult to know how much blame is owed to the Mazda and how deserving the Dunlops are of denunciation. Reviews of these Dunlops on TireRack.com largely excoriate the tires, but the Mazda 3 — revised for 2017 with added sound insulation and tighter body gaps, says Mazda — was never known as the Lexus LS of compact cars to begin with.

It’s not just the tires. Last Sunday, slushy roads threw up such an undercarriage racket that conversation with my wife, mere inches away, was truly difficult. Slush is noisy, but why must the Mazda act as an amplifier?

Mazda’s head-up display is a hilarious afterthought perched on a piece of plastic that rises and falls above the instrument cluster.

At the lofty price point of this heavily optioned top-trim car, it’s disappointing to see such a lack of adjustability from the seats. There’s no lumbar support to speak of.

With the outside temperature hovering just above freezing, far milder than some mornings we’re soon to experience, the cabin took an eternity to heat up.

2017 Mazda 3 Grand Touring interior - Image: © Timothy Cain/The Truth About Cars

Fuel economy in mostly urban driving is hovering right around 26 miles per gallon, in line with EPA ratings, but well below the 30 mpg rating of the 2017 Honda Civic Hatchback Sport.

You’ve complained about Mazda’s dealer network and the brand’s reputation for rust.

And my, but isn’t she a pricey number. At $27,730 as tested (admittedly luxuriously equipped), the Mazda 3 is $1,315 more expensive than a basic Volkswagen Golf GTI. Pricing for a 5-door 2017 Mazda 3 with the 2.5-liter and a manual shifter starts at $23,530, a $3,600 premium over the basic 2.0-liter 5-Door. The new-for-2017 Honda Civic Hatchback in 180-horsepower Sport trim is a $22,135 car.

Too loud. Not as supportive as you’d like. Slow to warm up. Not terribly efficient. Quick to ask for money.

Come to think of it, that sounds an awful lot like your 19-year-old son who wanted to stay home after Thanksgiving instead of returning to university.

But you love him despite his faults and foibles. Indeed, of all the 19-year-olds the world has to offer, he’s your favorite, the one you’d choose.

Exhibit some tolerance of those faults — the Mazda’s, not your child’s — and you’ll be rewarded. Mazda bequeathed the 3 a very lively and precise steering rack. Though presumably aided by G-Vectoring Control in 2017, it’ll be hard to tell — Mazda precisely designed the software to be imperceptible. But there’s no denying that so little effort is matched by such swift changes of direction.

Not that the Mazda 3 would ever be flustered by harsh inputs. Always, the response to cornering is to remain poised, prepared for the next turn, anxious even. Yet the Mazda’s enthusiasm for carrying speed through corners isn’t matched by a reduction in ride quality. On these 18-inch alloys, the Mazda 3 rides distinctly more serenely than the 19-inch-shod Mazda 6 we tested recently.

Compared with the calm and cool Mazda 3, the Mazda 6 — undeniably a joy to drive to quickly — feels like it’s trying to be sporty. All of this athleticism comes more naturally to the Mazda 3.

2017 Mazda 3 interior detail - Image: © Timothy Cain/The Truth About Cars

Plus, the 184-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder is linked here to a six-speed manual transmission. Mazda does manual shifters like Lotus does handling, like Toyota does just-in-time production, like Pagani does carbon fiber. If Mazda is ever forced into doing just one thing, please let it be manual transmissions.

The 3’s throws are short, the gates are clearly defined, gears are engaged with clarity, and the authority you have to make the most of the 2.5-liter allows the engine — often underwhelming in other applications — to feel like a genuine 184-horsepower powerplant. It’s not a fast car, but the 2.5 makes the Mazda 3 quick enough to be cross-shopped with a Golf GTI if you’re willing to sacrifice some low-down urge.

In more practical terms, rear seat space is decent, though white leather won’t be the answer to a slushy winter with kids. There are 20.2 cubic feet of cargo capacity in the hatch; 12.4 in the sedan. Mazda’s infotainment unit, if a bit slow and limited in scope, is easy to operate thanks to Audi-like console-mounted controls. A sedan could save you $750, the six-speed automatic transmission will add $1,050.

Sure, in many areas, the Mazda 3 is an imperfect companion. But it’s not as though all of the other compacts on the market are supremely quiet cars with comfortable seats, instantaneous cabin heat, EPA-matching economy, and 1990s price tags. No automaker gets it all right.

But in an age of self-driving where self still means you, rather than the car, the 2017 Mazda 3 is remarkably adept at making the driving part of life thoroughly enjoyable.

Given that its rivals are also imperfect vehicles, I’ll choose the compact car that’s best to drive and accept its faults and foibles, none of which reduce my affection for the Mazda.

Timothy Cain is the founder of GoodCarBadCar.net, which obsesses over the free and frequent publication of U.S. and Canadian auto sales figures. Follow on Twitter @goodcarbadcar and on Facebook.

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