You may not know that Mazda attempted a Lexus-style subbrand of its own in the early 1990s. That’s because the automaker has mostly succeeded in quashing the story of its failed luxury spinoff, Amati, that collapsed with Japan’s economy and never saw the light of day. But while we’ll never know if the rumored 12-cylinder Amati 1000 could’ve been a bigger deal than the Lexus LS400, we haven’t seen the end of Mazda’s upscale ambitions.
Nearly three decades after the Amati experiment died, Mazda is pushing upmarket again. There are new head winds this time around—namely a global pandemic that has hurt Mazda’s bottom line—but the company appears to be staying the course. It confirmed recently that it’s working on inline-six engines and a longitudinal-engine vehicle architecture, which could transform the lineup in a big way if they come to fruition. But while the carmaker has its sights on the future, it hasn’t forgotten about the present, updating its current lineup with premium touches. Indeed, each new model that arrives furthers the impression that Mazdas are as nicely appointed as some Infinitis and Acuras these days—faint praise, perhaps—and yet, they cost much less.
The latest addition to the Mazda 3 lineup, the 2.5 Turbo, exemplifies this. It puts a new spin on the familiar big-engine-in-a-small-car formula. Rather than create another raucous, torque-steering Mazdaspeed 3 hot hatch, the automaker is using a more powerful engine (and the addition of standard all-wheel drive) as a way of pitching the 3 as an alternative to small Audi and Mercedes-Benz models.
It’s the first time we’ve heard Mazda openly admit to going after established luxury brands, so we’re taking the claim seriously. To see how the 2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo sedan stacks up, we drove it alongside a 2021 Audi A4 45 TFSI. This admittedly is not the 3’s closest upmarket analogue—that would be the smaller Audi A3, the Mercedes-Benz A220, or the BMW 228i Gran Coupe. But the Audi and the Benz weren’t available, and the BMW isn’t much of a benchmark. Besides, this isn’t a traditional comparison test, and we won’t be picking a winner. Instead, we’re seeking to answer the question: How close is Mazda to being able to run in the same circles as true luxury brands?
The 3 is a conventionally sized compact car with a transversely mounted engine. The turbocharged version starts at $30,845, and our loaded Premium Plus sedan cost $33,790. The A4 in its high-powered 45 trim starts at $41,945, and our well-equipped test car was $53,840. As a competitor in the BMW 3-series segment, the Audi is significantly wider than the Mazda, and it has a longer wheelbase. But perhaps the most notable difference between the two is that the A4’s inline-four is mounted longitudinally.
This distinction in layout is an important one. Cars with longitudinal engines typically boast larger dash-to-axle lengths—also known as prestige gaps—than those with transverse powerplants. We don’t expect Mazda will rotate the 3’s engine in the future—as it’s planning to do for larger models such as the 6 and CX-9—but it has employed some design trickery to try to give the 3 a bit of that prestige. The sedan’s long, low hood means your neighbors won’t think you just bought a Toyota Corolla.
Underneath that shapely hood is the same turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-four now available in nearly every Mazda. It’s offered only with all-wheel drive and a six-speed automatic transmission. (Manuals are too immature for Mazda’s new target audience, apparently, although the nonturbo 3 hatchback still offers a clutch pedal.) This engine’s 250 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque put it well within the realm of the turbocharged fours found in compact luxury cars these days. But its unusual tuning creates a different character altogether. Mazda says it aimed for the feel of a naturally aspirated six-cylinder, even claiming that the power delivery is similar to that of a previous-generation Porsche Cayman S’s flat-six. It’s not. This turbocharged 2.5-liter provides a satisfying swell of low-end torque, but its grumbly engine note detracts from the 3’s sense of refinement. It’s also lacking the lively top end of a free-breathing six-cylinder. The 2.5-liter starts to run out of steam at around 5000 rpm, and the transmission often shifts well before the low 6250-rpm redline.
Audi’s 261-hp turbo 2.0-liter, one of the best four-cylinders in the industry, provides a similar low-end shove while also offering up eager power throughout the rev range. The A4’s seven-speed dual-clutch automatic provides crisper and quicker shifts than the 3’s conventional automatic, and the Audi outruns the Mazda to 60 mph by 0.8 second and through the quarter-mile by 0.6 second despite the A4 being 313 pounds heavier.
The 3’s suspension tuning is distinctly softer than that of the satisfyingly firm A4, resulting in more body roll than we’d like from a sports sedan, or even just a sporty one. The Mazda’s workaday Bridgestone Turanza EL440 all-season tires dull its turn-in and provide a mediocre amount of grip—0.85 g compared with 0.97 g for the A4, which wore Continental SportContact6 summer rubber. And yet, there’s a sense of playfulness that largely comes from the 3’s communicative steering rack, which transmits just the right amount of information from the road surface directly to your fingertips. While the Audi’s competence on a curvy road is impressive, the Mazda provides a subtle sort of delicacy from the primary controls that we enjoy.
But chasing solidity and sportiness is not the only path to success as a premium brand. BMW has deemphasized chassis agility in recent years, yet it sells more vehicles now than ever. And Lexus has consistently found success peddling the cushy ES sedan and RX crossover, which prioritize soft, quiet comfort over engaging handling. It would be a shame and a mistake for Mazda to turn its back on the zoom-zoom ethos entirely, though. If Mazda adds a bit more sound isolation—the 3 is a hair quieter than the Audi at idle but louder at a 70-mph cruise and wide-open throttle—it could find its way to a sweet spot between comfort and Miata-like dynamics.
Beyond the driving experience, there’s another area that separates the luxurious from the mainstream: amenities. It’s here that mass-market brands have made up an enormous amount of ground lately. Before, when luxury brands would introduce a new safety or connectivity feature (think airbags and navigation), that tech would take years to trickle down to the mainstream. But now, the feature adoption happens much sooner. Mainstream brands were quick to provide Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility as standard equipment, while luxury brands have only recently stopped charging extra for it.
This has raised consumer expectations for features beyond the basics. Mazda gets this. The 3 offers class-above niceties such as a 360-degree camera system and a head-up display, neither of which you’ll find in a Civic or a Corolla. What it’s missing are details such as a powered passenger’s seat and hydraulic hood struts. The 3’s rear-seat area also betrays its plebeian roots, as it lacks the higher-than-foot-level HVAC vents and USB charging ports found in the back of the A4.
But overall, we dig the Mazda’s interior. The 3’s steering-wheel buttons have an attractive satin finish and click with a precision that matches the Audi’s. And while Mazda’s infotainment system has quirks in its menu structure, we appreciate that the 3 has stuck with an ergonomically friendly control knob on the center console as opposed to the Audi’s touchscreen-only interface.
Although our evaluation of these cars has little to do with the broader ownership experience, customer service merits a mention in any discussion of a luxury brand. Mazda says it’s working on a transformation plan for its 550 stores in the U.S.; 150 of those franchises have already completed a cosmetic update, and 300 more are signed up to do the same. Mazda has yet to introduce an included maintenance program or a concierge service, but we wouldn’t expect it to given that Mazda still charges mainstream prices for its vehicles.
We don’t think that will last, though, as there’s no way Mazda can afford to roll out its new engines and platform without some price creep. A rear-wheel-drive 6 with an inline-six that costs the same as a Camry would be simply too good to be true. Plus, charging more for a product is often the best way to convince the buying public that it’s worth more.
As it stands now, the Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo offers a hell of a lot of car for the money, while the Audi A4 offers an appropriate amount of car for the money. If Mazda can hone the details and successfully introduce the new platform and engines, it has a shot at achieving its goal. It definitely has a better chance than Amati had.
C/D TESTING EXPLAINED