Behind the Wheel

2020 Mazda Mazda3 Review: It's come a long way in a decade and now there's more to love

Mazda has completely redesigned the Mazda3 from the ground up.

Photo courtesy of Mazda North American Operations

Everyone remembers their first new car. The excitement of getting that car with just a handful of miles on the clock, knowing that no other rear-ends but yours had graced the driver's seat. Driving a new car off the lot is like embarking on a journey full of possibilities—blah blah blah.

Okay, I may have fallen down a rabbit hole of feel-good nostalgia that would be too much for even the best "I-bought-my-kid-a-safe-car" Subaru commercial, but my point about new cars remains. My first was a 2011 Mazda Mazda3 Hatchback.

2020 Mazda Mazda3 HatchbackThe model has a familiar front end, scaled to fit its beefy but petite body.Photo courtesy of Mazda North American Operations

It was dark grey, with a six-speed manual transmission, a slick purple-and-orange color scheme across the illuminated dash and infotainment, a load of storage space in the trunk and a zippy 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. It served me well for years with nary a mechanical issue, before I sold it to a friend who has had more trouble-free years.

That Mazda3 hatch was the perfect car for a newly married guy with no kids. It was fun and sporty, but also eminently practical. It was perfect for Costco runs and moving across the country, as well as countless road trips and — when I was a volunteer firefighter — countless emergency runs as well. All in, if you include my friend that I sold it to, the car long-outlasted my marriage. There's some joke to be made there about why men (and women) love their cars.

Of course, the reason I'm telling you this story is because of my test car this week: the 2020 Mazda Mazda3 Hatchback. It's been almost a decade, but this has a lot of the same DNA as the car I loved so much back in 2011.

It still has a zippy 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, albeit a more fuel-efficient and powerful version, producing 186 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque. It's still fun and sporty, with plenty of cargo space and comfy seats — but it's also much, much more luxurious than the car I remember.

2020 Mazda Mazda3 HatchbackThe Mazda3 is now available with all-wheel drive.Photo courtesy of Mazda North American Operations

Part of that is ten years of development across the industry, with features like adaptive cruise control and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto becoming near-standard. Push-button start and rearview cameras are everywhere now too (with the latter required by law in new cars, now).

But there's other stuff too, including LED head- and taillights, automatic high beams, rain-sensing windshield wipers, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, and lane keep assist.

All that is awesome, but there's one big thing that I really wished I'd had when I bought my car in New England (and then drove to Colorado) all those years ago: all-wheel drive.

My Mazda3 was perfect in almost every way with the exception of it being front-wheel drive only. For most people, having all-wheel drive is unnecessary almost all of the time. But for those briefest of moments when you really need it — you'll really wish you had it.

2020 Mazda Mazda3 HatchbackThe bulbous exterior of the Mazda3 isn't as pointed as its predecessor.Photo courtesy of Mazda North American Operations

But now the Mazda3 includes all-wheel drive and I even got to test it out back in March when, fortuitously, we got a few inches of late-season snow during my road test. On the deserted, unplowed streets in my neighborhood, I was able to put the Mazda3 AWD through its paces. I can confirm that it is all-wheel drive and it works as you'd expect. If you live somewhere that the weather isn't perfect year-round, or you just want a little added traction, it's worth consideration.

Now, lest you think that I have nothing to complain about, there is one thing that really annoyed me. Remember I mentioned how I would take my Mazda3 to Costco and fire calls? My 2011 version had a flat load rear floor. That is, when you opened the tailgate, the cargo floor was level with the rear bumper, making loading and unloading a snap. You could even sit in the rear cargo area and hang your legs out if you wanted to tailgate or just relax.

2020 Mazda Mazda3 HatchbackThe Mazda3 Hatchback's sunken infotainment screen riles up some critics, as does its small rear windscreen.Photo courtesy of Mazda North American Operations

But the 2020 version has a huge lip there, and not only does it make the cargo area less useful, it means that you really can't sit and hang your legs out the back. I don't know why Mazda's designers choose to do this, but it's not nearly as good as the old way.

Still, that's my only major quibble. If you're on the market for your first new car, it's hard to do better than the 2020 Mazda3 Hatchback.

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The CX-50 is surpsingly capable off-road.

Mazda

I have driven all of the Mazda vehicles that have been sold in the US market over the past three decades. On everyday roads and on racetracks. I’ve appreciated their “zoom-zoom”. Good power. Punchy torque just where it was needed. Well-balanced and sporty handling. A bit of growl for the versions that called for it. Plus, tasteful-but-modest styling and more or less elbow room, depending on the model. Mazda’s have been made for sports-car enthusiasts and to ferry families. But, I had never known a Mazda called an “overlander”. Until now.

2023 Mazda CX-50Towing capacity extends to 2,000 pounds.Mazda

The 2023 Mazda CX-50 moves this traction-sophisticated automaker into the lands where the pavement ends and now takes the brand ‘off-track’. Although it’s not a new thing for many of today’s carmakers to add a backcountry model or two to their lineup, it’s new for Mazda. I traveled to Santa Barbara, California to check out this all-new crossover built on Mazda’s seventh-generation small SUV platform that is shared with the smaller CX-30. This 5-passenger utility is longer, lower and wider than the CX-5 that rides on the previous generation’s underpinnings. The CX-50 has been crafted with a roomier second row and more cargo room for the goods and gear that weekend warriors and adventurers want to carry.

The CX-50 comes with a choice of two engines: a 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine with cylinder deactivation that gets 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque, and Mazda’s Skyactiv-G 2.5-liter turbo-charged powerplant with 256 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque; both shift through a six-speed automatic transmission. The sport ute can tow up to 2,000 lbs. with the naturally aspirated motor and up to 3,500 lbs. with the turbo-charged mill and Intelligent Drive Select (Mi-Drive) that brings a tow mode as well as Normal, Sport and Off-Road. The newest Mazda model has been made for North America only and is built in Alabama. It is the first Mazda vehicle with auto start/stop that can be deactivated.

2023 Mazda CX-50Mazda is a master of upscale interiors. Mazda

The new crossover starts at $26,800 and comes in S, S Select, S Preferred, S Preferred Plus, S Premium, and S Premium Plus with the base motor. Turb-charged versions come in Turbo, Turbo Premium, and Turbo Premium Plus that tops out at close to $42,000. A long list of technology and safety features are standard or available. Mazda says that Meridian, a fourth turbo trim will arrive soon with even more off-road cred; it will be set up with 18-inch black wheels AT, hood graphics and other backcountry goodies.

When you look at the CX-50, the first thing you’ll notice is exterior styling that speaks to its adventure-ready mission. Muscular bodywork, such as extra cladding, wide fender flairs and larger, more aggressive tires mean that this crossover has been designed not only to give a nod to the looks of a rugged crossover but to provide enhanced traction and a tad more suspension stretch for motoring over uneven terrain and along bumpy dirt roads. Planted on its haunches with functional air vents, it eschews minivan styling with a low and wide footprint that allows owners to have easy access to high-strength roof rails for loading gear on top; the roof has been made stronger than other Mazda crossovers to accommodate heavier loads, such as a roof-top tent. A panoramic moonroof- a first for Mazda- and attractive antiglare hood graphics and are tasteful additions.

The interior is attractive and roomy, with horizontal lines and “cleanable” surfaces as a nod to outdoor endeavors. Our Turbo Premium Plus model had bright orange reverse stitching that popped the cabin that has been crafted with uplevel trims and materials and brought heads-up display. A 7-inch infotainment screen is standard, while the top models get a 10.25-inch version. A wireless charging pad and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on all trims. Of note, is the rear power and programmable liftgate to the wide and deep rear cargo compartment, with a load floor that flush with the liftgate opening to help slide heavy items in and out of the back. An available line of cargo accessories makes stowage easier.

2023 Mazda CX-50The CX-50 is family roadtrip ready.Mazda

How did it handle over the 200-plus miles of our ride and drive? The Turbo Premium Plus CX-50 offers a lot like; many of its driving attributes are consistent with Mazda’s tuning and handling priorities across its product line. Traveling along coastal highways, carving mountainous twisties with tight turns and accelerating on flat and straight well-graded pavement, it has great Mazda manners: i.e., there is enough power and torque in the right bandwidth to move it well; precise steering with a slightly heavily-weighted leather-wrapped steering wheel and well-modulated brakes, especially with towing a 3,500-lb. load. We enjoyed using Sport mode for carving corners, as it brings elongated shifts from the six-speed automatic; a crisp response comes when sport shifting in “manual mode” and provides a quick throttle response.

We tried out the Off-Road mode on a course that included flat and uneven dirt roads, as well as hill climb and descent. Although there is no downhill descent control system, the brakes worked well, along with manual gearing. Of note, Mazda would be wide to add downhill descent engineering for steeper and slicker terrain. We were able to test the difference between Normal and Off-Road over a special section of the course with sandy corners and a winding track at a speed of 30 mph showing the improved traction in the Off-Road programming and the aid of Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control that brings a bit of magic to transfer torque to the wheels where it is needed to keep the intended track-think of it like an enhanced traction control program that helps with steering and yaw control.

2023 Mazda CX-50The CX-50 comes with off-road driving modes. Mazda

Other aids for off-road and backcountry travel are: the i-Activ All-Wheel Drive system that is standard equipment on all CX-50s, with a 50/50ish power transfer front to back; 8.6 inches of ground clearance; an 18-degree approach angle and a 24-degree departure angle; and an optional 360-degree camera system.

*EPA reports: base motor fuel economy 24 city/30 highway mpg, while the turbo option gets 23/29 mpg and can run on regular or premium fuel.

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New midsize sedan

Subaru announces refreshed 2023 Legacy

The new Legacy got a facelift and new lighting elements.

Subaru

Sedans are a dying breed as SUVs and pickup trucks take over, but there are still a few compelling options out there, and Subaru has one of them. The Legacy has been a long-time part of the Subaru lineup, and the all-wheel drive family sedan got a notable update for 2023.

2023 Subaru LegacyTop trims get luxury finishes inside.Subaru

Subaru offers the sedan in five trims: Base, Premium, Sport, Limited, and Touring XD. The automaker updated the Legacy with a facelift that brought a new front fascia, redesigned front bumper and new LED lighting. The car features a low dash and open cabin for great visibility in all directions, and the top Touring XT trim offers high-end accommodations, including Nappa leather and metal trim inside.

Every Legacy comes with the latest version of Subaru Starlink infotainment software. It runs on an 11.6-inch display and offers wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard equipment. Higher trim levels get the same display with navigation and a new-for-2023 what3words integration.

2023 Subaru LegacyThe Legacy goes on sale this fall.Subaru

The 2023 Legacy comes standard with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque. The top two trims come with a turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. Both engines come with a continuously variable transmission that offers an eight-speed manual shift mode.

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