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 Hatchback The 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 Hatchback The 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 Hatchback The 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 Hatchback The 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 Passport was lightly modified for competition.

Honda

Honda recently announced a line of off-road-oriented trims and packages for its vehicles. Called TrailSport, the trim brings rugged appearance upgrades to the Honda Passport and will eventually offer more performance upgrades for other vehicles in the automaker's catalog. To further prove its mettle in the off-road space, Honda built a 2022 Passport rally truck to compete in the American Rally Association race series. The truck debuted over the weekend in Michigan and had a reasonably successful run for its first time out.

2022 Honda Passport Two Honda engineers handled driving duties.Honda

Importantly, the Passport's drivetrain and suspension were left untouched for the rally. The 3.5-liter i-VTEC V6, nine-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive, and suspension in the rally vehicle are the same components that you or I would see if we bought a new Passport today. Honda did add a transmission fluid cooler, but even then, it's the unit that everyday buyers can get with the available towing package. The SUV's interior was stripped and modified for safety and performance.

2022 Honda Passport Honda is pushing deeper into the off-road with its TrailSport trims.Honda

Honda did upgrade the Passport's wheels and tires for the event by fitting 17-inch BRAID Winrace T rally wheels and Maxxis RAZR M/T or A/T tires. The automaker also made modifications to the SUV's underside with custom 1/8-inch thick aluminum oil pan and rear differential skid plates. High-density panels protect the fuel tank and other sensitive components, while Carbontech XP12 brake pads and high-temp racing brake fluid slow things down.

2022 Honda Passport The Passport's interior had to be stripped and modified for the event.Honda

The ARA National and Regional Championship Series events feature modified street vehicles that travel at speeds well in excess of 100 mph. The courses include gravel, dirt, mud, and snow, and cover hundreds of miles. The Honda Passport rally vehicle was first driven by two Honda engineers and ran in the top ten out of 42 teams. Honda says that a tire de-bead eventually slowed the team, leading to a delayed finish.

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The Santa Fe Hybrid offers plenty to like.

Hyundai

The 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid is all-new for 2021, and features an impressive list of standard features, great safety scores, and family-friendly space. If you're looking for a new SUV, it's hard to imagine a better fit for an urban family, or any other family, for that matter. Beyond a few small complaints, the Santa Fe Hybrid offers plenty to like.

Here are three things to like about the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe.

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid The Santa Fe Hybrid brings great passenger space and an upscale interior.Hyundai

It offers plenty of passenger and cargo space

The Santa Fe offers roomy seating for up to five adults with more than reasonable head and legroom in both rows. Second-row passengers have room to move, and don't end up jockeying for position with taller front-seat passengers. When the SUV is packed with people and needs to haul gear, it's more than capable of doing that, too, as it offers 36.4 cubic feet of space behind the second row and up to 72.1 cubic feet with the second-row seats folded down. Making the space more accessible, power-folding second-row seats and a hands-free power liftgate are standard.

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid All trims come decked out with safety equipment.Hyundai

It delivers excellent fuel economy

The Santa Fe Hybrid returns impressive fuel economy numbers, especially in town, making it an excellent urban family runabout. The EPA estimates that the SUV can deliver 33 mpg in the city, 30 mpg on the highway, and 32 mpg combined. The Santa Fe Hybrid Blue returns 36 mpg in the city, 31 mpg on the highway, and 34 mpg combined. That's several miles per gallon better than the standard Santa Fe and better than some sedans.

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid Fuel economy is better than many smaller cars.Hyundai

It earned great safety scores

The 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe earned a Top Safety Pick award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). That score is due in part to the Santa Fe's Good marks in crash tests, but the SUV's long list of standard safety kit helps, too. All models come with forward collision-avoidance assist with pedestrian, cyclist, and junction turning detection, lane keeping assist, driver attention warnings, lane following assist, and a rear occupant alert system. Optional features include blind spot collision-avoidance assist, rear cross-traffic collision-avoidance assist, a parking distance warning system, and a highway driving assist system.

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