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 CX-5's styling is sharp and clean.

Mazda

Crossovers have clearly become the family vehicle of choice. Minivans and large sedans are far less common than they used to be as buyers opt for the relative plushness and more generous space offered by utility vehicles. That's not a bad thing, but many people will find the increasing levels of sameness in the crossover market to be off-putting.

Thankfully, Mazda is here to help keep things interesting. Its CX-5 takes a different approach than its rivals. Where vehicles like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V focus on comfort and efficiency over almost everything else, Mazda managed to jam in loads of vehicle feedback and engagement. Behind the wheel, the crossover feels and sounds much more alive and responsive than its competition. Jumping out of a larger vehicle and into the CX-5 felt like a shock at first, as the Mazda's steering wheel delivers real, actual feedback and transmits a picture of what's going on underneath the vehicle, which is something not often seen outside of expensive performance vehicles.


2021 Mazda CX-5 The CX-5's cabin is more upscale than its rivals. Mazda


Engaging Powertrains

The CX-5's base four-cylinder engine is fine, but the turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is where things start to get interesting. It bumps the standard mill's 187 horsepower to 250 and gives off a pleasing turbo whine under heavy throttle. It pairs almost perfectly with the six-speed automatic transmission and delivers surprising power and torque. My test vehicle's all-wheel drive gave the CX-5 a surefooted feel, and from experience I can say that it's worth the added cost if you live anywhere with legitimate winter weather.

There are a few tradeoffs that come along with the CX-5's level of driver engagement, largely related to interior space and noise levels. While the Mazda's cabin is comfortable and is in no way low-rent, a great deal of wind, road, and drivetrain noise make their way into the vehicle at all times. You could argue that this is just another expression of the CX-5's connection with its driver, and you'd be right in some cases. At many times, however, such as when taking the kids to school or just running to the grocery store, it gets tiresome. Your five-year-old won't care about how good the steering feel is when they have to keep asking you to crank up the volume on their podcast story. The noise level is most noticeable around town with the constant stop and go of traffic.

The other main drawback with the CX-5, at least for families (like mine) that don't travel lightly, is interior space. Thanks to its curves and beautifully sloped roof, the Mazda's cargo hold is not as spacious as some of its rivals, such as the Volkswagen Tiguan, Honda CR-V, or Toyota RAV4. That dramatic shape also makes the rear seat feel tighter than it reads on paper, but thanks to a friendly ride height and large rear door openings, parents will have no issues with loading kids in car seats.


2021 Mazda CX-5 A sloping roofline can make rear-seat headroom challenging for taller people.Mazda


Great Tech and Safety

Mazda bumped the CX-5's infotainment screen size from 7.0 to 10.3 inches across the board for 2021, but there's no touchscreen here. Instead, the system is controlled using a rotary dial and volume know that are mounted behind the gear shifter in the center console. It's a responsive and fairly straightforward process to use and control the system, but scrolling through long menus or trying to wade through several options using the rotary controller becomes tiresome and distracting at times.

The 2021 Mazda CX-5 was named a Top Safety Pick + by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). That award is due in part to the crossover's excellent performance in crash tests, but also comes thanks to its long list of standard advanced driver aids. All models get a rearview camera, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alerts, lane departure warnings with lane keeping assist, adaptive cruise control with stop and go, a smart brake support system, and high beam control. My top trim tester also got a driver attention alert system, front and rear parking sensors, and a 360-degree monitor.

It's hard to ignore the quality, value, and fun that the CX-5 brings to the table, even considering how good its competitors have gotten. With a price tag that maxes out under $40,000, the Mazda's driving experience and plush interior should put it at the top of shoppers' lists. Its few drawbacks don't spoil the overall package, and only really present a problem for families of four or more – like mine. Those people, myself included, should be shopping for a slightly larger vehicle, anyway, and for them, there's the Mazda CX-9.


2021 Mazda CX-5 The CX-5 is one of the most fun-to-drive crossovers on sale today.Mazda

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The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder arrives on dealer lots this summer.

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder doesn't have to be capable of rock crawling or deep water fording. What it has to do is service the needs of families in their daily life and give them the opportunity to competently go off-roading on rocky trails should they desire. The new, fifth-generation models does just that and adds in enough nifty features to make it among the most compelling choices for three-row SUV buyers.

The 2022 Pathfinder is thoroughly modern though not the boxy off-roader it once was. The SUV's styling harkens back to that time with a tilted, darkened C-pillar and a return to a more muscular body style. That styling makes straightforward visibility good but for shorter drivers seeing what is immediately in front of the grille is a challenge that necessitates using surround view camera technology (available only in upper trim levels) when navigating challenging terrain.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder The Pathfinder can easily handle the roads less traveled.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Under the hood is a 3.5-liter V6 that offers up 291 horsepower and torque - plenty to do the job without complaint. The SUV's nine-speed automatic transmission replaces the continuously variable transmission (CVT) from the previous generation and delivers smooth shifts. Though low-end torque isn't as robust as I like it to be, once up over 35 mph, the Pathfinder's powertrain delivers smooth, powerful sailing.

The redesigned architecture and components underpinning the Pathfinder make it stable on the road and don't allow it to wallow on winding roads. Even off-road, the suspension provides the right blend of stability while the drive dynamics allowing the driver to feel engaged with their surroundings whether on freshly paved roads, city streets, or muddy trails.

Nissan has given the Pathfinder a 6,000-pound towing capacity and even when maxed out the engine's functionality is strong as ever. The transmission can get held up in a gear mid-range when performing this function, however, with 5,000-6,000 rpms registering on the tachometer but a quick release of the gas pedal recalibrates the offering bringing it down to a more traditional 2,000 rpm range.

The eight-seater Pathfinder clearly has the Toyota Highlander in its sights, with good reason. It's the top-selling three-row SUV in the country. Nissan boasts that three adults can fit across the rear bench seat of the Pathfinder and, as long as they're average size or smaller, the marketing talking point holds up. There is gobs more room back there than there is in the Highlander.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder Nissan has given the Pathfinder ample cargo space.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Getting in and out of the third row is easy thanks to one-touch buttons on the outboard side of the second-row chairs that move the SUV's captain's seats forward creating enough room to get through to the back. Smartly, Nissan's engineers have put duplicates of these buttons on the back side of the same seats allowing third-row passengers to simply press the button to move the seat up.

The third row can also be accessed via a split between the captain's chairs as well, a space traditionally occupied by a center stowage bin/cup holders/arm rest. Owners can quickly remove the center console by opening a panel on the front and pulling the release mechanism. The one-handed operation takes seconds and the console can be easily stored in the under-floor trunk space behind the third row seat for ease.

Speaking of cargo space... The Pathfinder is one of the most spacious midsize SUVs on the market today for both passengers and cargo. There is a substantial amount of room behind the third-row seat and the under-floor storage area is nearly twice the size of the one in the Highlander. Plus, it has a feature that allows the area cover to be automatically propped up when pushed up by a user. This is especially help when carrying groceries or plants home and keeps them from being crushed.

The first- and second-row seats are suitably comfortable, even for extended periods of time and standard trig-zone climate control makes finding the right in-cabin mix easy. Bottle holders in the pockets of the front doors are exceptionally large, fitting even bulky water bottles.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder The Pathfinder's front row seats are comfortable.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

In front of the driver is a standard tachometer, speedometer, and 7.0-inch driver information display. Buyers can upgrade to a fully digital 12.3-inch instrument cluster and head-up display but they're not reason enough to upgrade to the top-tier Pathfinder Platinum on their own.

Nissan packs the new Pathfinder with a host of desirable features that make living with the Pathfinder easier including one-touch auto up/down windows, a wireless phone charger, grocery hooks in the rear cargo area, USB ports in all three rows, second-row sunshades, rear door keyless entry, wireless Apple CarPlay, and a motion-activated lift gate.

The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder is priced to start at $33,410 for the two-wheel drive S base model and $35,310 for the four-wheel drive S base model. The model tops out around $50,000 with destination and delivery included, which seems fair when comparing the Pathfinder to other vehicles in the market.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder The Pathfinder can tow up to 6,000 pounds.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

If you're thinking of purchasing a Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, Honda Pilot, or Highlander, do yourself a favor and schedule a test drive of the new Pathfinder when it arrives at a dealer lot near you. You may just be surprised how seamlessly it fits into your daily life compared to the competition.

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