Some auto trims seem inevitable. Ford Mustang and Mustang GT500. Dodge Challenger and Challenger Hellcat. Chevy Corvette and Corvette ZR1. Mazda3 and Mazda3 hot hatch. Yet we have been denied the latter since 2013.Rejoice, motorheads, the 3 hot hatch is back. Albeit in stealth mode.Badged the 2021 Mazda3 Turbo, this glorious athlete is the answer to many a motorhead’s (this one included) prayers. I spent three days with 3 Turbo over three states, 800 miles and a small West Virginia test track, and it was worth the wait. Pound for dollar, this all-wheel drive hellion is one the best cars in the auto kingdom.
It is based on the most-handsome compact hatchback made — the Mazda3 — which dropped jaws at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show. The well-dressed 3 cried out for a performance model. Two years later, here it is — but you’ll have to look hard for it.Unlike its peers, the Turbo is virtually indistinguishable from the standard 3 — no wings, no flashy badges, no fancy wheels.
The Mazda3 Turbo couldn’t be more timely. As sedans have fallen to SUVs, so too have pocket rockets. The Ford Fiesta ST, Ford Focus ST and Hyundai Elantra GT have all been shelved in recent years. Which is a shame, because performance versions of these small cars offer the perfect combination of affordability, cargo utility and performance. Their close kin, the Honda Civic Si coupe and Subaru WRX STI sedan, are plenty sporty — but lack that unique hatchback ingredient.
The remaining players are an enticing group of misfit Christmas toys — the three-door Hyundai Veloster, the outrageously winged Honda Civic Type R, the pricey Mini Cooper John Cooper S. The exception is the VW Golf GTI.The Golf GTI not only invented the segment waaay back in 1984, it is the gold standard. And now it has an equal. It’s Federer vs. Nadal. Frazier vs. Ali. Magic vs. Bird.
The Turbo vs. GTI has the potential of a great rivalry. They are similarly understated, yet offer meaningful differences.It’s the Turbo’s ferocious-yet-civilized performance that makes it the GTI’s peer. It achieves this by stuffing its engine bay with the same turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-4 found in the Mazda 6. It’s a gem. Spitting out 250 horsepower (with 93-octane fuel — 228 on regular gas) and 320 pound-feet of torque, the turbo-4 is a match for the VW’s 228-horse (on 93 fuel) 285-torque turbo-4. The two even sound the same with low, pitbull growls.
Alas, unlike GTI, you can’t row the Mazda3 with a manual gearbox.Not that Mazda doesn’t produce superb manuals — see the Miata and the standard Mazda3 — but Mazda has convinced itself that, like the mid-engine Corvette, its customer wants auto-sophistication over manual fun. Whatever. Mazda’s auto-6 is one of the best in the business.Mash the throttle anywhere and it will downshift seamlessly, quickly. On a closed test track in West Virginia, I wrung the Mazda’s neck in both automatic and manual-paddle shifter modes. So intuitive was the auto tranny that I didn’t have a preference.
It’s targeted at a broader, more upscale audience (think AWD Audi buyers), yet maintains the extraordinary value of a mainstream compact (think AWD Subaru buyers). The 3 comes with Mazda’s typically best-in-class standard features: heated seats, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, blind-spot assist, automatic headlights, automatic windshield wipers, adaptive cruise-control and a partridge in a pear tree.
The VW won’t bother to include these amenities until you opt for a $37,115 Autobahn trim. Oof. Just to rub it in, my $34,820 Turbo tester included a Premium Plus package with red leather sets, sunroof and autonomous feature called Traffic Jam Assist.