The 1976 Volkswagen Golf Mk1 may hold the title of being the first “hot hatch,” but the hatchback concept dates back even further. In 1938, Citroen released the Traction Avant 11CV, the first front-wheel-drive, unibody construction vehicle to feature a rear hatchback opening. Fast forward to the present, and hatchbacks are still seen as a satisfying compromise of affordability, practicality, and fun.
Every major manufacturer in the United States offers a hatchback in their vehicle lineup. But, while hatchbacks are plentiful, few are worthy of a flame emoji. Yet, the 2023 Mazda3 hatchback plays the role of the family hatchback with the look of a sporty hot hatch without needing a premium trim package or nostalgia clickbait badging.
The Modern Mazda3 Hatchback
U.S. News recently released their top picks for the best 16 hatchbacks on the market today. The Mazda3 ranked high on the list, coming in at second place just under another popular Japanese OEM scoring an 8.6 out of 10. After spending a week driving a 2023 Mazda3 Hatchback Turbo with AWD and Premium Plus trim level, I can understand why it ranked so well. This car is as practical as it is stylish and comfortable.
It no longer boasts the ‘Zoom-Zoom’ attitude of its predecessors. Instead, it has matured into a hot hatch that puts comfort before g-force.
Moreover, this 250-hp tuned hatchback is a well-performing compact car without the little rascal persona commonly associated with hot hatches. Instead, it’s a hot hatch for people with mild palates offering just enough spice to be tasty without being overwhelming. The 2023 Mazda3 hatchback is not loud, obnoxious, or radically styled. But it is quick and comfortable maintaining speeds beyond the state’s enforced limit. It no longer boasts the ‘Zoom-Zoom’ attitude of its predecessors. Instead, it has matured into a hot hatch that puts comfort before g-force.
Mazda press releases love to remind us that they have studied the human body’s movement to better tailor the ergonomics of their vehicle interiors. As a result, the styling of the interior feels like a room that’s been remodeled by a home makeover TV show.
The dashboard looks organized and you can touch the quality. Unfortunately, some interiors have a habit of the feeling of plastic office space furnishing with components that rattle and squeak if you pick at it with a firm hand. That is not so in the Mazda3, especially with the Premium trim level with an optional red leather interior (shown here). As a result, the 2023 Mazda3 Hatchback’s interior feels more upscale than vehicles with double its MSRP.
My only major criticism of the Mazda3’s interior applies to many car manufacturers: the Piano Black trim. It’s a terrible material for car interiors because it’s fragile to human contact. It magnifies fingertips like a CSI investigator and looks like a cat’s scratch post before the new car smell wears off. The model shown here had less than 4,000 miles, and the Piano Black trim was already littered with scratch marks caused by fingernails, phone cases, keys, and dropped miscellaneous objects.
While beautiful, the 2023 Mazda3’s exterior styling appears more serious than past generations’ bug-eyed, grinning models. Formal sharp lines contrast with smooth paved curves, creating a contemporary design that makes the Mazda3 appear confident. Like Napoleon, the Mazda3 Turbo Hatchback stands tall but looks smaller in person.
Nevertheless, this car, particularly in Snowflake White metallic as shown here, sporting 18-inch black alloy wheels, offers a design that’s not trying to attract or avoid attention. Likewise, it’s not trying to provoke, persuade, or offend. It’s just a clean design with the right amount of definition to stand out. The only clue that this hatchback can bring the heat is a gloss black front and rear lip spoiler.
Over 600 Mile Road Test
A 640-mile one-day road trip was the ideal challenge to test the 2023 Mazda3 Hatchback’s interior ride comfort. The drive started at 5:00 am for a five-hour journey northbound on the I-35 concrete super slab across the great state of Texas. Standard radar cruise control, with Traffic Jam Assist, was a welcomed driver aid during the early morning caffeine-fueled rush hour.
Standard radar cruise control, with Traffic Jam Assist, was a welcomed driver aid during the early morning caffeine-fueled rush hour.
For the return trip, I stayed off major interstates to see the small rural towns strung together by two-lane highways that hug the Texas Hill Country. My eyes and mind felt the strain throughout the 16 hours on the road, but my knees and spine did not. I was mentally exhausted when I arrived home, but my body felt relaxed after lounging in the driver’s seat all day.
Manual Still an Option in 2023
You can still buy a Mazda3 with a manual transmission in 2023, but this option is limited to FWD models. In addition to offering the Mazda3 sedan variant, which I tested in 2021, there are seven trim levels. The pecking order begins with the Mazda3 S with a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine producing 191 horsepower and a $23k starting price.
The model shown in this article sits at the other end of the spectrum, the Mazda3 Turbo Premium Plus with all the bells and blow-off valve whistles of a 250 hp, 320 lb.-ft of torque turbocharged 2.5-liter engine. But, of course, more power means more money, as the Turbo Premium Plus starts at $35k. The model shown has an MSRP of $36,895, including delivery and processing fees.
Nitpicking the 2023 Mazda3 Hatchback
The gloss black finish on the front lip spoiler is a bullseye for paint ruining road debris and high-standing curbs. Moreover, I averaged 25 mpg during my weeklong road test in the 2023 Mazda3 Hatchback Turbo Premium Plus. Frankly, I expected better fuel economy from a compact car with a turbocharged four-banger. In addition, if you want the full 250 HP, you’ll need to maintain the Mazda3 on a steady diet of premium fuel. That wouldn’t be so bad if the Mazda3 Hatchback behaved like it was flexing 250 stampeding horses, but it doesn’t.
It has all the ingredients to be a spicy hot hatch but ends up being mild at most.
The car, while immensely comfortable with ample room to fit a start-up family or a college dorm room worth of furniture, doesn’t handle or sound like a sporty hatchback. It has all the ingredients to be a spicy hot hatch but ends up being mild at most. That does not matter if you want a stylish contemporary alternative to a crossover SUV. But if you’re the type who wants a hatchback that ignites the soul with passion when you step on the loud pedal, you may be disappointed.
Going flat out in the Mazda3 Hatchback means being greeted with a faint, artificial-sounding burble from the engine while the speedometer needle sprints around the dial. It’s a reasonably fast car, but you get the sense it’s not living up to its full potential. Maybe a skilled tuner can work some wizardry with the ECU to wake up the drowsy beast under the hood. Cornering is another area where I felt the Mazda3 failed to meet the brand’s reputation.
The G-Vectoring Control system provides a better steering feel than most vehicles in this class. But the Mazda3 feels doughy in the turns. It doesn’t feel like it wants to cut the apex or lift the rear outside wheel off the ground in a mad fury of turbo-spooled fun, and I blame the AWD system. I suspect a base model 2023 Mazda3 with a manual and FWD would feel alive compared to this posh, safe, premium variant.
Long Live the Hatchback
It appears that the mid-2020s will be an era of dead muscle cars, ignored hybrids, bloated pickup trucks, and the continuous onslaught of crossover SUVs. The hot hatchback must survive and endure all this without losing its identity (and size). Fear of this can be seen in the new Acura Integra and Honda Civic Si, which have forsaken their elegant compact shape to look more like four-door sedans with rear windows attached to the trunk lid.
Besides being comfortable and offering premium aesthetics, the best thing about the 2023 Mazda3 Hatchback is that it still looks like a hot hatch.