A grey 2022 Mazda3 sedan is shown from the rear at night on a city street.

Is the 2022 Mazda3 a Luxury Car, or Just Another Nice Sedan?

In early 2022, Mazda officially announced that the brand intends to become a luxury brand. While this announcement surprised some drivers, Mazda has been nudging towards luxury market stardom since 2016, gradually including more and more top-shelf features in its lineup and fully embracing its reputation for providing a vehicle that drives like none other. So when the 2022 Mazda3 describes itself as a vehicle “for those who never stop refining,” should we take this as a serious foray into the luxury car market, or is this just a great advertising technique for a decent sedan?

Both sides have compelling evidence to substantiate their claims. Looking at the 8 different trim levels offered, there are definitely some features that can only be described as “luxurious.” However, a peek at the base trim reveals a budget-friendly vehicle with a somewhat mind-boggling array of provisions. And yet, each vehicle wearing the Mazda3 badge has been engineered to the hilt, with a stable, responsive, almost intuitive driving feel.

As Mazda’s UK managing director Jeremy Thomson stated in a now-famous interview with Autoweek, “The belief that the driver is at the heart of the car is more than a brand cliche: it really is something that is designed into Mazda products.” But where is the so-called “sweet spot” for drivers, budgets, and technology? Let’s use the Mazda3 to attempt to sort out this transitional period between the Mazda we know and the Mazda that is soon to be.

What Makes the Mazda3 a Mazda3?

As Shakespeare and many philosophers since his time have pondered, “What’s in a name?” After all, automotive manufacturers have been known to switch things up since the invention of the gasoline-powered motor. Today’s top-selling trim may become tomorrow’s new brand, as evidenced by the Chevy TrailBlazer or Trailblazer. It just takes some serious sales figures for a minor change to become the new standard in this ever-changing industry.

Consider also the current competitors of the Mazda3. Offered in both hatchback and sedan versions, the Mazda3 faces off against fan favorites like the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, and Kia Forte—all of which share Mazda’s Japanese roots. Most drivers, experts, and sales figures would concur that these are all exceptional vehicles. So how does the 2022 Mazda3 stand apart from the crowd?

Most drivers would point to the Mazda3’s engineering. Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control (GVC) technology is on board all trims in some format, providing drivers with stable contact with the road no matter how many twists and turns they encounter. The key is a mild braking force applied to the wheel at the inside of a turn. Also offered on many Mazda3 models is i-Activ all-wheel drive, which continuously gauges and supplies the right amount of torque to each wheel individually. The result is a vehicle that handles like nothing else in its class.

The interior of a 2022 Mazda3 is shown from behind the passenger seat looking forward.

Can the Mazda3 Keep Up With Luxury Competitors?

In his interview with Autoweek, Thomson further explained that Mazda is not attempting to compete with the German understanding of premium. That is to say, don’t expect Mazda to pull into the same lot that Mercedes and BMW currently occupy. He stated, “We do strongly feel that there is a place for a Japanese premium, and that means defining what we mean by Japanese premium, and that will take some time to deliver.”

Many experts have interpreted this to mean that Mazda is going to try to become the next Lexus, and that’s certainly an obvious comparison to make. As the luxury marquee for Toyota, Lexus certainly sets the standard for “Japanese Premium.” And over the past 10 years, the Mazda3 has drawn many comparisons to the Lexus IS300 and CT. But is it a worthwhile comparison?

The Mazda3 comes equipped with 3 potential engine options: a 2.0L inline-4, a 2.5L inline-4, and a 2.5L turbocharged inline-4. Mercifully, Mazda has had the foresight to include the engine in the name of most trims, so drivers are aware that the 2.0 Sedan includes the smaller engine while the 2.5 Turbo Premium Plus offers the most powerful engine. The 2.0L manages 155 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque, while the 2.5L Turbo has the potential for 250 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque when premium fuel is used.

The Lexus IS 300 also offers a 2.0L 4-cylinder engine, but their version produces 241 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque—around the same figures as the Mazda’s top engine. The all-wheel drive IS 300 models are equipped with a 3.5-liter V6 engine that offers 260 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. Furthermore, unless all-wheel drive is selected, the Lexus is a rear-wheel drive vehicle, while the Mazda is front-wheel drive.

However, we know from the rest of the lineup that the engine that currently powers the Mazda3 is probably a placeholder for things to come. Mazda’s elite engineers are very likely working on top-secret turbocharged options as part of the path to creating a new luxury brand identity. But it’s going to take some work—though the Mazda3 is arguably one of the most fun sedans to drive, that isn’t the only thing that makes a brand “luxurious.”

Exploring the Mazda3’s Features

Then comes the matter of whether the Mazda3 is equipped in the same manner as modern luxury cars. This is a strange age for designing cars because we have state-of-the-art technology at our disposal but a shortage of the bits and pieces that make putting this technology in a car possible. The past several years have been incredibly frustrating for auto manufacturers all around the world. Therefore, it is possible that comparing the base Mazda3 trim to the top trim isn’t entirely fair. There may be some concessions and compromises made in the offerings that the general public is not privy to. That would certainly explain some of the strange inconsistencies noted.

For example, the base 2.0 Sedan trim comes equipped with an 8.8-inch infotainment display that offers voice command, integration with services like Pandora and HD Radio, as well as text message services. But you’ve got to bump up a trim level or two before you get to enjoy things like smartphone integration. Also, there’s no touchscreen. Mazda prefers the rotary dial, and while many drivers would agree with this preference, the automotive industry has been a huge proponent of touchscreen everything over the past few years.

Still, each Mazda3 comes equipped with a breathtaking standard array of safety and driver assistance technology, including headrests that are designed to reduce the impact of whiplash, Smart Brake Support, Lane Departure Warning with Lane Keep Assist, Radar Cruise Control with Stop & Go, Driver Attention Alert, and more. Very few vehicles include standard automatic cruise control across the lineup.

The top 2.5 Turbo Premium Plus trim also adds to the base offerings in a big way, with features like Blind Spot Monitoring, an Adaptive Front-Lighting System, Traffic Sign Recognition, a 360-degree View Monitor, and Traffic Jam Assist. When paired with Premium Plus features, such as a leather-wrapped heated steering wheel, premium leather upholstery, and power-adjustable seats with power-adjustable lumbar support, it’s very clear that this is a luxury vehicle.

The interior of a 2022 Mazda3 is shown from the passenger door opening.

The Evolution of Luxury Status

Perhaps it’s too early to try to shoehorn the Mazda3 into a luxury or non-luxury role. After all, it’s not uncommon for vehicle manufacturers to offer a “budget” or “fleet” version of a car alongside a super-luxurious model. And with 8 trim levels to select from, it’s obvious that Mazda has carefully considered what is included with each option to create an ideal driving experience for a full range of drivers.

Still, it may seem that the Mazda3 is going through a little bit of an identity crisis as it transforms from a budget-friendly sedan to a luxury butterfly. There is no doubt that the Mazda3 is a graceful machine that embodies the concept of drivability. At the same time, luxury brands rarely have a “budget-friendly” version of their vehicles.

As Mazda works to find its new luxury niche, we may notice plenty of changes from the manufacturer. However, one thing that all drivers wish and pray for is that the supreme handling and absolutely enjoyable drivability of the Mazda3 will never change… unless it’s to become even more amazing.