2021 Mazda3 Turbo AWD Premium Plus: A sweet spot for the little Mazda?

Price: $34,825 as tested. Stainless rear bumper guard added $125; Premium Plus Package added parking and traffic jam assists, black rear spoiler and more for free.

Conventional wisdom: Car and Driver likes that it has a “beautiful interior” and is “really quick, excellent value,” but not that the “transmission takes its time, as playful as a 14-year-old basset hound, those optional BBS wheels cost what?”

Marketer’s pitch: “For searchers, seekers, and true believers.”

Reality: Definitely getting there.

What’s new: Many vehicles require some real thinking when it’s time to write a review. The changes can be subtle, and trying to parse what’s new can be a challenge in a week-to-week test environment.

So when something jumps out as much as the 2021 Mazda3 Turbo AWD, it makes for a better test week — note that the turbo and the AWD are brand new for the little sedan/hatchback line.

» READ MORE: 2019 Mazda CX-9 provides sportiness in three rows

Up to speed: Well, yeehaw! I’ve been waiting for a Mazda to excite me again — well, besides with the Miata — and now it’s here. The 2.5-liter turbo four creates 250 horsepower and rockets the little car to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds, according to Motor Trend.

On the curves: The all-wheel drive adds to the zip. The Mazda3 has been an OK little car, but it just hadn’t been keeping up with the times — so many models have surpassed it for zigging road fun, even the Corolla XSE, when equipped with the right tires.

Now, the 2021 Mazda3 Turbo AWD makes for a great ride when the road starts to sway and roll over Pennsylvania’s Piedmont region, between Philly and Harrisburg.

On the road: Bumps and road seams are transmitted thoroughly to the occupants, though. A short jaunt on the Pennsylvania Turnpike made me increase my speed just so I could spend less time in the worn-out right lane.

Tough sneakers: I found my share of craters during the Mazda3 test week, but the tires on the test model stayed inflated, a reassuring feeling. Sporty cars usually mean easily popped tires.

Shifty: A step back in times — we’re still here in six-speed automatic territory. The lack of power in second and third have been the Mazda3′s big downfall even going back to its four-speeds, but the turbo has more than enough oomph at the low end to keep up. Shifting is smooth, through paddles or shifter.

Driver’s Seat: A pretty rough place. I didn’t mind it at first, but after two days of trips to Philadelphia and King of Prussia, I found it pretty uncomfortable, despite the leather seating being part of the Premium Plus Package, a free upgrade.

The gauges are clear and easy to read, with speedometer and tachometer big and visible. And a temperature gauge is finally back. The other information — fuel economy, trip info — is spartan compared with most cars.

Friends and stuff: Sturgis Kid 4.0 reports that the rear seat head room is pretty bad. Legroom and foot room are fairly generous.

The middle seat, though, perches above the others; the hump is tall, and the console long.

Cargo space is 20.1 cubic feet behind the rear seat, and no mention is made of the space with the seat down.

Play some tunes: Mazda sticks with the dial-and-button setup. It works fairly well, until you’re in a mood to fish around for songs. The 8.8-inch display is short and wide but still generous.

Sound from the Bose Premium system is pretty good, an A-.

Keeping warm and cool: A small display reports on temperature and other settings; dials control the temperature and buttons control everything else.

Awkwardly shaped vents on the driver’s side and wide rectangles on the passenger side impede directional control. And the system struggled to keep up in a week of 90-plus temperatures. Both my Mazdas — from the mid-oughts — heated and cooled in less-than-stellar fashion.

Steady, mate: Uneven cruise control also came standard on the long-gone Sturgis Family Protege5 and MPV, and small hints reverberate in the Mazda3. The adaptive cruise wobbled in a 5 mph range around the set number, more variable than in most cars I test.

Fuel economy: I averaged about 28 mpg in the usual Mr. Driver’s Seat driving Olympics-style sprints. But this time around I also put about 60 miles on the car driving like a normal person, and I want to report that that is very difficult. And also boring. But it does push the fuel economy into a solid 30.

Where it’s built: Hofu, Japan.

How it’s built: Consumer Reports predicts the Mazda3 reliability to be a four out of five.

In the end: There’s a lot to love about the Mazda3 Turbo AWD, and Mazdas keep getting great ratings. But I was never so enamored of our Mazda experience that I’d buy another one. The Mazda3 remains a rough ride despite its fun side.

For an AWD alternative, I’d explore an Impreza. In fact, for just a little more money than this 3, the Subaru Outback Wilderness is about as fun and plenty more versatile.