By Shari Prymak

The practice of taking a powerful engine and stuffing it into the smallest car in the lineup is one that has been around for many decades. Once common among American muscle cars and European performance cars, Mazda has now done the same with its Mazda3 sedan and hatchback. The result is a small car packing a performance punch well above its weight class, but this is no boy-racer hot-hatch. Instead, the Mazda3 Turbo is designed for a more mature audience who value the more sensible qualities of comfort and modest luxury to go along with their performance.

Mazda would like you to think of the Turbo as a value-packed alternative to small entry-level luxury cars such as the Audi A3, Mercedes A-Class, or Acura ILX. From an aesthetic point of view, it’s not hard to see where they are coming from. The Mazda3 looks and feels like a premium product with a handsomely-shaped exterior and an upscale interior filled with top-quality materials. The surfaces and controls would look and feel right at home in a proper luxury brand. The only notable misses being gloss black centre console trim, which is prone to scratches and marks, and a fiddly infotainment system which makes changing radio stations a bit of a pain.

The engine is the same turbocharged 2.5L 4-cylinder found under the hood of the CX-9 and Signature versions of the Mazda6 and CX-5. It produces 250 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque on premium fuel, but can run on regular with slightly lower numbers. That’s far more power than you get with a comparable small luxury car, or even performance oriented models such as the Volkswagen Jetta GLI or Golf GTI. Despite the available, power, the Mazda3 feels mostly calm and collected thanks to a smooth-shifting 6-speed automatic transmission. An available Sport mode, however, does sharpen the shifts, giving the Turbo some serious punch for passing maneuvers. The only letdown is disappointing fuel economy and a smallish gas tank which means you’ll be lucky to squeeze 400km out of a fill.

At least the Turbo has no problem putting the power down thanks to a surefooted all-wheel drive system which comes standard on this model. In typical Mazda fashion, the handling has a sporty crispness to it with excellent balance and cornering feel. The ride quality, however, is a tad on the firm side and broken pavement can certainly be felt in a way that higher end cars are often able to mask. As a whole, despite its sporty edge, the driving experience feels far more refined and mature than performance sedans or hot hatchbacks of a similar price point.

The Turbo engine is an option on the Mazda3 GT AWD with an MSRP of $32,900 in sedan form and $33,900 for the Sport hatchback. The lengthy features list includes luxuries such as 10-way power-adjustable heated leather seats with memory settings, a 12-speaker Bose sound system with brushed metal speaker grills, and several active safety features including traffic sign recognition and adaptive front lighting. A $1,700 Premium Package adds a full-colour heads up display, 360 degree surround view camera, traffic jam assist, rear smart emergency braking, front and rear parking sensors, and a few other nice extras.

Mazda has been slowly repositioning itself as a more upmarket brand and the Mazda3 Turbo is certainly a great example of that. It offers the upscale feel, features, and performance of an entry-level luxury car, but at a far more attractive price point. It might not have the fancy badge on the hood, but it has the substance, and that’s ultimately what matters to most buyers. If you’re looking for a budget luxury ride or just a more mature, comfortable alternative to a hot hatch, the Mazda3 Turbo is the perfect compromise.