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A grey 2021 Mazda CX-5 is shown outside a house at night.

Here’s Why Mazda Is the Most Underrated Performance Automaker on the Planet

Venture down to your local used Mazda dealership and you might be surprised at how many performance-oriented crossovers and sedans appear in the lineup. Better yet, let the experts set the stage. For six years running, Car and Driver has given the CX-5 crossover a perfect 10/10 rating. MotorTrend calls the MX-5 Miata ragtop “the perfect roadster” and reports that the family-friendly three-row CX-9 “felt quick off the line.”

With all these accolades, true driving aficionados would be remiss to skip over the Mazda lineup in their hunt for affordable used performance vehicles. Unlike other manufacturers that favor practical vanilla crossovers, Mazda doesn’t omit driver-centric ride handling from its utility vehicles. In fact, the opposite is true, which is why models like the CX-5 sit atop many Best-Of lists—and have for years.

Mazda gets it right with performance, but not at the expense of safety and fuel efficiency. Buyers can confidently shop the Mazda lineup without spending much time comparing specs against the competition. Whether it’s a Mazda3 sedan or a spritely Miata, Mazda’s vehicles rank near or at the top of the list in their respective categories. Here’s everything you probably don’t know about Mazda’s commitment to performance.

The CX-5 Lives Up to the 10/10 Hype

Pick a year, any year, and the compact CX-5 wins over its many competitors on just about every score. First is styling; you won’t find a more expressive compact ute in any other lineup. Curb appeal comes from the CX-5’s unique sloped hood and angular side panels. For 2019, Mazda upped the ante, adding a top-of-the-line Signature trim with elegant cabin appointments and real wood accenting—all at a reasonable price. Affordable luxury is no longer an oxymoron, thanks to the engineers at Mazda.

What’s most exciting about the CX-5 is hidden under its artfully sculpted hood. Beginning in 2019, buyers could select an optional turbocharged engine, a 2.5-L powerhouse that makes 250 ponies and catapults from zero to sixty in just over six seconds. The high gear torque spread favors top-end speed, with Car and Driver clocking acceleration from 50 to 70 mph at a scant 4.6 seconds. 2019 also saw the addition of a 2.2-L diesel four-cylinder that delivers a hefty 290 lb-ft of torque.

Most reviewers agree that the CX-5 is set up for pure driving enjoyment. A common theme centers around handling, with many delighted automotive journalists reporting a ride quality that’s on par with what you’d expect from a six-figure performance SUV. Mazda’s G-vectoring Control Plus system, branded SKYACTIV, optimizes load control to reduce resistance (vs. beefing up output or relying on the driver to react) as the vehicle enters a turn, automatically reducing torque and pushing power to the front wheels. As the driver exits the turn, it shifts back, sending power to the rear wheels for even more stability.

To simplify, Mazda explains it with a little Japanese philosophy: Jimba Ittai, which translates to “horse and rider as one.” The idea is to achieve a seamless “oneness” between driver and machine, relying on technology to intuit your next move before you make it. This is why Car and Driver reports that the CX-5 “comes alive on curvy roads.” Driver-centric technology that you can’t see is at play, and it optimizes every system—from engine output to suspension dampening, and even sound attenuation for a quieter cabin environment.

A red 2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata is shown driving down a tree-lined road.

30 Years of Miata Spirit Lives On

You may not want a two-door ragtop, but it’s a safe bet that you’ve admired the adorable Miata at some point over its three-decade run. The MX-5 Miata represents Mazda’s playful side. First launched in 1989 when shoulder pads were in and no one knew what a text message was, the Miata has stood the test of time over its four-generation production run.

A few constants remain across the entire model year span. First, all Miatas come in rear-wheel drive mid-engine configurations. The Miata is a two-seater roadster that triggers joy, even among hardened automotive journalists like Jeremy Clarkson. Clarkson, a British automotive critic, called the Miata “perfect,” stating that he only gave it a five-star rating because “I can’t give it fourteen.”

The fourth-generation MX-5 Miata launched in 2015 and received a refresh for the 2019 model year. Since then, buyers will find a 181-horsepower four-cylinder engine paired to a six-speed manual or automatic transmission, the latter representing a wonder for true driving aficionados. Zip from zero-to-sixty in 5.7 seconds and enjoy the Miata’s intentionally stiff ride, responsive steering, and thoroughly fun-to-drive characteristics.

Because of its lightweight and diminutive dimensions, the MX-5 Miata is a champion of fuel economy, coming in at a combined 36 MPG rating. Inside, the cabin focuses on the main event: driving. It skips distracting bells and whistles and only makes room for two, with little room left over for cargo and gear. Still, newer models feature a touchscreen with smartphone connectivity—so by all means, make that summer playlist and blast it at full volume.

The Mazda3 Sedan Is a Sleeper Worth Test Driving

As the world turns its back on the classic four-door sedan, Mazda goes the other way, infusing the newest Mazda3 with advanced technology and performance features designed to woo you away from the lure of the ute. As if that’s not exciting enough, the automaker also remains committed to offering the popular model in a hatchback body style. That’s important, since the Mazda3 faces stiff competition from legacy nameplates like the Civic and the VW Golf—both backed by manufacturers that aren’t ready to abandon the car segment.

Many recent model year Mazda3 sedans and hatchbacks can still be found with six-speed manual transmissions, hinting at Mazda’s focus on performance. All-wheel drive is available, but regardless of the drivetrain you select, all Mazda3 models get their power from a standard 2.5-L four-cylinder engine. It produces 186 horsepower, which is sufficient to hit 60 mph in a short 7 seconds. The Mazda3’s ride quality matches its cabin feel. Both are surprisingly refined, given its very affordable price point.

Steering is precise and responsive, as is braking. Drivers will notice the difference, especially if they schedule same-day test drives of competitive models that boast premium nameplates like Audi and BMW. In an age when SUVs and crossovers get all the headlines, the Mazda3 offers a more nimble driving experience. MotorTrend demonstrated the 2019 Mazda3’s agility with a figure-eight road test, clocking in at an impressive 26.7 seconds. Loosely translated, the Mazda3 corners like it’s on rails.

Sedans may not offer the cargo capacity of a sport utility vehicle, but the driving experience is all about connecting with the road. The cabin aesthetic follows suit, offering large analog gauges and fit-and-finish that are in line with high-end German imports. Newer models feature an oversized dash-mounted touchscreen that you can also control via a toggle controller located behind the shifter. Opt for the multi-speaker Bose premium audio system for clear, crisp surround sound—to accompany you as you carve up hairpin turns on a weekend road trip.

A grey 2021 Mazda3 is shown from the rear driving on a city street after visiting a used Mazda dealership.

Performance Awaits Throughout the Mazda Lineup

Experiencing the Mazda lineup up close and in person is a must if you want to truly appreciate all it has to offer. Buyers seeking the most performance features in any given category would be wise to choose a Mazda. Chances are, it’s the best-engineered vehicle in a sea of well-made choices, which is saying a lot. Mazda stays true to its premium, performance-oriented theme throughout the lineup, so even crossover buyers will benefit.

Is it fair to say you won’t find a faster, more driver-centric brand on the market? Probably not, but given Mazda’s commitment to building vehicles mainstream buyers can afford without compromising quality or advanced engineering, it’s accurate to give Mazda’s cars and SUVs a 10/10 for guaranteed driving enjoyment.