Car Buyer Labs

Car Buying Advice, Tips, and Reviews

A gray 2024 Mazda3 Hatchback is shown driving on a highway after visiting a Mazda dealer.

Mazda3 vs Subaru Impreza: Which Is the Better AWD Compact?

Drivers gravitate towards all-wheel drive vehicles for a number of reasons. Some appreciate the boost to a vehicle’s safety and security in inclement weather, while others are drawn to the feature for its off-road benefits. A good AWD sedan or SUV can make the difference between a successful ride and one that ends in the dreaded roadside assistance call, but the technology isn’t exclusive to larger, off-road-ready vehicles. A growing number of compact cars have embraced the AWD approach, with the ability to distribute power across all four corners of the vehicle delivering some undeniable performance benefits. Among the AWD compacts on the market today, two standouts are rising above the competition.

Both the Mazda3 and Subaru Impreza have earned a loyal following thanks to their unique combination of performance, style, and fun. They are also relatively affordable, making them a great choice for drivers on a budget. You can choose between a four-door sedan and a five-door hatchback for the 2024 Mazda3, while the 2024 Impreza is only offered as a hatch, but they are loaded with all the modern tech the average driver would expect from this sporty segment. How’s a driver to choose between these two alluring compact AWD models? We’ve broken down the differences in this easy-to-follow guide that should make the decision a whole lot easier. Before you make tracks for your local Mazda dealer, read on to see how the Mazda3 and Subaru Impreza stack up in the battle of the AWD compacts.

A red 2024 Subaru Impreza RS is shown driving on a highway.

A Tale of Two Cars

Coming from a brand that’s known for its full lineup of AWD vehicles, the Subaru Impreza is one of the original AWD compacts and had no real competition for many years. Introduced in 1992, the Impreza was born out of Subaru’s extensive experience in the World Rally Championship (WRC). The AWD setup was a massive boon to the fledgling rally car, which won the WRC manufacturer’s championship three times in a row from 1995 to 1997. AWD has been offered as a standard feature on every Impreza since 1997, cementing a legacy for sporty performance that’s made the model such a hit with hardcore racers and casual drivers alike.

The Mazda3 first arrived on American shores in 2004, giving drivers an enticing new option in the competitive compact segment and winning many accolades upon its debut. Critics have praised the compact’s handling, performance, styling, and interior, with many agreeing that it punches well above its modest price point with an array of high-end features that edge the model into the realm of a much more expensive sports sedan. This impressive combination of features has made the Mazda3 a best-seller, but until recently, one key ingredient was missing from the recipe: all-wheel drive.

Like most compact cars of the day, the first three generations of the Mazda3 were only available in front-wheel drive, but by the time the fourth-generation model was introduced in 2019, Mazda knew it needed to freshen up the formula. The automaker added AWD as an available option on a limited number of trims, expanding the feature with the turbo models in 2021. Paired with a six-speed automatic transmission, the AWD Mazda3 has breathed new life into the beloved compact, injecting a little more excitement into the model and putting it on firm footing for another few decades of dominance.

A gray 2024 Mazda3 Hatchback is shown parked near a person.

Engine Options

Let’s start under the hood, where the Mazda3 takes an early lead. Mazda’s compact comes standard with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that puts out 191 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque. Those numbers might not blow you away at first sight, but when you consider the all-wheel drive Mazda3 tips the scales at just 3,300 lbs, you’ve got a power-to-weight ratio that’s sure to result in a thrilling ride. It’s an impressive base engine for any compact––especially when compared to the Impreza––but it’s far from the most thrilling option on offer for 2024. On the Turbo and Turbo Premium Plus trims, drivers will enjoy a turbocharged version of the 2.5-liter engine that ups the ante to 250 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque. The turbo is the perfect complement to the Mazda3’s sporty spirit, racing from zero to 60 mph in just 5.6 seconds with a top speed of 134 mph.

There’s only one catch when it comes to the Mazda3: all-wheel drive only enters the picture as a standard feature when you move into the higher end of the trim range. The AWD system is largely reserved for models with the turbocharged engine, though it is available on the Mazda3 Carbon Edition and Premium trims. It’s a sensible approach that allows drivers to get the most out of the turbocharged engine, but it does lose the Mazda a few points when compared to the Subaru. Mazda3 models with AWD are also limited to a six-speed automatic transmission, while non-AWD versions can accommodate a good, old-fashioned six-speed manual.

Then there’s the Impreza. While we try to live by that well-worn grade school maxim that starts with “if you have nothing nice to say,” there’s just no glossing over the compact’s underwhelming performance. The 2024 Impreza’s base engine––a 2.0-liter four-cylinder Boxer––only manages to produce 152 hp and 145 lb-ft of torque, placing it near the bottom of the compact class. The situation isn’t helped by Subaru’s continuously variable transmission (CVT), which is slow to respond at the best of times. While the Impreza previously offered a five-speed manual, that option was discontinued with the 2024 redesign. The 2024 Impreza did up the ante slightly with an available 2.5-liter engine on the new RS trim, but with only 182 hp and 178 lb-ft of torque, the “sporty” Impreza RS is still underpowered compared to the base Mazda3.

Part of this underwhelming performance can be blamed on the Impreza’s lineup mate, the WRX. Introduced alongside the original Impreza in 1992, the WRX, or “World Rally eXperimental,” serves as Subaru’s more performance-oriented compact. Built with a stiffened suspension, turbocharged engine, and a host of hardy components, the WRX has become Subaru’s testing ground for AWD performance. It’s an understandable approach, but one that leaves the original Impreza out in the cold and struggling to compete with athletic entries like the Mazda3.

A white 2024 Subaru Impreza RS is shown driving near a city.

A Modern Interior

Next to its exemplary performance, the Mazda3’s interior is one of the compact’s biggest highlights. With a simple, modern interior design, the Mazda3 seems to instill a sense of peace when compared to some of the busier, less-subtle entries in the compact segment. Premium materials are on display throughout, especially on the higher trims. However, it’s not the materials alone that make the Mazda3 feel luxurious, but the manner in which they’re deployed. Leather seats, paddle shifters, and chrome details all come standard on the higher trims, allowing drivers to experience some premium features at an affordable price.

The Mazda3’s dashboard deserves a special mention, thanks to the responsive audio, climate, and infotainment controls, which make such a satisfying “click” when adjusted. It might sound like an odd feature to call out, but in today’s increasingly digital, screen-based world, there’s something about the feel of an actual responsive button that’s just so satisfying. Speaking of tech, the Mazda3 is loaded with it. From the Bose 12-speaker audio system with Centerpoint that converts music into multiple channels for the ideal mobile listening experience to an optional head-up display, premium steering wheel, and new 10.25-inch infotainment screen, the 2024 Mazda3 offers some staggering value for the average driver.

If you’re wondering how Mazda has managed to make such a reasonably priced car feel so luxurious, it all comes down to one word: Kodo. The Kodo philosophy, which roughly translates to “soul of motion,” has guided the automaker’s approach to vehicle design since 2011, resulting in some of the most striking and unique models on the market. With an emphasis on clean, minimalist design and flowing lines, the Kodo ethos is on full display through the interior and exterior of the Mazda3.

With a heavy dose of plastic splashed throughout the interior, the Impreza simply doesn’t have the same luxurious feel as the Mazda3. Imitation chrome, fake carbon fiber accents, and ho-hum design give the 2024 Impreza a decidedly more budget-friendly feel. The elements are well laid-out and intuitive, but when the basic components and materials lag so far behind, the Impreza will forever be playing catch-up to the Mazda3.

Then there’s the technology side of the equation. We don’t want to sound like snobs, but in this day and age, automakers need to learn that no matter what’s under the hood, a vehicle is always going to be judged by its infotainment display. These screens have become the newest arms race in the auto world, with each brand working to outdo the other when it comes to size, design, and features, but Subaru seemingly hasn’t got the memo. The base 2024 Impreza trims come standard with a pair of seven-inch screens which, to put it in perspective, are smaller than some smartphones. Opting for the Sport or RS trims will see the odd dual displays replaced by a modern 11.6-inch touchscreen. However, the bottom half of the display is dedicated to climate control, and Subaru offers fewer hard-button controls than Mazda.

Price vs Performance

If you’re looking for a sporty AWD compact that puts an emphasis on style and sophistication, it’s hard to do better than the Mazda3. The Mazda3 might not come standard with AWD like the Impreza, but it makes up for it in so many other ways. From a well-appointed interior informed by Mazda’s Kodo design philosophy to two impressive engine options, premium materials, and a host of cutting-edge tech features like a heads-up display and Bose Centerpoint, the Mazda3 is a revelation in the segment. The Impreza might have the Mazda3 beat on price, but by nearly every other metric, it falls painfully short. If you’re the type of driver who’s just looking to get into an AWD compact for as little as possible, the Impreza is a solid choice, but when you consider how much more the Mazda3 can offer for a modest bump in price, it’s hard to see the Subaru’s appeal.