Extra chunky peanut butter.

Mazda3 Gets Dirty On 6,000 Mile (Off) Road Trip

We pride ourselves on doing things differently here at GearJunkie. Take car reviews, for example. Rather than an afternoon test drive, we have a penchant for multi-surface, cross-country treks.

Mazda3 on a forest road in San Juan National Forest.
Mazda3 on a forest road in San Juan National Forest.

On my first “test drive” a few years back, a cadre of GJ editors and I left Minneapolis and found ourselves sub-zero winter camping without a tent in Moab 36 hours later. As memorable as that sleep-challenged night was, my girlfriend and I opted for a slightly warmer trip this time around. The car was a 2015 Mazda3. The objective: 6,000 miles through the American West in July.

At first glance, the $20,645 MSRP car is decidedly urban. For both city and highway driving, it has the specs you’d hope for: 34 mpg (41 mpg highway), radar blind spot monitoring and plenty of other solid safety features.

Comfy sport seats, a big ol’ grill, and moonroof round out the sleek look. The Bose nine-speaker surround sound and spacious trunk were also appreciated during the 19-day trip.

On the open road.
On the open road.

The first 1,200 miles from Minneapolis to Southwest Colorado were uneventful. Upon arriving in San Juan National Forest, we rendezvoused with my good friend Margo, who proposed we take forest roads in search of dispersed camping at higher elevation. In our unwavering quest to avoid proximity to selfie sticks, we set off.

Climbing in San Juan National Forest.
Climbing in San Juan National Forest.

Where the Pavement Ends

For ten miles, we worked our way up what turned out to be the sketchiest road I’d ever driven on, as jagged rocks and potholes of lunar proportions quickly became more commonplace than smooth gravel.

A steady rain as we approached 11,000 feet added to the intrigue, but even on steep, slick and uncomfortably bumpy inclines, the 155 HP Mazda3 pulled us out of the valley to prime camping alongside a crashing waterfall. Of the half-dozen or so vehicles we saw pass by our site, all but one had roll cages. And yet somehow, we managed without four-wheel drive.

High Compression Engine

The Mazda3 uses the brand’s proprietary SKYACTIV TECHNOLOGY, which features an engine with a high-compression ratio of 13-1 that allows for more power with smaller displacement. Combine that with a lighter, stiffer car body, and you’ve got pocketbook-friendly fuel efficiency, without sacrificing pop.

Make no mistake, the acceleration isn’t great and the top end isn’t much to write home about, but I seldom find myself in car chases, and we chalked up a 35.5 mpg average over 5,960 miles.

Exploring the aspens in San Juan National Forest
Exploring the aspens in San Juan National Forest

Leaving Colorado, we rolled through Arizona, Utah, and Nevada on our way to pick up friends in LA and head to Sequoia National Park for a few days in the backcountry.

We managed to squeeze two more passengers and their 75L packs into the car, along with everything we were already hauling. Space was tight, but we managed without issue.

Desert storm incoming in Arizona.

Things Get Interesting

Northern California and Oregon brought more forest road camping, and the Mazda3 didn’t mind a bit. However, the smooth sailing ended abruptly, in straight-to-DVD romantic comedy form, on the last morning of the trip.

The previous evening we took 94 from Billings toward the North Dakota border before deciding to spend the night on Bureau of Land Management land near the town of Terry, MT. A winding, packed clay road took us nine miles into a desolate area with topography reminiscent of the Badlands.

Stars outnumbered humans a million to two (us), and the livin’ was easy. Fast forward to 2:00 AM, cue up Beethoven’s 5th, and we’re jarred awake by a take-no-prisoners Great Plains storm that rolled through with enough rain, lightning, and wind to make me question if I’d enjoyed my final dehydrated camp meal.

When the sun finally breached the horizon, the storm had rolled through, with a light drizzle left in its wake for good measure. Tired, but resolved to push for home, we packed up the car.

As soon as I tapped the gas, we both knew we were in trouble. The road had turned into three inches of peanut butter-like substance that didn’t take kindly to rubber. Side note: After checking the recreation area’s website a week later (spoiler alert: we survived), the first sentence on the page read “ROADS CAN BE IMPASSIBLE WHEN WET.” I might have added bold to the all-caps, but that’s just splitting hairs.

Extra chunky peanut butter.
Extra chunky peanut butter.

After narrowly avoiding sliding into a large ditch on the side of a washed-out hill, we decided to try to grab a few more hours of shut eye, in hopes the road would dry as the sun climbed. With the parking break pulled halfway to the ceiling, the Mazda clung to the clay as we snoozed. Two hours later, the sun was blazing, we were awake, the road was baked and the dream was still alive.

Hopes were dashed 17 seconds later when we made it 80% up the following hill before the front passenger-side wheel made itself comfortable in another ditch. An hour of tire-scraping, strategic flat rock placement and “pushing” —   I use this term loosely, as I’m undersized for a 4th-grade lineman at 155 lb — and we’d done the impossible on the impassable and returned to pavement.

Would we have fared better in a Jeep or Subaru? It’s hard to say, but the story wouldn’t have been as good.

-Patrick Murphy