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A group of foster dogs from the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides head out for a group hike.

Petrina Gentile/The Globe and Mail

It’s finally time to say goodbye. My stomach turns; my heart breaks. I’ve fostered my puppy Moon, a black Labrador retriever, for nearly a year. But now, she’s entering a new phase of her life – training to be a hearing guide dog with the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides in Breslau, Ont., east of Kitchener.

From our first drive together at 16 weeks, Moon has loved cars. We’ve logged thousands of kilometres since last March – tagging along on road trips from Toronto to Mont-Tremblant, Que., and middle-of-the-night drives from Toronto to the Niagara Region for emergency-room visits with my aging mom. She has waited patiently at every medical appointment imaginable for my mom including visits to specialists in Hamilton, Niagara Falls and Port Colborne, Ont. She has accompanied me to work events across the province.

It’s safe to say that Moon has been in more vehicles than most people – everything from Lamborghinis and Porsches to Toyotas and Nissans. Our final week together is spent riding around in a 2020 Mazda3 GT all-wheel drive sedan, which starts at $30,500. (The base GT FWD version starts at $26,500.)

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Sure, some might think a sedan isn’t the best option for my four-legged friend. With more interior and cargo space, a crossover or SUV makes more sense. But not to Moon; her preference has always been sedans. To this day, her favourite ride has been the Lincoln Continental – the rear seats so spacious and well padded, she’d quickly fall asleep sprawled across them or snuggled up like a doughnut. She refused to sit in cargo areas – no matter what size of vehicle.

The compact Mazda3 is pleasant to drive and easy to park.

JAMES HALFACRE/Mazda

The Mazda3 won the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada’s 2020 Canadian Car of the Year award. Its compact size makes it pleasant to drive and easy to park. It’s smooth and comfortable, but the rear seats are a bit short on leg room – they’re better suited for smaller kids and pets. Three adults would be a tight fit in the back.

The light-coloured seats aren’t the best for kids or pets, either – especially after a two-hour hike at the Glen Rouge Campground on the east side of Toronto with six other dogs from the guide-program, including Moon’s sister Maris, as well as Niles, Yarro, Quinta, Julie and Koa. Luckily, the dirt, mud and black fur on the white seats washed off easily with a wet cloth. But the key fob has to go. All of the buttons to access, for example, the door locks and trunk release are located on the side of the fob, so when you’re walking an excited dog and holding it in your other hand, it’s easy to unlock the doors or open the trunk accidentally.

For precious cargo like pets, bigger isn’t necessarily better. That’s the case with the Mazda3 – it’s a smart, small, affordable car that’s perfect for your animal companions. There’s no need to spend extra money on a bigger SUV when a small car can do the trick. Save the cash for spoiling your pup. Even at 70 pounds, Moon was comfortable in the back seat of the Mazda3. After all, pets aren’t (well, shouldn’t be) roaming around the front seat of the cabin when you’re driving. They should be harnessed securely with seat belts or riding in a pet carrier in the rear. They don’t need extra space. Since sedans are low to the ground, it’s also easier for pets, especially older frail ones, to climb into compared to a taller SUV.

The extra safety features on the Mazda3 GT were a welcome surprise. Features such as radar cruise control with a stop-and-go function, which automatically applies the throttle or brake as needed depending on the traffic ahead, and rear cross-traffic alert, which warns of vehicles approaching from behind when you’re in reverse, are handy features, especially if you’re distracted by an unruly pet. All-wheel drive costs extra, but it’s worth it. It costs $1,700 when added to either the GS or GT trims with a six-speed automatic transmission. Many competitors don’t even offer it.

While the rear seat might be a bit cramped for three adults, it's plenty comfortable for your furry friends.

JAMES HALFACRE/Mazda

Going around town, the Mazda3 is peppy, easy to park and great on gas. I averaged 8.7 litres/100 kilometres (combined city and highway) as we travelled to play dates all over Greater Toronto and beyond.

Before long, it was time for the dreaded drive to Breslau. Her BFF Samson, the neighbourhood pitbull, stopped by to say goodbye – though he didn’t know it at the time. He came calling for their regular afternoon walk. Moon tugged at her leash to join him; he looked puzzled when she didn’t. I turned away, fought back tears and bribed her into the car with treats (that always works on Labs).

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Moon slept the entire drive, snoring heavily. Two hours passed fast. She was excited when we arrived in Breslau. I wasn’t. It was a quick farewell – like ripping off a Band-Aid. I met the staff, removed Moon’s leash and collar, handed over her favourite bone and watched her prance along a long hallway. She didn’t seem bothered by the line of kennels and the dogs barking loudly as she made her way to kennel 22, her home for the next six months.

Dozens of dogs were recalled that day, including Maris and Niles – going into the service division. Foster families snapped photos and took videos of their dogs. I couldn’t. I wanted to erase the day from my memory. Time stood still as I sat alone in my Mazda, tears streaming down my face as reality set in.

At least I have my memories – Moon’s sloppy morning kisses, her deep growls during belly rubs and our driving adventures together, especially our last week in the Mazda3. It was the perfect ride for our final drive together and an ideal car for pets. It’s affordable, comfortable and good on gas.

Unfortunately, driving will never be the same without her.

Tech specs

  • Base price: 2020 Mazda3 GT AWD: $30,500 (plus $1,750 destination and delivery fee). 2020 Mazda3 GT: $26,500 (plus $1,700 for AWD, $2,300 optional Premium Package, and $1,750 destination and delivery fee)
  • Engine: 2.5L I-4 with 186 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque
  • Transmission/drive: six-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel-drive
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km city and highway): 9.2 and 7
  • Alternatives: Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza

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