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2014 Mazda 3: First Drive

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If you enjoy driving, yet need a practical, economical small car, you'd be foolish not to include the 2014 Mazda 3on your shortlist.

After spending time with several versions of the new 3, in Atlanta and Portland, we can't help but gush about its beautiful shape, its eye-catching sheetmetal, the driver-centric interior, the very impressive feature list, and how Mazda has managed to imbue its powertrains with such responsiveness, while it's simultaneously managed to far surpass the 30-mpg Combined mark for the entire lineup.

The drivers in us say, “Yes, this is how a compact car should be.”

The engine in both of the 3 s Grand Touring models we spent the most time with (a 184-hp 2.5-liter) is responsive, rev-happy, and so torquey that it never misses a beat, and the freshly engineered six-speed automatic includes steering-wheel paddle-shifters and a sport mode that altogether make it feel almost as driver-connected as if it had a manual gearbox. Almost.

Oh, the curves

Dynamically, the new 3 is also superb. It's slightly lighter than the last-generation models, and yet it drives with the somewhat more settled, composed attitude of a serious sport sedan. The bobbing and pitching motions that you'd get in the last-generation versions when the pavement undulates have now been written out of the experience, and the harder you drive and the higher the g-forces you attempt to pull in tight corners and hairpins, the better the steering feels. It's nicely weighted and even includes a little bit of road feedback.

And when you want to drive quickly, you can hit the Sport button for a more aggressive throttle setting and a delayed shifts for the automatic transmission. With it clicked, we also noticed that the stability control has a remarkably loose rein on overzealous driving styles; it’ll even permit a little bit of sliding—all in the name of fun, right?

While we haven't yet driven any of the models at the entry end of the lineup, we're anticipating that a 3 i Touring with a manual gearbox—at around $20k—might just be one of the most fun-to-drive new cars on a very tight budget.

The Mazda 3 is a phenomenal car from the driver’s seat, when the road opens up, and when you happen to have access to mountain or canyon roads up to the challenge.


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