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2014 Mazda 3: First Drive Page 3

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2014 Mazda Mazda3 s Grand Touring - First Drive

One thing we really like in the Mazda 3 is how the brand hasn't skimped on sound systems and connectivity this time. The so-called Mazda Connect that was included in our Grand Touring has a colorful, high-contrast seven-inch screen, a reasonably intuitive menu system, and none of the lagginess that we've noted in the simpler (and older?) system from the Mazda 6 and CX-5. HD Radio, satellite radio, and multiple media sources are all well-integrated, as are several audio-streaming apps, and navigation with a simple point-of-interest search. Yes, the Command Controller is essentially an iDrive clone, with the center-console volume knob of Audi's MMI; but it works well, and you can tab left and right between menu screens, and twist and click to make selections; and we love redundancy built into the system. You can stop and just use the touch screen—or voice controls, for some things.

The Grand Touring includes what Mazda terms the Active Driving Display—essentially a heads-up display that uses a little flip-up display screen atop the dash. It's weird and feels like an aftermarket solution, but it's effective in keeping your eyes on the road. In both of the cars we drove, the system had trouble remembering where we set the viewing height (through a screen menu), requiring a tiny nudge after each startup to get the viewing angle back.

Lots of tech to cement the premium-car ambiance

Our test car, at around $30k, also had the Technology Package, which in addition to a set of active-safety features includes two fuel-saving measures: active grille shutters, and the i-ELOOP system, which maximizes alternator load and charges up a capacitor system when you're decelerating, then releases that energy for accessories (and a lighter alternator load) when you're accelerating and cruising. About the only thing we noticed from this system, in following its energy-flow screen, was that there was more apparent engine braking when the system was loading up the capacitors.

In all, it's hard to estimate the contribution of that system, but we did well with the Grand Touring we had for a week, averaging more than 27 mpg over 160 miles of driving, which included about 30 miles of foot-to-floorboards, enthusiastic driving on some of our favorite backroads, as well as nearly ten miles in near-gridlock traffic.

Frankly, we expected Mazda to follow the outgoing 3 up with one that was a little more practical. Instead, what they’ve created is something that we think adds up to the same level of niche appeal as before. After driving experiences with several different Mazda 3 models, representing nearly three hundred miles of driving, altogether, we can say that the all-new 2014 Mazda 3 might be more athletic, more fun to drive, more efficient, and more charming in many respects; but it’s not necessarily the best pick for all mainstream compact-car buyers.

A calculated risk: Enough drivers out there?

The Mazda 3 adds up to a calculated risk: Will producing a shape that’s undeniably sportier--the shape of a rear-wheel-drive car, really--add up more interest from the market, and more differentiation in what’s now a crowded class of very good entries? And will those benefits outweigh the loss in practicality?

To those of us who love to drive, that's a no-brainer.

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