The Mazda 3 has always been one of the best-driving compact cars. It’s never been what we'd call beautiful--but now it has to be, now that it's up against eye-catching shapes like the Hyundai Elantra, Dodge Dart, and especially the Ford Focus and its hot ST edition. Does this year's new Mazda 3 finally pull it all together?
It's hard to keep it a secret--the Mazda 3 finally looks great. We love the sexy, laid-back shape--it has the proportions of a rear-drive car, with its long, low hood. The front end has lost that creepy smile, and the shoulder line finally has real shoulders. As a sedan or as a hatchback, it's pretty and striking.
Inside, the 3 is what your mom might call cozy. We'd call it a 2+2 if it had only two doors. The dash sweeps in to surround the driver--wrapped in glossy piano-black trim, talk about fingerprint central--but taller drivers might find the 3 tight on headroom, though the front seats are actually pretty accommodating for almost all shapes and sizes.
There’s no way around the issue in back--the sleek shape cuts into space. Headroom is pretty scarce, and most people will have to ask the front-seat passengers to move the heck up. Skip the moonroof and you'll do a little better, but it's still a little claustrophobic in back, what with the high beltline and low roof.
The Mazda 3 comes with a choice of four-cylinders, and both run sweetly. They're not in the same league as a turbocharged Focus--but handling makes up for a lot.
The base engine is a 2.0-liter four cylinder with 155 horsepower. Our test car has the more powerful 2.5-liter four with 184 horsepower. it comes only with a six-speed automatic. If you want a manual, you have to buy the base engine. Long sigh.
On the road, either engine feels frisky enough--but wave goodbye to Focus ST as they leave you in the dust. There's no turbo here yet, but we keep a candle lit for a new Mazdaspeed3 that really lives up to the name.
Otherwise the 3 is one of the best-balanced compact cars. The automatic's great--it puts a few dual-clutch gearboxes to shame with its quick shifts. The steering is precise and there’s never excess body motion. There's a sport button to speed up throttle, and the stability control and traction control give you remarkably loose rein when you want to have some fun.
Gas mileage isn't the best in class, but it's close. The base car is rated at 33 miles per gallon combined with the manual, 33 mpg with the automatic. The performance engine? It's 32 miles per gallon combined.
When it comes to safety, the Mazda 3 has some options you'll find only in the Focus, options like blind-spot monitors and forward-collision warnings. The Feds haven't crash-tested it yet, but the IIHS says it's a Top Safety Pick+.
At a base price of about $17,000, the Mazda 3 gets power features, pushbutton start, keyless entry, and a decent audio system. Our loaded Grand Touring model checks in at less than $27,000 and has everything from Bose audio to heated leather seats, to navigation, to what Mazda calls the Active Driving Display. It's a flip-up, Top Gun style screen that displays speed and directions from the available navigation system.
So what’s the bottom line with the 2014 Mazda 3? It puts handling prowess above outright speed and rear-seat space, and for us, that works just fine.
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