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The Mazda3 has long been one of the most fun-to-drive compacts on the market, combining flamboyant styling with crisp handling and a little more eagerness and sports-car attitude than most other small cars. But for shoppers putting a priority on gas mileage numbers, too, this model used to disappoint.
For 2012, Mazda has made good to both enthusiasts and the eco-conscious with a new Sky-G engine, paired to either an all-new six-speed automatic transmission or a new six-speed manual. This engine makes a respectable 155 horsepower and feels very refined and responsive, yet it goes about 20 percent farther on a gallon of gas—with fuel economy ratings of up to 40 mpg highway.
Beware, however, that if you want these new powertrains, you'll have to go for the Mazda3i Touring or Grand Touring models; base 3i SV and Sport models still get the old base 2.0-liter engine, while 3s versions get the 167-horsepower, 2.5-liter engine that's somewhat more torquey but much thirstier (we really don't consider it worth the extra money).
No matter which model, handling is the Mazda3's key to delivering 'zoom-zoom' behind the wheel. The suspension tuning is firm, and the overall feel of the Mazda3 is athletic, without sacrificing too much comfort. Brakes are strong four-wheel discs (unusual in this class), and the steering is surely the best among small, affordable cars—thanks to a sure-feeling electro-hydraulic setup rather than the iffy electric units that rival models now have.
Inside, you'll find generous, supportive front seats and a reasonably accommodating back seat—plus a low, flat cargo floor with the seats folded down. However, in addition to somewhat difficult rear-seat entry, the 3's downfall remains road noise.
Outside of the new powertrains, the Mazda3 gets a few other relatively minor changes for 2012. The instrument panel lighting has changed, and display screens are now a cool blue. Most notably, Mazda has redone the front and rear airdams, added more body-color trim, and toned down the look of the 3's front end, which was not well received on introduction a couple of years ago; it's now a smirk, rather than clownish grin. Inside, the cockpit is sophisticated and plush, but some will find fault with all the rather drab, hard plastic trim within.
Base cars are surprisingly well-equipped for around the $16k mark, but it's some of the tech features available in the Grand Touring—including bi-xenon adaptive lighting, three-position memory power seats, rain-sensing wipers, ten-speaker Bose surround sound, and (new for 2012) a blind-spot monitoring system—that really set this model above most of the competition, all for around $26k loaded.