The 167-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine has a nice, robust torque curve; just off idle, it builds steadily and feels at its most responsive in the 2,500-rpm to 4,500-rpm range—where it's going to be for most driving. Though it's down 19 horsepower from the 167-hp, 2.5-liter four, the smaller four's 148 horses aren't too overworked in keeping up with typical freeway traffic and delivering 24/33 mpg fuel economy. With either of the engines, you get a touchy, aggressively calibrated throttle pedal that comes across as gimmicky, making the Mazda3 initially feel more macho than it is.
In either of its forms, the Mazda3 feels best engaged from about 45 mph to 75 mph, the perfect working powerband for commuter traffic. Of course, the manual gearbox is a more entertaining partner—with a nice, short linkage and straightforward clutch engagement. The automatic shifter's sport-shift mode feels like a manual lever in size and action, and brightens the driving feel a bit. Unlike in other small-car models, the automatic isn't such a penalty box; it's quite responsive and livable.
What the Mazda3 does well is handling. In that respect, it's a shining star. Find a little narrow, rough backroad and the Mazda3 is a riot to drive; the suspension feels way more sophisticated than you might expect in a budget hatch, and it doesn't succumb to plowing and understeer at the slightest provocation. And if you hit some mid-corner bumps, the suspension then smartly soaks it up rather than hopping. It's very well-tuned, firm, but not too hard, and the steering is about perfect—never overboosted and with good feedback in tight corners.