You have to expect the unexpected when taking the wheel of the 2014 Mazda3.
With seductive looks, comfortable accommodations and impeccable road manners, Mazda's redesigned compact punches well above its weight class when battling the other members of compact-car field.
Original Mazda3 variations that arrived for the 2004 model year displayed plenty of swagger and backed it up with surprising levels of basic, down-to-earth goodness. Since then, both sedan and hatchback versions (including the hotrod Mazdaspeed3) have remained popular with legions of folks seeking a car that's as enjoyable to drive as it is to look at.
The two models emulate the mid-size Mazda6 sedan and the CX-5 wagon, which means they no longer wear Cheshire-cat grins affixed to their snouts. Instead, both have adopted Mazda's latest Kodo (Japanese for Soul of Motion) design approach that includes an attractive, but less gimmicky grille. The rest of the bodywork is equally tasty from any vantage point.
Although the car's front overhang appears more elongated, Mazda's California studio design manager Ken Saward emphatically states that that isn't the case and that the 3's slightly wider body (by 1.6 inches) and a lowered hood are largely responsible for the illusion.
What has been stretched by 2.4 inches, however, is the distance between the front and rear wheels. Overall though, the sedan remains similar in total length and provides about the same trunk space, while the hatchback drops nearly two inches in length, but magically gains a fair bit of stowage room, whether the rear seats are upright or folded flat.
For the driver there's a single round gauge pod and attendant control knobs and switches that are the essence of simplicity. A seven-inch multi-function touch-screen that's perched atop the dashboard's mid-section allows for easy scanning without taking one's eyes off the horizon. An optional heads-up display projects speed and basic directions onto the windshield, again without diverting the driver's attention away from the road.
Like its Mazda6 and CX-5 brand mates, the Mazda3 benefits from the automaker's so-called Skyactiv suite of structural and powertrain enhancements. The former includes a stiffer platform as well as suspension and steering components specifically tuned for sports-car-like precision.
But the real show stoppers are the powerplants. The base engine is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that makes 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque. Optional is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque. Both are available with six-speed manual transmissions (a mid-season addition for the 2.5, however), while six-speed automatics are optional.
Interestingly, both engines are closely matched in fuel economy, with the nod going to the 2.0's official 30-mpg city/41-mpg highway rating with the auto box. The 2.5 rings up 28/39 mpg, but both numbers improve by one mpg with the optional "i-ELOOP" capacitor.
The system charges with electricity during braking to run the 3's various components for extended periods. This means the alternator can be disengaged, thereby cutting drag on the engine. The i-ELOOP functions in the background without the driver being aware it's operating.
Mazda3 prices start at $17,750 (including destination charges) for the base i SV sedan that includes the usual air conditioning and power-operated accessories plus push-button start. The base "s Touring" hatchback starts at $25,400 but, along with the lustier 2.5-liter engine, there's considerably more content. Mazda will also sell you a top-line "s Grand Touring" with enough standard and available comfort and safety to rival many so-called luxury vehicles.
Regardless of your choice, the new Mazda3 is an impressive piece of work that will be appreciated by those who really enjoy driving something sporty, but without the space limitations that traditional sports car impose. That's one unexpected benefit that plenty of folks can easily live with.
Type: Four-door, front-wheel-drive compact sedan/hatchback
Engines (hp): 2.0-liter DOHC I4 (155); 2.5-liter DOHC I4 (184)
Transmissions: Six-speed manual; six-speed automatic
Market position: With each successive generation, compact cars such as the Mazda3 inch ever-larger, provide more powerful engines and offer a wider variety of luxury content. It's all about one-upping the competition.
Points: A redesigned body that practically everyone will love; Base and optional powerplants provide decent scoot and fuel economy; Lack of door-panel map pockets a minor complaint; No Mazdaspeed3 performance version announced; rumor is that one is on the way; Top-notch car from top to bottom and a solid enthusiast's ride, which is a bonus.
Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
MPG (city/hwy) 30/41 (2.0 AT, sedan)
Base price (incl. destination) $17,750
Base price: $18,800
Sedan and coupe models offer spunky powerplants and decent handling.
Base price: $17,500
Sedan and hatchback joined by sporty ST and electric versions for 2013.
Base price: $16,700
Sedan joined by sharp-looking Forte 5 hatchback model for 2014.