If you had to pick one word to describe Mazda of Japan, it would be innovation.
Over the last 50 years, the company has delivered an array of vehicles with conventional, rotary and Miller cycle engines. With the MX-5 Miata, it presided over the resurrection of the affordable two-seat sports car, which is still going strong.
The rotary, also called a Wankel engine, powered the Mazda R7 and R8 sports cars. The Miller, which breathes differently from conventional gasoline engines, was installed in the company's Millenia sedan.
Mazda's latest tool is something the company calls Skyactiv technology, now the soul of the 2014 Mazda3, the company's entry in the compact class of sedans and hatchbacks. It's a catchall word that describes a suite of developments to every aspect of a new car to improve performance and fuel economy.
Call it a holistic approach to automotive design. It means removing unneeded weight from every nook and cranny, redesigning automatic and manual transmissions, refining suspension systems, directly injecting fuel and air into engines, and minimizing power losses with electric steering.
One special enhancement, called i-ELOOP, gathers electricity from braking and stores it in a capacitor to power on-board systems. It comes as part of an option package that also includes active grille shutters to manage air flow, lane departure and forward obstruction warnings, and adaptive radar cruise control.
There are 11 versions of the Skyactiv Mazda3. Models with an "i" designation come with a 155-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. Those with an "s" attached come with the 184-horsepower, 2.5-liter four.
All feature the company's new Kodo design philosophy, which delivers a sculpted body minus the big smile grille of the previous model. They start with the 3i SV four-door at $17,740 and top out with the 3s Grand Touring hatchback at $26,790. Options can push it into around $30,000.
The Mazda folks are boastful of the new Mazda3 interiors. They say their designers used the interior of a $42,000 BMW 320i as a benchmark for quality materials and workmanship. It shows. The new 3 has a simply designed, tasteful interior with soft touch materials and contrasting trim.
Though the Mazda3 competes in the compact class against such popular cars as the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Nissan Sentra and Versa Note, Dodge Dart and Chevrolet Cruze, it has always managed to stand apart.
With a choice of engines as well as four-door sedan and hatchback body styles, it has a reputation as a driver's car. That impression has been reinforced by the Mazdaspeed3, a performance model, along with a high percentage of customers who order manual gearboxes -- anywhere from 12 percent to 17 percent. In the overall market, only about 5 percent choose manuals.
There's no word yet about a new Mazdaspeed3. For now the engine choices, both Skyactiv, are the 2.0-liter and 2.5-liter four-bangers. All models come with pushbutton starting, air conditioning and Bluetooth connectivity. Cruise control is standard on all but the base SV model.
For those who crave control, the 2.0 with the six-speed manual would be the combination of choice. The stick is available on all 2.0-liter versions. Unfortuately, for those who crave a bit more power and appointments, the 2.5-liter engine only comes with the six-speed automatic, though it includes a manual shift mode.
The test car, a 3i Grand Touring four-door hatchback, had a smooth shift linkage with light clutch engagement, a good thing because driving uphill and down required frequent shifting. Acceleration was decent but the engine sometimes became overtaxed in higher gears.
At $24,040, equipment included a navigation system, automatic climate control, Sirius XM satellite radio, HD radio rearview camera, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert and full safety equipment, including a device that holds the car in place when setting off uphill.
An unusual feature available on some upscale models is a head-up display, which Mazda calls an active driving display. It provides driver information at eye level but, unlike the systems in most cars that reflect off the inside of the windshield, Mazda displays the visuals on a separate small screen on the top of the dash, closer to the driver. It works fine, but sometimes the display washes out in bright sunlight.
Interior comfort is first rate for four people, although the leatherette-trimmed sport seats on the test car became hot and sticky over long distances. The hatchback's back seat has decent room for the outboard passengers but the center seating position is impossibly cramped.
Model: 2014 Mazda3 i Grand Touring four-door hatchback sedan.
Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder, 155 horsepower.
Transmission: Six-speed manual.
Overall length: 14 feet 8 inches.
EPA passenger/cargo volume: 96/20 cubic feet.
Weight: 2,797 pounds.
EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 29/40/33 mpg.
Base price, including destination charge: $24,040.
Price as tested: $24,335.