Mazda3 — Close to perfection

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

No vehicle even with today's advanced technologies and 21st Century engineering capability has reached what we consider the pinnacle of perfection in its respective segment, but some come remarkably close. One example: The compact 2014 Mazda3.

It features fresh head-turning styling; a sporty and modern interior with quality materials; two performance-oriented and fuel-efficient engine choices; a fun-to-drive nature that makes you look forward to the next time behind-the-wheel; comf
ortable and supportive front seating with a commanding view of the road; and a wide range of advanced safety features not available in most of the family compact competition. And perhaps best of all — the Mazda3 can be purchased in both sedan and hatchback formats.

We prefer the hatchback design because of its 47.1 cubic feet of cargo-carrying capability. And as a big bonus, we think the hatch design has more eye-appeal than the sedan with its long hood, bulging fenders curvaceous character lines, and artfully slopping roofline.

The Mazda3 has always been fun to drive, but this newest edition feels more connected to the road with a comfortable ride and a performance-oriented base 155-horsepower 2.0-liter that will outperform vaunted competitors as the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Not only is it quick for its class measured in the upper ranges of 7 seconds from 0-to-60, but it's as economical as the aforementioned competition with an EPA rating of 29 mpg city and 40 mpg highway for the six-speed manual transmission and 30/41 with the six-speed automatic.

We spent several hundred miles in the 2.0-liter with the manual and found it very engaging. The shift-it-yourself six-speed proved one of the easiest we've recently encountered with short, precise throws and excellent clutch action. We found overall handling and cornering on our usual stretches of winding road remarkable for a family compact. The steering is direct with good on-center feel.

If you desire more horsepower, there's more to be had. The Mazda3 has an optional 2.5-liter engine available making 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque. The bigger engine has been measured in 7.4 seconds from 0-to-60 and with only a slight fall off in gas mileage at 28/39 with the automatic transmission. The manual is not offered with the bigger engine.

The Mazda3 interior with quality materials and an uncomplicated dash puts all the controls within easy reach. The instrument cluster in the manual-equipped cars features a large center speedometer with a tachometer off to the side. Screens on either side feature a gas gauge, outside temperature, trip information, etc. The navigation, information and backup camera screen is large and easy to read perched up high in the center of the dash. It's run by a highly intuitive infotainment controller between the front seats. Although it mimics such cars as the new Mercedes-Benz CLA, you might think it looks too much like an aftermarket add-on.

While we like the looks of the hatchback and the extra cargo space it provides, the severely sloping roofline and hatch do cut into useable storage. But we don't mind this type of form over function, which results in such curvaceous head-turning styling.

In addition to the two body styles, the Mazda3 hatchback comes in Sport, Touring and Grand Touring trim levels. There's a base SV sedan, not available as a hatchback, which starts at $17,740 including destination charge. The lowest priced hatch i-Sport starts at $19,240.

Standard equipment on both Mazda3 sedan and hatchback is generous. Starting with i-Sport there are such standard features as 16-inch alloy wheels, keyless ignition/entry, sport front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and blind-spot warning with cross-traffic alert. Move up to the mid-level i-Touring and such features as dual-zone climate control, navigation, and a nine-speaker Bose surround-sound audio system with satellite radio are included.

Standard safety includes antilock disc brakes, stability and traction control, side curtain airbags and blind-spot monitoring. A rearview camera, which we think should be included as standard equipment on all cars, comes standard on the Grand Touring models.

One option package that we particularly like is Technology (not on our test car) at $2,600 that includes radar cruise control, lane departure warning, forward obstruction warning, and Mazda's Smart City Brake Support, which is a collision-mitigation system that can automatically brake the car to a stop at low speeds if the driver doesn't react to an imminent collision.

Our test car was the top level i-Grand Touring model with manual transmission that stickered for $24,735.

No matter sedan or hatchback — we think the Mazda3 is one of the best and most affordable compact cars on the market today.

Base price: $19,240; as driven, $24,635
Engine: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 155 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 150 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Length: 175.6 inches
Curb weight: 2,815 pounds
Turning circle: 34.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 20.2 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 47.1 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 40 highway, 29 city
0-60: 7.9 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra

The Good
• Good performance from 2.0-liter
• Outstanding handling and cornering
• Refined interior
• Intuitive controls

The Bad
• Backup camera standard only on top trim

The Ugly
• 2.0-liter noisy under hard acceleration