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Mazda3 shows good things come in small packages

Simply superlative

Sometimes the best superlatives are the ones that don’t sound so positive. Nice. Steady. Adequate. Fine. Please note for this review, these words will stand for something more superlative than what you may interpret.

This week’s tester is not grandiose. It’s not even a car you’d likely list if I said to name 10 compact cars. But it should be on that list because, despite its lack of pizzazz and me being at a loss for grandiose superlatives, the Mazda is an all-around excellent car.

On looks, the Mazda3 has a great profile. Few cars on the road today can say they look great from the side, but this compact car does. In fact, the looks don’t end at the side, as they continue to the back where the styling really livens up the car. It’s true that the front of the Mazda3 is rather bland. And that’s where those not-so-nice superlatives come into play. The front end is fine, OK, acceptable. But there’s no wow factor from the front.

Thankfully, the car redeems itself with handsome looks on the other three quarters of the car. The LED combination taillights are not just functional but a great design element. There’s a five-door hatch option, which looks even better than my four-door tester and resembles a high-performance car.

Speaking of that performance, the Mazda3 follows suit with almost all the Mazda product line, offering a performance that outperforms its statistics and adds pleasure to the driving experience. With the new 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, the Mazda3 heats up. Otherwise the standard 2.0-liter is somewhat tame.

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My tester had a spunky 2.5-liter engine that made 184 horses. It felt like even more than that even off the line. On highway speeds the six-speed automatic transmission felt a little outmatched, but otherwise, at lower speeds, and lower gears, the transmission performed well. The superior handling and responsive steering differentiates the Mazda3 from other cars in this segment (I’m looking at you, Corolla). It truly is a pleasure to drive.

The interior of the Mazda3 is impressive. It’s significantly better than similarly priced cars in the segment. The high-end feel of the interior, along with the surprisingly spacious cabin, made me do a double take to make sure the Mazda3 is still eligible to be called a compact (it is!). So, knowing this is a small car, it was a joy to realize that adults can be comfortable in the back seat. Although it’s rated for five passengers, it’s more suited for four as shoulder room can get a little tight with three in the rear.

The front has leather-surface, sport-styled seats. The angle and the driving angle are comfortable and well suited. It took very little adjusting to find that sweet spot. The leather continues on the steering wheel and the gear shift knob. All these touchpoints were so nice, and not what I’d expect from a vehicle listed at less than $30,000. The moonroof was impressive and added ambience. This glass roof trend in the auto industry really impresses me, and always seems to impress my passengers, too.

I will continue to harp on the infotainment system in all Mazdas until the many quirks and flaws are fixed. The interface itself – a 7-inch touchscreen that feels like an iPad – is nice, but there’s so many clunky steps and it lacks intuition for the simplest of commands. I’ve read other auto writers’ opinions who like the system, but I beg to differ. It may work well for you, but I just find it unnecessarily complicated. Kudos to Mazda for including two USB ports.

There’s 12.4 cubic feet of space in the trunk, which is OK, but is far behind the hatch which has 20.2 cubic feet of space. A 60/40 split of the rear seats expands that cargo area to 47.1 cubic feet. For cargo, the hatchback Mazda3 is the way to go versus the sedan.

There are three trims for the Mazda including Sport, Touring and Grand Touring. My tester was the top-of-the-line Grand Touring. It has an MSRP of $24,195. With options like paddle shifters, smart braking, radar cruise control, heated steering wheel and lane departure warning (annoying), my tester had a final price of $27,070.

Overall, the Mazda3 has good, not great, fuel economy. Perhaps an improvement in the transmission would get them over the 30 mpg/average plateau. As such, the Mazda3 is rated at 27 mpg/city and 36 mpg/highway. I averaged just less than 30 mpg in a week’s worth of driving.

I am still a big fan of compact cars. I feel most people disregard them as too small and too flimsy. For those people, I’d point them squarely at the Mazda3 as a viable, quality and very fun-to-drive compact car.

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