No longer an also-ran in the compact car war long waged between the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, the Mazda3 has established itself as a sporty, stylish and grown-up version of the long-forgotten 323.
The “3” was completely redesigned for 2014 — as was the larger Mazda6 — and the new car meets and exceeds the expectations set by the second-generation model.
Mazda started by eliminating the one feature on the old car that failed to win much critical praise: the exterior styling. Like the Mazda6, the 2014 Mazda3 has adopted the OEM’s “stylish, insightful and spirited” design language, and it works on both the sedan and five-door hatchback.
The body is longer, wider and lower, and it appears tipped forward — almost as if it just came to a sudden stop and can’t wait to take off again. The look is exaggerated by a swooping shoulder line and rear door handles set several inches higher than those in the front.
Under the hood, the base 2.0-liter inline four returns for another tour, delivering 155 horsepower (hp) at 150 pound-feet (lb.-ft.) of torque and up to 41 miles per gallon (mpg) on the highway.
Mazda3 buyers can still opt for a 2.5-liter four-banger, but it’s a new and more refined power plant: The 2013 delivered 167 hp and only 29 mpg in highway driving. This year’s model is good for 184 hp at 182 lb.-ft. and 39 mpg on the highway.
The 3 continues to wear its “performance” label as a badge of honor. As in years past, critics have praised the new car’s acceleration, steering and road feel, but some have noted a longer-than-average stopping distance. Mazda added several standard and available safety systems that are — if not foreign to the segment — fairly rare. Higher trim levels include a rearview camera, blind-spot, lane-departure and forward-collision warnings and an automatic, full-stop braking system.
The interior was fully redesigned to include upgraded materials, a new and more intuitive control stack and a fashionably conspicuous touchscreen. The base SV includes power, A/C, a four-speaker stereo and iPod, USB and auxiliary inputs.
Upgrading to Sport, Touring or Grand Touring brings a long list of standard and optional amenities, including leatherette upholstery, voice control, navigation, premium stereo and much more.
The 2014 Mazda3 is available now. Prices range from $19,740 for the base model to $26,495 for a tricked-out Grand Touring edition.