By Tom Crosby
Mazda3 was introduced as a compact car into the United States market 10 years ago and 2014 marks the launch of the third-generation of the Japanese automaker's most popular vehicle.
There are 11 Mazda3 trims accounting for one of every three Mazda's sold worldwide among nearly 20 Mazda brand vehicles sold in 120 countries.
Nothing in the 2014 make-over will diminish Mazda3's popularity, as the five-seater sports compact car gets better gas mileage, improved safety features, more interior occupant space and an aggressively stylish profile.
Our test drive was the 6-speed manual transmission 2.0-liter Madza3i Grand Touring five-door, a hatchback. Mazda3 offers choices between two engine sizes (the 2.0 or 2.5-liter), safety and technology upgrades, automatic or manual transmissions and eight colors, a $300 add-on for our Soul Red Metallic paint job. The color helped attract attention to the Kodo "motion" redesign, compressing the front grille, sharpening headlight shapes, carving aerodynamic looking character lines front to rear, and using a rising beltline toward the rear to keep a sleek, sporty look.
The design, which includes wide B pillars, somewhat hinders side visibility. Compensation comes with a new i-ACTIVESENSE smorgasbord of safety features, like blindspot warning, lane departure warning, forward obstruction warning that includes smart city brake control, a fully automatic braking action at speeds under 19 mph when an imminent collision is sensed by the milliwave radar.
Mazda3 gets a top safety grade from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The vehicle freezes upper dashboard screen icons while underway to minimize distraction. However, a new 2014 optional translucent screen between the gauges and the windshield rises up when underway and displays navigation directions already programmed, speed limit and other driving information.
Mileage improvements are helped by a new i-Eloop ultra-capacitor that recovers energy when braking and reduces the engine strain on the alternator. Mazda's SKYACTIV-G® engine remains the spritely powerplant for a car that weighs 75 pounds less that its predecessor.
Bulging fender arches, 16-inch alloy wheels and a 2.4-longer wheelbase give a sporty outside look despite the car being 1.8-inches shorter. Other dimension changes improve interior comfort and space for all occupants - ceiling height up .6 inches, rear seatbacks 2 inches taller and increased front and rear shoulder room.
A smooth ride, sharp handling responses and minimal noise underway all make the new Mazda3 comfortable when traveling. And when needed, the short-throw smoothly shifting manual gearshift can do "Zoom Zoom", Mazda's iconic marketing mantra.
LIKES: Ride, ergonomics, handling, mileage, quiet, versatile
BOTTOM LINE: Mazda3 remains a top competitor in compact hatchback market
MAZDA 3i TOURING 5-DOOR
Base price w/destination fee $24,040
Curb weight 2,797 lbs
Wheelbase 106.3 inches
Length 175.6 inches
Width 70.7 inches
Engine specs 2.0-liter, DOHC, 16-valve, SKYACTIV-G
Horsepower 155 hp at 6,000 rpm
Torque 150 ft-lbs at 4,000 rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual
EPA Rating 29 mpg city and 40 mpg highway
Range 13.2-gallon tank, regular unleaded
Performance 0-60 in about 8 seconds
-- Tom Crosby is a former journalist and communications director for AAA Carolinas. He has been reviewing cars since 1996, and has been active in traffic safety issues for more than 30 years.