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Review: 2014 Mazda3 i Touring sedan (second place)

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This review is part of an eleven-car comparison of compact sedans. The Mazda3 is ranked in second place of eleven.

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Today's economy cars have come a long way in distancing themselves from feeling like basic transportation that you have to settle for. Higher levels of comfort, space, refinement, and interior quality – while not ubiquitous – have become reasonable expectations well south of $20,000.

But relatively few are capitalizing on their compact dimensions to make the most of their inherent handling advantage over bulkier, heavier vehicles. The most notable exception is the Mazda3, newly redesigned and vastly improved for 2014, which boasts crisp steering, composed handling, and peppy acceleration, along with expressive styling and class-leading fuel economy and safety ratings.

Some traditional commuter-car virtues are unexceptional, though, or even downright lacking. The rear seat and trunk are among the class's smallest. The price is meanwhile one of the highest, and even then it's missing features found on most competitors. And if you're looking for premium-grade refinement, the Mazda3 doesn't deliver what some might expect at its price point, despite feeling substantially richer than the 2013 model.

This Mazda won't be for everyone. But if you're looking for the most fun in this class, it happily provides that quality along with many others.

Moreover, the Mazda3 is rare as an economy car that you don't have to buy because it's a good economy car. It's something you can buy because it's a good car. Be aware of its limitations, but people who don't mind those will be very happy owners indeed.

Sporty to drive

If driving most other small cars makes you wonder if you have unreasonable standards for driving enjoyment, the Mazda3 assures you that you aren't what's wrong with that picture.

During a test drive, a Mazda salesman said the company's goal is to make its cars feel special within the first few hundred yards. This is a notable distinction from cars that feel special when pushed hard, and although not all Mazdas meet this mark, the Mazda3 is a textbook case.

You start with a peppy 2.0-liter engine mated to a 6-speed automatic or manual (this reviewer drove both, and the latter is unusually widely available), and then quickly feel the crisp, quick response of the steering. Drive the Mazda3 harder and things get better still – it still runs on economy-car tires without sports-car grip, but the chassis demonstrates outstanding composure around corners.

The Mazda3 uses the company's SkyActiv design principles toward maximizing fuel efficiency, and they pay off with best-in-class EPA ratings that held up in real-world testing. The EPA pegs the automatic Mazda3 at 34 miles per gallon in mixed driving – a best-in-class stat. The manual is 1 mpg off, but both hit a 41-mpg highway rating despite relatively short gearing on the manual.

This reviewer observed an outstanding 40.7 miles per gallon in a weeklong test of a manual Mazda3 i Grand Touring, primarily but not at all exclusively on the highway.

The car's sportiness doesn't harm its comfort level either. The ride is firm but composed without being harsh. Some drivers will in fact find this more comfortable than a softer-tuned competitor.

The Mazda3 is decently quiet under acceleration, but it cruises a little noisily on the highway, especially with the manual transmission's short gearing that yields increased engine noise.

In addition to the tested 2.0-liter four-cylinder, Mazda also offers a larger 2.5-liter with similar fuel economy but a lot more power. Oddly, though, it's available only on the top-of-the-line Mazda3; a few years ago, when the 2.5-liter Mazda3 had terrible gas mileage, the larger engine was widely available and in fact the only engine offered on the hatchback model. Go figure.

Sporty vibe inside

The Mazda3 is rare at this price point for extending sporty design into the car's interior. The low dashboard is styled to look even lower with a small instrument panel that houses only the climate controls. Poking up atop the dash is a separate audio head unit – a simple radio on most models, and an advanced infotainment system when you spring for the $1,600 navigation system.

A few materials in the cabin aren't great, and the audio controls are small and sometimes hard to reach on the base model, leaving this design as a bit of style over substance. But the styling is distinctive without being over-the-top, which isn't an easy combination to pull off, especially at a budget price.

The tested Grand Touring includes the more advanced system (it's standard on that trim level), which is intimidating at first due to unconventional controls, but it works decently once you get used to it. Drivers can operate the system either using touch controls or buttons and multifunction knobs that are located between the front seats, similar to what's found in a growing number of luxury cars. It's not immediately intuitive, but you get used to it. This reviewer didn't exactly find himself wishing more cars were like this, but there are plenty of cars with messy conventional controls that are far more frustrating than the Mazda3. The screen also has an attractive display.

The gauges aren't as impressive – though they look nice, the 5-mph increments wash out easily on the small speedometer, and the digitally rendered tachometer is also quite small.

Front seats are quite comfortable and supportive, well-designed both for ordinary and spirited driving. They're a little narrow, though, so not all sizes will be happy. The i Grand Touring has vinyl “leatherette” seat trim that doesn't adopt the growing trend toward perforation that keeps thing from getting too hot and sticky. The costlier s Grand Touring, with the larger engine, has perforated leather seats; otherwise, though, lower-end models' cloth is the most pleasant seating surface.

The rear seat is tighter than most competitors, and the cushion is low. Two adults can squeeze in, but not really three. The Mazda3 sedan's trunk is also modest at 12.4 cubic feet, albeit usefully shaped; a five-door hatchback model is also offered.

Expensive

The Mazda3 feels nicer than an ordinary economy car from behind the wheel, at least when you're on a curvy road, but you do pay for that feel. A midlevel Mazda3 i Touring has a sticker price of $21,440 and Truecar.com estimates you'll only be able to haggle about $1,000 off that price.

Such a Mazda3 has an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; alloy wheels; and Bluetooth connectivity, but not the infotainment system found on most of the cars in this comparison. As noted, that would cost an extra $1,600, in a package bundled with automatic climate control, a navigation system, a rearview camera and an upgraded sound system. That's not a bad group of features for the money, and it's an option worthy of consideration if you buy the Mazda3. But it bumps the price even farther from its peers', most of which are south of $19,000 out the door.

Best-in-class gas mileage does help mitigate the higher purchase price.

Overall

Top-notch gas mileage and safety ratings could attract any economy car shopper to the Mazda3, but it lacks the space, quietness and bargain pricing of the best competitors. If you don't also value zippy handling, that could well knock it out of the running for you.

But if sportiness is a factor at all, give the Mazda3 careful consideration despite its relatively high price. It's certainly not a perfect car, but a cohesive, thoughtfully designed package that's also great fun to drive, and a clear standout in this class.

Overall grade: A-

More from this comparison:
- Next review: 2014 Honda Civic EX (1st place)
- Previous review: 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE (3rd place)
- Rating the eleven compact sedans
- Ranking the eleven compact sedans
- Introduction to this comparison

More about the 2014 Mazda3 i Touring:
- Photo gallery
- Report card -- how does it compare in different ways, such as comfort, performance, and fuel economy?
- Report card -- how does it stack up for different types of buyers?

Vehicle tested: 2014 Mazda3
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $17,200
Versions tested: i Touring, i Grand Touring
Version base prices (MSRP): $19,595, $22,745
Vehicle prices as tested (MSRP): $21,440, $24,035
Vehicle price as comparable (MSRP): $21,440
Estimated transaction price as comparable: $20,438
Test vehicles provided by: Brown's Chantilly Mazda of Chantilly, Va.; Mazda North America

Key specifications:
Length: 180.3 inches
Width: 70.7 inches
Height: 57.3 inches
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Weight: 2,848 pounds
Trunk volume: 12.4 cubic feet
Turning circle: 34.8 feet
Engine (as tested): 2.0-liter I4 with 155 horsepower
Transmission (as tested): 6-speed automatic, 6-speed manual
EPA city mileage: 30 miles per gallon, 29 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 41 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 34 miles per gallon, 33 miles per gallon
Observed mileage during test: NA, 40.7 miles per gallon
Assembly location: Japan
For more information: Mazda website

See also:
Review: 2015 Mazda6 i Grand Touring
Review: 2014 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring
Review: 2012 Mazda2 Sport
Review: 2013 Mazda3 i Grand Touring

* Prices as comparable reflect vehicles equipped with the same features, when possible: an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; alloy wheels; Bluetooth connectivity; and an infotainment screen.
** Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.

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