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TechnoFile's Car of the Year: 2014 Mazda 3 Sport

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Mazda's bread and butter car, the 3, is back with a terrific new edition that ups the already successful little car's ante substantially over its previous generation. It's an excellent car that looks, drives and feels more expensive than it is.

The 3 is available in two versions, sedan and hatchback, which Mazda calls, respectively, the Mazda3 and the Mazda3 Sport. They're both very nice, but the Sport is a five door hatchback (a.k.a. a "wagon"), so it's also a tad more practical for those who like to haul stuff.

The Sport is also the better looking of the two styles, in my never humble opinion. The front end is pretty well the same on either version, but the Sport's rear end somehow seems to finish off the car's bum better. It's kind of reminiscent of how the Hyundai Elantra GT (the "wagon" version of the Elantra) improves on the already great looking basic Elantra - or how the Audi A4 wagon (currently called the Allroad instead of the more traditional "Avant") looks just a bit classier than the sedan. Beauty, of course, being in the eye of the beholder.

I've always loved the 3, especially the first generation. The second - now outgoing - generation was a great car, but I had issues with its "Tow Mater" grinning oaf grille and thought the interior, while attractive and classy, was a tad busy. I was also a tad unimpressed with the smaller of the two Skyactiv engines Mazda inflicted on it (and the CX-5), which I think has taken away a lot of the wonderful "Zoom-Zoom" for which the company has become associated.

That smaller engine is still available in the new 3 and if fuel mileage is more important to you than driving pleasure, it's probably a decent choice - and it should give you better performance in the 3 than in the heavier CX-5. But opt for the 2.5 liter four cylinder Skyactiv engine and you may spend more on gas, but you'll have a wonderful time doing it. This also applies to the otherwise terrific CX-5.

My other complaints - goofy grin and busy interior - have been addressed nearly completely in the new 3. The new exterior is a real head turner, from its relatively flat and tall front grille (still the 3's weakest link, but a huge improvement) to that wonderfully sporty butt. The car beckons you to get in and head out - and for passengers to hang on! Hop into this baby, fire it up and drive off and it's hard not to hear that kid in the commercials (who must be about 70 years old by now!) whisper "Zoom-Zoom" in your ear. Sure, it's only 184 horsepower, but the 3 uses every one of them to their - and your - best. Zoom-Zoom, indeed.

To get the exterior just right (and boy, did they!), Mazda moved the cabin back and created a profile that rises dramatically toward the rear end. The wheelbase is longer now, and the wheels (which peek out from under nicely flared fenders) have been moved more toward the four corners of the vehicle, which should enhance the 3's already lively handling.

Inside is a restrained but modern interior that's attractive and efficient, and very driver-oriented. There's plenty of room, it's comfortable, and nearly everything is where it should be. You also get Mazda's new "car connectivity system" featuring a new "Human Machine Interface (HMI)" the company says is designed "with the highest priority placed on driving safety." This, I assume, refers to such stuff as the optional (and quite annoying) heads up display, the center stack-top-mounted LCD touch screen and the console-mounted controller/volume knob that also appears on the excellent new Mazda6.

Mazda Canada's sample 3 Sport, in GT trim, featured a really nice instrument panel in which an analog tachometer is surrounded by a pair of "wing-shaped" digital displays. The tach also incorporates a digital speedometer into its bottom right corner, which comes across as a very Porsche-like setup, and that means it's terrific. Not as terrific is the Active Driving Display (ADD - what an unfortunate acronym!) that folds up from the top of the instrument panel, revealing a heads up display.

The LCD screen atop the center of the dashboard looks great though, as with the ADD display, it does appear as if it could be pulled off easily with a pair of pliers. You can operate the screen either via touch or via the controller down between the front seats. I was surprised to find that I preferred the little knob and surrounding buttons on the console, which is actually closer at hand than the high-mounted LCD and designed to be operated with hardly a glance away from the road. It's very well thought out.

A handy touch is how the LCD displays the names of cross streets as you approach them, regardless of whether you're using the navigation system or not.

The nav system even includes speed limit info, displayed as a little road sign that changes color if you exceed what it thinks the posted limit is. Alas, it's not as smart as it thinks it is. I was driving in what the Mazda correctly labelled as a 70 km/h zone, but it suddenly warned me it had dropped to 50 km/h at least a kilometer before that change actually happens, thereby accusing me of speeding when I wasn't. To make it worse, when the speed limit actually did drop to 50 km/h, the 3 told me it was back up to 70! That could have resulted in a speeding ticket if I were relying on the Mazda for the info.

It was particularly ironic since I had received my first speeding ticket in ages a few days earlier, mere minutes after I had picked up the sample 3 and was cruising along in "Zoom-Zoom-initiated bliss," enjoying the drive and not paying enough attention to the Mazda's speed. Sure, it was my fault, but I'd like to blame the seductive 3.

So, yeah, even though it only has 184 horsepower (and 185 lb.-ft. or torque), it's fast enough to get you into trouble.

You can get a 3 Sport with either a six speed manual or six speed automatic with paddles. The sample had the automatic with paddles, and it's very good.

I first got to drive the new 3 Sport at the Canadian Car of the Year TestFest at the end of October and came away with the firm belief that the 3 Sport should win the overall Canadian Car of the Year title. That's probably the kiss of death for its chances (though it won its category of "Best Small Car over $21,000), but to me, the combination of good looks inside and out, stimulating performance and reasonable price make it a clear winner. This is a car I would buy were I in the market.

So while my heart may have leaned toward the Porsche Cayman, my head is filled with "Zoom-Zoom" and that's why I'm naming it the Mazda3 Sport my TechnoFile Car of the Year. I can't think of another set of wheels this nice, this much fun, and this practical, for this price. Congratulations, Mazda.

My biggest gripe with the 3, and it's hardly a deal breaker (more an annoyance than anything) is that new ADD heads up display. Most - if not all - of the other heads up displays I've seen project the virtual image so it appears to be hanging in space in front of the windshield. Here, you have a silly little flip up clear plastic panel atop the dashboard, and it has an adverse effect on the otherwise elegantly clean interior.

And while you can adjust the virtual display up and down, even if you lower it all the way out of your line of sight it still reflects light onto the windshield at night, which I found off-putting. You can shut off the display from the menu system, but you have to do it each time you fire up the car - and the display panel flips up anyway.

This may be something your dealer can change via software, and it certainly wouldn't scare me away from this terrific car (though I'd probably contemplate bringing out a pair of pliers to take care of it once and for all!). It does seem a case of wooly thinking in an otherwise sublime vehicle, however.

Picky, picky, picky.

According to Mazda's Canadian website, the base Mazda3 Sport, with the 155 hp, two liter Skyactiv engine, starts at $16,995 Canadian. The highest, GT trim level starts at $26,855 and is equipped very well for that sum. You can add a few options to that, such as the $2500 Technology Package or the $1500 luxury package.

Bottom line? The 2014Mazda3 Sport is an excellent car that looks, feels and drives as if it were priced higher than it is. If you're looking for a vehicle in this category, check this one out first.

Copyright 2013 Jim Bray
TechnoFile.com

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