Rating: 8.5
Bottom Line:
The all-new 2014 Mazda3 is competent, offering a spirited driving experience and somewhat counterintuitive 41-mpg highway fuel economy while providing ample storage space, seating for five and a high degree of comfort and reliability. Shoppers in the compact segment would do well to put this Mazda on their test-drive lists.
Pros:
  • 41 mpg highway
  • Tidy, functional interior
  • Stellar under $20K car
Cons:
  • No Bluetooth in base trim
  • Gauge fonts too small
  • Unflattering 5-door profile

The Mazda Mazda3 is the Japanese automaker's clean-up hitter, accounting for 30 percent of global sales and 3.5 million units sold since it hit the streets in 2003. Needless to say, there is a lot riding on the all-new 2014 edition of this sporty compact.

Model lineup
The Mazda3 is distinguished by two variants, i and s, each offered with multiple trim levels. The Mazda3 i features a 2.0-liter engine, while the Mazda3 s relies on a larger 2.5-liter 4-cylinder mill. Both drivetrains are also available on the CX-5 SUV.

The smaller-engine i trims are SV ($16,945), Sport ($18,445), Touring ($19,595) or Grand Touring ($22,745). For the s, pricing starts at $24,595 for a Touring and $25,995 for a GT. The Mazda3 is available as a 4-door sedan or 5-door hatch, but the SV is only offered as a sedan. Opting for an automatic adds $1,050 to the price of any car.

View Pictures:  2014 Mazda3

Standard fare in the SV includes push-button start, automatic power door locks, a remote keyless entry system, daytime running lights and a USB connection port. Also standard are a matte-finish front grille, 16-inch steel wheels, body-color door handles and bumpers, dual-power folding outside mirrors, power windows, a tilt-and-telescopic adjustable steering column, air conditioning with a pollen filter, trim-specific cloth sport seats, a fold-down rear seat, a four-speaker AM/FM audio system and an auxiliary input jack.

Stepping into a Sport nets illuminated steering wheel controls, a 60/40 split fold-flat rear seat, Bluetooth hands-free phone and audio connectivity, cruise control, a trip computer, a CD player, map lights, body-color side mirrors and a tachometer.

The mid-level i Touring trim additions include heated body-color folding outside mirrors with turn signal indicators; a rear-seat folding armrest with cupholders; the Mazda Advanced Keyless Entry & Start system; a leather-wrapped brake handle, shift knob and 3-spoke steering wheel ; and 16-inch alloy wheels. A blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert is standard on all i Touring trims.

A Mazda Touring Technology package is available for all i Touring trims. It adds dual-zone automatic climate control, an overhead console, shark fin antenna and MAZDA CONNECT, which features a 7-inch full-color touch-screen display, an SD card-based navigation system, a multifunction commander control for display screen operations, a rearview camera and a Bose 9-speaker surround sound system.

The i Grand Touring is available with either manual or automatic transmissions and features the equipment of an i Touring with the Technology package as well as a 6-way power-adjustable driver's seat with manual lumbar adjustment, leatherette seats and door panel inserts, variable heated front seats and a moonroof.

Inner space
The interior is a strong point for the Mazda3. It has a spacious feel and simplified controls. Materials and fit-and-finish are excellent, and the seats are comfortable. Substantial side bolstering gives the nod to the sportier GT seats over those in the Touring, which has more substantial padding in the seat bottom. It's hard to detect the difference between leatherette and leather materials, so "test sit" before jumping up to full leather. Only the leather buckets can be two-tone to add contrast in the cabin.

The Mazda3 can be equipped with a head-up display dubbed Active Driving Display. It's a clear pop-up panel that provides vehicle speed, navigation directions and other pertinent driving information with a quick glance. The gauge cluster positions a big, centrally mounted dial that can house either a tachometer or speedometer, depending on whether the car has a head-up display and the type of transmission. The main dial is flanked by a winglike display that shows fuel level, trip, mileage and other information. We found these too small to read quickly.

Under the hood
Crack the hood and it's all about Mazda's SkyActiv technology. The smaller i version sports a 2.0-liter SkyActiv-G 4-cylinder engine rated at 155 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque. This is the fuel mileage champ; the sedan returns 30 mpg city/41 mpg highway/34 mpg combined, while the 5-door hatch delivers 30/40/33 mpg.

The engine has no qualms motivating the Mazda3, especially when mated to the 6-speed manual transmission. A highway mileage rating of 40 mpg has been seen as the brass ring for fuel efficiency, and the Mazda3 is one of the biggest cars to make a successful grab at it. A scant few years ago only micro cars such as the smart fourtwo or B-segment rides including Mazda's own Mazda2 or the Chevy Sonic could hit that number.

Drivers who want a little more pep should opt for the s variant and its 2.5-liter SkyActiv-G engine, which replaces the outgoing MRZ powerplant. The 2.5-liter is rated at 184 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque and is noticeably quicker in both manual and 6-speed automatic transmission versions. Although it's the "big block" of the Mazda3 lineup, the 2.5-liter generates fuel mileage numbers that are the envy of many appliance-like commuters. The sedan returns 28 mpg city/39 mpg highway/32 mpg combined.

On the road
The 5-door hatchback's profile just didn't click with us, especially with 16-inch rolling stock. The nose seems long, the wheelwells are not full enough and there's too much going on where the rear roofline meets the hatch meets the fender meets the rear door. The sedan looks better. Both benefit from an upgrade to 18-inch wheels.

The previous generation's 2.4-inch shorter wheelbase made for a more nimble, more precise ride. When one hears a car has "grown up" this is what that feels like. That said, the new Mazda3 is certainly more refined; it rides better, is quieter and more comfortable than the outgoing model.

Engineers of 41-mpg powerplants are usually focused on squeezing every inch of mileage out of their design, so it is refreshing to drive an engine as peppy and responsive as the SkyActiv-G.

Right for you?
If ever two variants of the same model needed to be test-driven back-to-back, it's the Mazda3. For instance, the well-equipped Touring trim, which seems the best value in our eyes, represents a substantial $5,000 difference to the bottom line when comparing the small-engine i and big-engine s variants -- so shop wisely.

Consumers seem to be reacting favorably to Mazda's SkyActiv philosophy of efficient design. The CX-5 crossover SUV has been a resounding success, and the Mazda3 looks to be a solid follow-up combining impressive fuel efficiency, a refined ride and an attractive starting price.

(As part of a sponsored press event, the automaker provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)

Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, and currently contributes to JDPower.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.