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February 10, 2014

Redesigned Mazda3 among best new small cars

Mazda must be dabbling in black magic.

How else can you explain the fact that this relatively small Japanese company is doing what no one else in the car industry seems to have figured out? They’re building cars that get amazing gas mileage and are exhilarating to drive at the same time.

Doing one or the other is easy. If you cram a giant engine into a little car, you’ll get people’s hearts racing. And on the flip side, you can put a puny engine into a tin-can car and get good gas mileage.

But what Mazda has done with this car, the all-new Mazda3, is remarkable.

First of all, it’s rated for 41 mpg on the highway. To put that in perspective, it’s the exact same mileage figure as the first-generation Toyota Prius hybrid, which set the standard for hyper-efficient cars when it was introduced.

Unlike many fuel-saving cars, though, the Mazda3 doesn’t feel like a dinky, hamster-powered contraption. It feels quick and nimble, matching the breathtakingly fun feeling that I loved in the previous generation 3.

I’m not quite sure how Mazda managed to do that. Mazda’s Department of Marketing Mumbo Jumbo came up with the term “SKYACTIV” to describe how the engine, transmission, body and chassis work together to boost performance and gas mileage, but black magic still makes more sense to me.

Whatever the root cause, this is one of my favorite small cars to drive in a long time. And it’s for reasons that go much deeper than gas mileage.

From the driver’s seat, this new design feels like one of the fastest, most fun compact cars you can buy. It doesn’t drive at all like a car that’s designed for good gas mileage, strangely enough.

I love the new look Mazda gives this car for 2014. It gets a long, sports-car-like hood, swept-back headlights and a sleek, expensive-looking overall shape. I think it looks like a smaller, sportier version of the pricey Lexus RX 350 that I tested last week.

Inside, this is one of the best cabins I’ve ever seen in a compact car. It has soft materials on the dash, tight construction, and — at least in my test car — all the bells and whistles you could possibly imagine being in a commuter vehicle: automatic headlights, a heads-up display, lane departure warning, dual-zone climate control, push-button start, blind-spot sensors, a navigation system and lots more.

On the downside, all those extras added a lot to the price of my test car. It rang up over $29,000, which — to me, at least — seems like an awful lot of money for a Mazda compact car. The base version of this car, starting under $17,000, makes more sense for most people.

As a whole, though, this is one of the most impressive small cars I’ve driven in years. Even at the end of its lifespan, the previous generation Mazda3 was one of my favorites, and this new version raises the bar even higher.

It’s kept the lovable, fun-to-drive spirit of the Mazda3 while adding better gas mileage for today’s world. If Mazda had to stick pins into Honda and Toyota voodoo dolls to do that, so be it.

 

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