All-Star: 2007 Mazda 3

The Mazda 3 is simply one of the best small cars in the world, absolute proof that small and inexpensive does not have to look or feel it. Mazda's wildly popular 3 is more spacious than a Honda Civic and more stylish than a French car, and it's one of the few small cars that aspires to genuine driving goodness.

Mazda's engineers and designers bring pride and passion to every one of their cars, from the most modest to the priciest. The compact 3, in particular, thrashes the competition, because it offers all of the quality and reliability that you'd expect from any top-line Japanese automaker and then throws in handling dynamics, a free-revving engine, a sharply stylish interior, and inspired exterior design found nowhere else in this price range.

The apogee of the Mazda 3 ethos is found in the new Mazdaspeed 3, which is perhaps the best car in the history of the hot-rod Mazdaspeed line. Its 263-hp, turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine is very smooth without feeling remote, and there's a thick powerband in the middle of the tach--right where you need it. The six-speed manual transmission's shift linkage is quick, tight, and positive, although when you're not working the shifter, you'd be well-advised to have both hands on the wheel to manage the hefty torque steer that accompanies a demanding right foot.

The Mazdaspeed 3 can carve corners in a way that the all-wheel-drive competition from Subaru cannot (although the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution can), at an all-in price well below those mighty turbo-rocket sedan pioneers. Did we mention that it's top-speed-limited at 155 mph?

Mazda has built an impressive image in the past ten years, with some real (surprise) guidance from the Ford mother ship. That big, winged M on the Mazda 3's grille now instantly brands you as a special sort, a connoisseur among drivers on a budget, letting the world know just what sort of driving fool you are. Well past its sell-by date but exactly correct, "Zoom-Zoom" remains your calling card.

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