I fall decidedly on the "love" side of the love-it-or-hate-it styling, as I find myself grinning back at the Mazda 3's front fascia every time I walk by it. The smile doesn't fade when you drive it. Clutch takeup was a little high for my tastes, but otherwise, it's hard to fault anything. Behind the wheel, the 3 feels absolutely perfectly sized--small enough to feel nimble and precise but big enough to hold its own over pitted, potholed roads.
The 3 isn't completely perfect. That nav screen is absurdly small, and some interior bits, particularly the center console, aren't as solid as one expects from a high-quality Japanese compact. But the 3 has in spades something most competitors completely lack: character.
As Phil noted, the Mazda 3 should sit atop buyers' small-car shopping lists, right alongside the Honda Civic. I'd also strongly suggest that people who automatically gravitate toward the mid-size segment give this versatile hatch some consideration.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor