The new Mazda face has loads of character: it's modern and sporty, and its devilish perma-grin makes it look like it's up to something... I like that. Like the previous generation, the new 3 is a joy to drive. The 2.5-liter four has plenty of power no matter the gear or where you are in the rpm range and it pulls all the way to the redline. The steering is nicely weighted and communicative, and the light clutch and smooth shifter make changing gears a snap.
It took several minutes for me to figure out that the only controls for the nav system are on the steering wheel. This means that either the driver programs the destination before the trip begins or is forced to pull over because the front-seat passenger can't help. Also, the nav screen is too small and almost too far away to be useful. This is unfortunate, since the Mazda 3 is one of the few cars in its class to even offer a nav system. Minus a few hard plastics, the interior materials and fit are on par with the best of the class and exceed the expectations of a compact that starts out at less than $17,000. The seating position, pedal, and stick placement are perfect, although the high-mounted central console between the front seats makes the cockpit feel a little snug.
I find the Mazda 3 far more interesting than the Honda Civic. It looks and drives better and, unlike the Honda, offers the versatility of a hatch. Even more so than its predecessor, this new 3 is an effortless yet engaging vehicle that, because of its low price, should be at the top of any budget-minded car enthusiast's must-have list.
Jennifer Misaros, Production Editor