Like its predecessor, the new 3 clearly ranks at the top of the small-car category, especially when fun is factored in. In this "s" model, there's plenty of power, and the six-speed manual helps make the most of the 2.5-liter four-cylinder. All new 3 hatchbacks are 167-hp, 2.5-liter "s" models, actually; sedan buyers, however, can opt for a 148-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the less expensive range of "i" models.
My biggest complaint about this car's powertain is that the clutch engages extremely high in the pedal travel. A couple of my colleagues have also mentioned this in passing, but I honestly can't think of another car that I've driven with a higher engagement point. It was particularly tricky to get used to on my way home last night after spending a weekend in our supersmooth long-term Volkswagen Jetta TDI. I did adjust very quickly to the Mazda's weird clutch on my commute to work this morning, though.
The 3's very impressive interior is packaged well, with lots of bins and cargo space, but the plethora of handy features come along with countless buttons. Not that I think an iDrive-style controller belongs in this car--it just looks cluttered when you've got, for instance, a steering wheel with audio buttons, cruise-control switches, and buttons for the navigation/trip computer system (which has a supertiny screen).
The 3 looks nice in this color (called "velocity red," I believe), but I'm still having a hard time adjusting to the Joker smile painted on the front end. Honestly, that'd probably be the only thing holding me back from buying one of these ... Mrs. Blackwell, could you handle a new Mazda 3 with black paint?
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor