Exciting things are coming from Mazda these days. With both the mid-size 6 sedan and the sporty RX-8 coupe making our All Stars list this year, we were downright giddy to hop in the new 3. The 3 is available in both 4- and 5-door body styles, and sedan buyers get a choice of two engines, while the wagon comes standard with the larger one, a 160-horsepower 2.3-liter 4-cylinder. Also standard on the 5-door is a sport package with stylish seventeen-inch wheels, firmer suspension, and larger brakes. We found our 5-door test car to be the real athlete of the group, living up to its company slogan. The 3 always seemed to have enough power to make us smile, and the car ate up tight twisties with ease. Handling was refreshingly neutral and secure. The only trade-off is that the larger wheels made for a bumpy ride through southern Michigan roads still recovering from a long winter, so some buyers may opt to rebel from the big-wheel trend and settle for a 3i sedan with fifteen-inch tires, albeit at the expense of the bigger engine. The 3s sedan comes with sixteen-inch wheels and the larger engine.
Inside the cabin, the 3 achieves a beautiful balance of sport and elegance; controls are stylish and easy to use. The 3 shares some good DNA with an unlikely car, KITT, the Pontiac Trans Am that starred in TV's Knight Rider. Both cars feature a row of red lights that illuminate sequentially; while KITT's were on the hood, the 3's dance along the dashboard in response to movement of the control dials. The most exciting thing about this cabin, though, is the list of available options including not only the usuals - leather, a 6-disc in-dash CD changer, and a moonroof - but even a navigation system, xenon headlights, side curtain airbags, and a tire-pressure monitoring system. The cutting edge does come at a price though, as a fully loaded 3 costs nearly $25,000, or as much as a well-equipped Mazda 6. Still, even loaded, the 3 represents real value for the money, especially when compared with the Volvo S40, a car based on the same platform can cost $10,000 more.
In this segment, the 3 is the car we would find ourselves owning, and with the wide selection of power plants, body styles, and optional equipment, the latest little Mazda seems ready to suit any small car buyer's desires. Now, if only a Mazdaspeed version could come sooner. . .