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2014 Mazda3 First Drive

Hollywood, California -- For the longest time, reasonably priced cars have been all about the size and shape of the package. It's as if a small car were some kind of cardboard shipping box that you dressed up with paint and crepe paper and then wore over your shoulders with a couple of straps like something from the class play.

So it's a bit of a surprise that Mazda has managed to make its reasonably priced 2014 Mazda 3 better to drive. Such a thing should not be possible. Once you introduce the factor of "reasonably priced," there's not much wiggle room for engineers, product planners, and designers to do anything special.

Yet, as we're zipping down Hollywood Boulevard in the shadow of the glamorous W Hotel and feeling rather glamorous ourselves in this pretty dramatic-looking Mazda 3, we can already tell that something special is going on.

Leaving behind the bright lights
Since we're headed toward the stretch of road in the San Gabriel Mountains where Mazda R&D does its ride-and-handling testing, we're going to have an opportunity to find out just how special this all-new car really is. Mazda has set out to make the 2014 Mazda 3 a driver's car, although maybe not in the way you expect. The mission here is to improve the interface between human and machine in a way that minimizes distractions and improves the experience of driving itself, which relates to safety as well as satisfaction.

New styling pulls the Mazda 3's A-pillars 3.9 inches farther rearward, providing not just a wider, more panoramic view through the windshield but also a sense of greater interior spaciousness. Moreover, the outside mirrors are mounted on the doors instead of the A-pillars to deliver a better view of the traffic behind the car, from where yet another BMW driver, in his little bubble of high-speed entitlement, is bound to emerge at any second.

Even the driving position itself is better, squared up to the front of the vehicle instead of being slightly twisted to the middle, which is typical. Your head is up and your focus is on the surrounding driving environment, which is much better than sitting in a hole facing a big wall of electronics.

Meanwhile, a head-up display projects the car's speed on a transparent plastic panel in the driver's line of sight. The screen for the electronics interface pops up from the dash at just the right distance to enhance visibility, while the information is expressed in a format determined by human factor studies to speed recognition (or so the Mazda engineers assert). The interface's rotary control on the center console also has been designed to be easy to operate without forcing you to look down.

It all means that your eyes spend more time on the road and less time inside the cockpit, even when you're toying with the wide range of connectivity features, from navigation to the voice that reads your email.

Bless this reasonably priced box
It may be the company's "reasonably priced box," but Mazda has nothing for which to apologize with the 2014 Mazda 3. Just as the Mazda 3 was a decade ago, before it went on to sell 3.5 million examples worldwide, the new Mazda 3 presents itself as a premium sort of expression, incorporating high style and a rich, fully equipped transportation experience.

Built on the platform architecture introduced by the Mazda CX-5 crossover utility and the Mazda 6 sedan, the new Mazda 3's 106.3-inch wheelbase is 2.4 inches longer than before, a dimension that fosters straight-line stability and a composed ride. Despite the longer wheelbase, the new Mazda 3 is actually 1.8 inches shorter than before as well as 0.6 inch lower. Plus it's 1.6 inches wider. It all adds up to 96.3 cubic feet of interior volume in the Mazda 3 sedan (the choice of 70 percent of buyers) and 96.4 cubic feet in the four-door hatchback.

Zoom-Zoom DNA is still in place
Of course, this is still a Mazda, and that zoom-zoom thing remains part of the corporate DNA within the 2014 Mazda 3. When you lean into the supportive backrest of the new, slimly tailored driver seat and lead the car into the sweeping bends of Big Tujunga Canyon Road, the all-new Mazda 3 feels, well, all-new.

Just like the larger Mazda 6 sedan, the front-wheel-drive Mazda 3 has the same steering geometry as a rear-wheel-drive car. The electric-assist power steering system delivers just enough steering effort to make the deliberate, predictable response from the front tires enjoyable on the open road and increases assist at low speeds for friendly maneuverability. Once you add a long wheelbase, available 215/45R-18 tires, and a resilient, carefully damped suspension setup, the new Mazda 3 drives more like a sport sedan than a reasonably priced car.

Even the engine and transmission choices play along. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder delivers 184 hp at 5700 rpm and 185 lb-ft of torque at 3250 rpm, and the 2.0-liter four-cylinder makes 155 hp at 6000 rpm and 150 lb-ft at 4000 rpm. Both engines prefer midrange rpm and effortlessly carry the car along, notably when you choose the high-efficiency six-speed automatic over the six-speed manual transmission. The Mazda 3 isn't quick to the quarter-mile, but it is fast over a hundred miles, if you get our meaning. Plus, a 40-mpg EPA highway rating is possible if you pick the right model configuration.

Safety first, not last
Just as the Mazda 3 introduced premium comfort and convenience features to the category of reasonably priced cars a decade ago, the new 2014 Mazda 3 introduces the opportunity for such a car to have a complete suite of active safety features. The array includes automatic high-beam control, blind-spot monitoring, forward-obstruction monitoring, lane-departure monitoring, radar-operated cruise control, and low-speed active braking. Mazda reckons that making driving safer is part of making driving more fun.

All this adds up to a car that has a far more sophisticated approach to the driving experience than you usually find in this market segment. It's too soon to be making final judgments about the 2014 Mazda 3, however. We'll know more once we've taken an example on the road to Hell, Michigan, not just Angeles Crest Highway. But so far, we're excited that the Mazda 3 has been unexpectedly transformed from a pretty good little car into a pretty great little car.

2014 Mazda 3

  • Base Price Range: $16,700 - $24,850 (est. )
  • Engines: 2.0-liter I-4, 155 hp, 150 lb-ft; 2.5-liter I-4, 184 hp, 185 lb-ft
  • Transmission: Six-speed automatic, six-speed manual
  • Drive: Front-wheel
  • On Sale: September