Not every journalist can say he was the first to drive a hand-built prototype during its unveiling. But when you're Mr. Driver's Seat, great moments lie around the bend.
During the recent introduction to the 2014 Mazda3, I happened to be among the swarm of writers and photographers getting a first look at the latest design from the purveyor of zoomzoomery. Unfortunately, driving a prototype is never part of the plan.
Lo and behold, when I got my turn to sit in the driver's seat, suddenly I heard people shouting, "Move it forward, Scott!" "Move it up!" Because the hatch was in the shade and the rest of the car was in the sun, the lighting for photography and videography was all wrong.
I tried to hide my excitement and nervousness. I knew that I couldn't choke. The crowd was counting on me.
I eased the vehicle into drive and let off the brake. I rolled 10 feet forward, stopped and put it in park.
I performed flawlessly despite the watchful eyes of a couple dozen people eager to report on any potential mayhem caused by one of their competitors.
The braking was excellent. The steering stayed on center. The seating position and gauges were just right.
I'll have to wait for a bit of a longer ride to report on handling, acceleration and other performance characteristics. But, so far, it's swell.
What it is: The 2014 Mazda3 follows on the heels of the Mazda CX-5 and Mazda6. It incorporates some of the design elements of the crossover and midsize sedan and begins to unify the look of the lineup even more. So if you like what you've seen so far, you're sure to love the 3.
Inside: The cabin was roomy and comfortable. We scribes kept adjusting our seats to check legroom, and even with the seat all the way back, the rear passenger is not crunched. And behind someone like 5-foot-10-inch Mr. Driver's Seat, legroom is fine. The seats are on nice pedestals, so feet are not pinched either.
The dash focuses on the tachometer, and the speedometer is a digital inset at the bottom right of the tach circle. A head-up display also projects the speed onto the windshield.
The infotainment center looks rather like an iPad standing on the dash, but it doesn't remove or fold down.
Outside: The front continues with the Mazda smile. The rear is rounded off much more, a la Subaru. The masculine front fender from the Mazda6 is added as well. Pretty.
Although hatchbacks are not as popular among Americans as sedans, the 3 hatch will land first because they sell better everywhere else. Silly Americans; hatches are practical and I think they look cool.
Underneath: Mazda will use the same 2.0- and 2.5-liter SkyActiv fours found on the 6 and CX-5. The smaller engine is expected to deliver up to 41 mpg; the larger, 184 hp.
When it arrives: Look for the 2014 Mazda3 to arrive in dealerships in the fall.
Mazda's North American public relations vice president Jeremy Barnes said the company has taken a new approach to unveiling these three vehicles.
No longer does the company flood the market with advertising and then deliver the vehicle to showrooms, Mr. Barnes explained. Mazda now turns to its friends in the press, who tend to write about their vehicles' wonderful zoomzoominess (yeah, me, too) to build interest and momentum, then advertises after cars have already been on sale.
Mr. Barnes said he heard complaints from dealers when the Mazda6 ads started running because they were out of stock. He called that a good position to be in.
Who's behind it: Derek Jenkins, design director of Mazda North American Operations. The California native grew up just 15 miles from his current employer's base in Irvine, and said the first car he ever fell in love with was Mazda's RX-7. He comes to Mazda after spending years at Volkswagen.
He called design is "a huge part" of Mazda's new focus and said he focused on three components:
Speed/silhouette and proportion. The car sits cab rearward, with a long hood, short rear overhang and a long wheelbase.
Tension. Lines of the vehicle. Fender hump. Strong rear shoulder.
Allure. The face of the car. "A lot had been made about the smile." Laughter. "I think the face of the car is really one of the main elements to retain the identity."
Mr. Jenkins said the aim is upscale, even if the price is not. "We're trying to design cars that look and feel more expensive than they are."
How it's going: If you're not in love with Mazda's new idea, well, you must be the only one. Sales have been a hit. Mazda reports sales of the CX-5 jumped 50 percent over the 2012 CX-7 it replaced. Sales of the 6 are up 172 percent from June 2012 to June 2013.
"Mazda is kind of on a roll right now," Mr. Barnes said.
Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.