2014 Mazda3 I Touring: Fun on a budget.
Price as tested: $24,785 for the automatic; $24,035 for the stick (which added cargo mat and special paint for $370 total). Lesser versions can be had starting at $16,945 for a sedan or $18,945 for a hatchback.
Marketer’s pitch: “Some bend the rules. We change the game.”
Conventional wisdom: Edmunds.com likes the “precise handling; very good fuel economy; quick acceleration; refined interior with intuitive controls” but not that “the 2.0-liter engine is a bit noisy under hard acceleration; dash-mounted touchscreen display looks aftermarket. ”
Reality: Better mileage and still fun? You can have it all.
New for 2014: In an effort to boost its market share, Mazda has revamped a few vehicles over the last couple years. First came the Mazda6 sedan and CX-5 crossover, and now it’s the time for the new version of the small Mazda3 sedan and hatchback. The SkyActiv engines have boosted fuel economy, and new styling draws second and third glances.
Tight turns: Mazda continues to build vehicles that are fun to drive for a bargain price. The handling of the 3 — like all Mazdas — is delightful. Driving on winding roads can only be bested by some expensive sports cars or, say, the Mini Cooper — in all cases costing much more.
The SkyActiv engine gets up to speed quickly, but it can be a little sluggish to increase speeds in higher gears. Driving the automatic first, I quickly realized I’d prefer the shift because I can switch right to fourth or third rather than tap, tap, tap.
Shifty: When the time came to drive the six-speed shift, skipping gears was, in fact, much more pleasant. Mazda clutches are forgiving and the gears closely spaced. I aimed toward traffic jams to see how my knee would hold up, and I’m pleased to report no reviewers were harmed in the making of this review.
On the bright side, the shiftable six-speed automatic shifter pulls back to upshift, which is the way it oughta be. (Although I do wish automakers would just agree once and for all to go one way or the other. Mrs. Passenger Seat’s Kia Soul is the opposite, which can make switching cars hazardous to the transmission.)
Gauging gauges: The speedometer is clear and easy to see; however, the tachometer is much too small. Mazda dispensed with the temperature gauge for the SkyActiv models, something I’ve noted since the introduction. In the manual version, the display allows drivers to see which gear the car is in; helpful, because it can be tough to gauge simply by looking or feeling the location of the shifter. The display also advises on upshifting and downshifting, even telling which gear to go to.
Getting comfy: The leatherette seat offers great comfort and support, but it only raises and lowers via power on an axis, not allowing a straight up-and-down motion that works best. The telescopic steering wheel allows you to set the car up more like a sports car than most, making for a much better driving experience.
Play some tunes: The upgraded radio looks like a tablet standing on the dashboard. Very handsome, despite Edmunds’ dislike. I wish it functioned as handsomely, but the controls are awkward. A knob and buttons next to the shifter are nicely located. But the volume mute is a button that’s easy to bang with a bag.
The knob controls the AM radio one way — you can set up a dial, which is intuitive and helpful — but Sirius XM does not have this option; operators just dial through the station list.
The touch screen is an alternative method, but only works when the vehicle is traveling less than 5 mph.
The CD player — way down on the bottom of the center — can be tough to access when the manual version is in gear.
The sound, though, is excellent.
Tricky map: I never did figure out how to zoom the map until I got the second test vehicle — you have to turn the display icons off and then dial the zoom in and out.
Friends and stuff: Sturgis Kid 1.0 reported the room in the back was tight. Knee room is not great, but headroom is fine. The rear seat is not nearly as comfy as, say, in the Corolla.
The phone tray in front of shifter is a nice size for holding items. The console has room for a few CDs, but not too many.
Night shift: Interior lighting is nice and does not interfere with seeing the road.
Wiper woes (and wins): A rear wiper is only available on hatchbacks, a real oversight on sedans with such horizontal rear windows in the snow. On the bright side of a dim day, though, the front wiper delay is now adjustable. This was the biggest drawback on the old Protege5 the Seat family long owned, and had continued to make an appearance on some recent models.
Keeping warm (or cool): The heater controls are easy to follow. Fan and mode buttons along the bottom and blower and defrost along the top. Dials control temperature for either side.
Fuel economy: Both models achieved 34 mpg in the usual Driver’s Seat mix of highway and suburban driving.
Where it’s built: Hofu, Japan
How it’s built: Its predicted reliability from Consumer Reports is above average, and it gets a recommended rating as well.
In the end: It’s a little snug for rear passengers, but a lot of fun for the price.
Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at email@example.com