2014 Mazda3 shines as a driver's car

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(AP) - Since debuting as a new, third-generation model, the 2014 Mazda3 has been racking up the accolades _ and with good reason.

Mazda's right-sized, five-seat sedan and hatchback are restyled to look more expensive than ever and even give Hyundai's designers a run for the money.

The Mazda3 cars get more power from their four-cylinder engines for 2014 but still earned a federal government fuel economy rating of 30 miles per gallon in city driving and 41mpg on the highway. This is with the smaller, 2-liter four cylinder and automatic transmission.

Plus, the Mazda3 is predicted to have better than average reliability, according to Consumer Reports magazine.

And there's a new, broad selection of upscale features that buyers can add to the Mazda3, including lane departure warning, forward collision control, adaptive front headlights and an uncomplicated head-up display that puts vehicle speed right in front of the driver, up by the windshield. These items haven't typically been available on cars in this segment and price class.

Best of all, the front-wheel drive, 2014 Mazda3 impresses with its solid handling, good body control and top-of-the-pack steering.

The test Mazda3 was fun to drive on curvy, mountain roads, where it passed slower, less poised vehicles while holding tenaciously to its lane.

To be sure, the 2014 Mazda3 is not a bargain basement car. Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $17,740 for a Mazda3 sedan with six-speed manual transmission is more than the $16,800 starting retail price for a 2014 Nissan Sentra sedan with a six-speed manual.

The price difference grows with the addition of an automatic transmission: The starting retail price for a 2014 Mazda3 sedan rises to $18,790 compared with the 2014 Sentra's starting price with automatic of $17,400.

The Mazda3 five-door hatchback has starting retail prices that are higher than the sedan's. A base, 2014 Mazda3 hatchback starts at $19,740 with six-speed manual and $20,790 with automatic.

With more than 3.5 million sales worldwide, the Mazda3 is the best-selling model for Japan's Mazda car company. U.S. sales of the Mazda3 last calendar year totaled 123,361, but sales are down this year because of the changeover to the new-generation Mazda3.

This should be a temporary blip, given all the publicity the new Mazda3 is getting.

It was named one of Car and Driver magazine's 10 best cars for 2014, and received a Residual Value Award because it's expected to retain its value better than some competitors.

This month, the 2014 Mazda3 also received an inaugural Innovation Vehicle of the Year Award by the Motor Press Guild.

The Mazda3 is more than a nice small car. Based on the test car, the new Mazda3 expertly dials in driving pleasure while still being thrifty with gas and offering practical interior room.

The test Mazda3 five-door hatchback was at the high end of pricing, topping out at more than $29,400.

But even lower-priced-trim models have sharp good looks inside and out, finally dropping Mazda's weird "big grin" front grille.

The interior felt larger than in the predecessor Mazda3, thanks in part to metal pillars around the windshield that are set some 4 inches farther back than on last year's car.

Plus, the car's wheelbase _ the distance from the middle of a wheel on one side of the car to the middle of the wheel on the same side of the car _ is some 2.5 inches longer than the previous Mazda3.

The car is 1.6 inches wider, too.

But intriguingly, the approximately 15-foot-long 2014 Mazda3 is nearly 2 inches shorter, overall, in its body from end to end.

This keeps the Mazda3 right-sized for tight city parking spots and makes interior room, at least in the front seats, competitive. There are 42.2 inches of legroom in the front seat of a Mazda3 sedan vs. 42.5 inches in the front seat of a Nissan Sentra. But in the back seat, the Mazda3's 35.8 inches of legroom is less than the 37.4 inches in the Sentra's back seat. At least the Mazda3's rear-seat headroom of 37.5 inches is more than the 36.7 inches in the Sentra.

Trunk space, however, tips in the Sentra's favor: 15.1 cubic feet vs. 12.4 cubic feet in the Mazda3 sedan.

Remember, though, that cargo space grows to 47.1 cubic feet in the Mazda3 hatchback with the rear seatbacks folded down.

Passengers sit lower to the pavement in the 4.8-foot-tall Mazda3 than in many other vehicles, so driver views are blocked by vans, sport utility vehicles and taller cars in front.

Still, front seats in particular were immensely comfortable and looked good, too, in their black leather trim.

The ride in the test Mazda3 five door was a bit on the noisy side, with a good amount of road noise coming through. There was wind noise at highway speeds, too.

But the shifts from the six-speed automatic transmission were smooth, and paddle shifters and a "Sport" mode added a sporty feel.

Because the test model was an "s" Grand Touring version of Mazda3, it came with the uplevel, 2.5-liter, double overhead cam four cylinder. It generates a healthy 184 horsepower. Peak torque of 185 foot-pounds came on at a usable 3,250 rpm.

Still, the tester easily averaged the federal government's 32 mpg rating in combined city/highway travel.

Note that the Mazda3's base, 2-liter, double overhead cam four cylinder produces a decent 155 horsepower and 150 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm. Many competitors have lower-powered engines. The Sentra sedan, for example, comes with a 130-horsepower four cylinder generating 128 foot-pounds of torque at 3,600 rpm.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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