Inside the Mazda3, the same quality shines through. Piano Black trim, red backlighting, and soft-touch plastics give the car a refinement that seems exclusive to models costing thousands of dollars more. Moreover, the driving position is superb, aided by the leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel that not only tilts, but telescopes (a rarity at this price point) allowing for optimal adjustment.
While we tested a base-model Mazda3 with an automatic transmission in our recent sedan shootout, our more recent tester was equipped with the Touring package -- a trim level that makes the car even more irresistible. The Touring engine is a 2.3-liter DOHC VVT unit with 151 hp and 149 lb-ft of torque -- enough to keep the 2930-lb car feeling sprightly. Add the slick, quick-shifting five-speed gearbox, and the Mazda3 Touring turns into a full-on mini-sport sedan. Being relatively lean, our tester felt nimble and eager to play despite its somewhat grabby brakes, which we found tricky to modulate during more spirited driving. On the freeway, wind noise was average for its class and, most impressive, the engine wasn't buzzy -- the Mazda3 actually makes a capable cruiser with the tachometer indicating just above 3000 rpm at 70 mph. Torque steer -- a huge problem with the Mazda3's big brother, the Mazdaspeed3 --proved minimal in this lesser-endowed version.
Our car had a couple other niggling hangups as well. The clutch, while decently weighted (not overly light, as so many manuals tend to be these days), felt like it had a two-stage action, with full engagement occurring far into the pedal takeup. We suspect that our particular tester may have required some adjustment and that this isn't an issue with the model by and large. Additionally, radio reception from the six-CD-equipped, six-speaker stereo was marginal, often generating static and hiss in areas where we typically receive a good signal. Again, possibly an issue specific to our car.
Most buyers choosing a compact sedan versus a coupe are looking for practicality and plenty of space for people and storage. The Mazda3 excels here, with ample trunk space (11.5 cu ft) as well as 60/40 split folding rear seats. Perhaps most impressive was the amount of passenger room in the rear seat. At six feet exactly, I had plenty of headroom, and even with the front seats in their full backward position, I didn't feel like the proverbial sardine.
Perhaps the best part about the Mazda3 is its price. Our car was equipped with the optional Sirius Satellite Radio ($430) and the sunroof/6-CD changer bundle ($890), bringing our total up to $20,380. Our long-term 2007 Nissan Sentra SE-R is roughly the same amount, but given the choice, we'd take the Mazda3 any day of the week. It's reassuring to know that a fun-to-drive, well-equipped, stylish sedan still exists for what equates to peanuts in today's automotive market. And for that we have to give Mazda kudos.