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2014 Mazda3 Sedan

We're not going to beat around the bush: for the kind of person who willfully chooses to take longer, windier and more scenic routes to get to Point B, the 2014 Mazda3 is the new compact car measuring stick by which others will be judged. That doesn't, of course, make it the right choice for every buyer.

We'll spend the next thousand words or so explaining the whys and hows that make our opening statement a fact, but for now, suffice it to say that Mazda has engineered its latest crop of vehicles – namely the CX-5, Mazda6 and its smaller sibling and subject of this test, the Mazda3 – from the ground up. Absolutely everything about the Mazda3 is refined for 2014, from its chassis to its engines and everything in between, and it was done in a completely new and holistic way. Every component, subcomponent and stamping required to bolt and weld together an automobile was rethought to ensure the Mazda3 has what it takes to compete with such established benchmarks as the Honda Civic and Ford Focus.

We spent a day in and around sunny San Diego clutching the keys to Mazda3 variants in both sedan and hatch forms, powered by both 2.0-liter and 2.5-liter four-cylinder engines, to see how the car stacks up in its hotly contested segment. Since we've already driven the hatchback version of the car, albeit in pre-production form, we focused our attention on the Mazda3 sedan, and we spent seat time in each of its competitors throughout the process to ensure our posteriors were accurately calibrated. Read on to see what we found.

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The sedan is the more attractive option to my eyes.

The 2014 Mazda3 looks awfully pretty in pictures, but its shapes are even better when viewed up close and personal. As the latest car to benefit from Mazda's Kodo design language, the 3 draws plenty of inspiration from the CX-5 and Mazda6, both of which we think are rather attractive vehicles. While it's never a good thing to say that one car looks like a copy of another, the good news is that the styling cues that make up the automaker's latest philosophy – such as the chrome-underlined five-point fascia and muscular fenders and haunches – arguably work better on the 3 than on any of its forebears. Proportions, on the other hand, don't quite work in the hatchback's profile, with what appears to be a very long distance between the base of the windshield and the front fascia. While the Autoblog team is split, the sedan is the more attractive option to my eyes by a very slight margin.

Mazda has increased the wheelbase of its latest 3 by 2.4 inches while shortening its overall length by about 2 inches. That ought to do good things to the vehicle's ride comfort, and the extra 1.6 inches in width and half-inch reduction in height both make the car look sportier and act sportier on twisty roads. What the additional inches in the wheelbase don't do, however, is add more rear-seat legroom or trunk space – the 2014 Mazda3's 35.8 inches in the back seat equals the Honda Civic but is well shy of some vehicles in its class, namely the VW Jetta and Toyota Corolla, while its 12.5 cubic feet of truck space again about matches that of the Civic and Corolla but falls short of the Chevy Cruze and Jetta.

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Stepping inside the new Mazda3 reveals that the Japanese automaker has been hard at work in an attempt to draw ahead of its peers on both the design and technology fronts. In fact, Mazda says the interior was benchmarked against the latest BMW 3 Series. They're quick to say that they don't expect the Mazda3 to compete with the 3 Series, but that it was seen as a goal of sorts worth reaching for. The most noticeable new element is the seven-inch display perched prominently atop the dash, right above the center stack. The other new and noteworthy bit is the fighter-pilot-like Active Driving Display.

Mazda says the interior was benchmarked against the latest BMW 3 Series

According to Mazda, after benchmarking the infotainment systems in many of its rival automakers, they didn't find a single one that they thought was very good. Some of them, in fact, were described as "terrifying" by Mazda's engineers. And so Mazda set about inventing its own infotainment system, with the most important guideline being that no technology should distract the driver visually, cognitively or by requiring difficult manual operation.

The resulting tech package takes a commonsense approach wherever possible – everything to the left of the center stack is used solely to control the components necessary to drive, while anything further right, or away from the driver, is left for everything else. The main LCD screen can be operated by touch or by using a Commander joystick that sits between the two front seats. Mazda engineers say they used mathematics as a basis for the new infotainment tech, using three buttons above its controller because that's the number an average human can operate without looking, and settling on a seven-inch screen with seven total items on screen at any given time because that's the maximum most people can scan at a glance. Things like the font size, too, were optimized for use while driving.

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We didn't have any trouble using Mazda's new technology package, and we think it offers enough gee-whiz features to satisfy all but the most tech-happy owners, with the aforementioned Active Driving Display being the gee-whizziest of them all. When activated, a small, clear plastic screen flips up from atop the dash, onto which things like speed and navigation directions are projected. It works pretty much the same as other automakers' head-up displays, with the added benefit that Mazda could fine-tune the location of the projection while minimizing glare and optical distortions. We think it's pretty cool.

There isn't another front-wheel-drive automobile with such an aggressive caster angle.

We like the way the 2014 Mazda3 drives, too. As we alluded to at the outset, the 3 is the best driver's car in the compact car segment. Steering is a delight, aided by a rack-mounted electronic power steering unit and front-end geometry that is exactly the same as that of the well-regarded RX-8 and the current MX-5 Miata – Mazda is quick to highlight that there isn't another front-wheel-drive automobile with such an aggressive caster angle. Perhaps it's telling that Dave Coleman, the engineer responsible for the Mazda3's steering setup, is a frequent racer at LeMons events, and that his target for the new 3 was to emulate the feel of a race car that doesn't use power steering at all. It was also interesting to note that a hydraulic steering setup wasn't even considered as the automaker simply "cannot afford to waste fuel" by eschewing an electronic steering system.

Wheels check in at 16 inches in diameter in base trim, and enlarge to 18 inches when moving up to higher-end models. The larger tires are a better choice for absolute handling performance, and they look better in the wheel arches, too. There's no change in suspension tuning between the varying drivetrains besides a slightly stiffer set of front springs on 2.5 models, which means all Mazda3 drivers will enjoy the same crisp handling and athletic responsiveness.

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While the two engines are both part of the Skyactiv-G family, they share practically no major components.

Mazda's new compact features a pair of engine options derived from its far-reaching Skyactiv stable of technologies, the base engine displacing 2.0 liters and offering 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque through either an automatic or manual transmission with six forward ratios. Considering its status as the entry-level powerplant, the 2.0L mill is a fine option with more than enough power and a solid dose of refinement. Enthusiasts are welcome to step up to the larger 2.5-liter engine and its 184 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque.

While the two engines are both part of the Skyactiv-G family, they share practically no major components. Mazda cites this as an example of its holistic approach to car development – things like bore and stroke ratios are chosen for each specific engine instead of a single measurement that carries from one unit to another as a cost- and development-saving compromise. What this means in engineering terms is that each engine size requires a unique block and a unique crankshaft, which in turn requires a rethinking of production techniques. The engines are now CNC machined on highly advanced robotic pieces of equipment, with each machine capable of assembling any engine. Total machining processes are reduced from 45 to just four. What's more, Mazda can adjust output of any particular powerplant at will, which will allow the automaker to react to shifts in the marketplace with ease.

This new series of engines are optimized for power and efficiency, and their fitment required some changes to Mazda's previously used production techniques. Check out the video below for an example of what we mean.

Autoblog Short Cuts: 2014 Mazda3 Sedan

The 2.0L, six-speed automatic sedan is rated at 30 mpg city, 41 highway and 34 combined.

We like the optional 2.5 engine quite a bit. It's just as smooth and refined as its smaller brother, and its power spread is impressively even across its operating range. In other words, there aren't any dips or valleys in its power or torque curves, improving driveability and ultimate performance. It's also impressively efficient. The 2.0-liter, six-speed automatic sedan is rated by the EPA at 30 miles per gallon in the city, 41 on the highway and 34 combined. The more powerful 2.5 engine gets 28 city, 39 highway and 32 combined. Those figures sway up and down by an mpg here and there with options, the choice of transmission and whether the car is a hatchback or sedan. In any case, they are impressive, especially since the engines make such good power.

Mazda also offers its clumsily named i-Eloop energy saving system on certain Mazda3 models with the 2.5-liter engine. This device recaptures energy in the form of electricity stored in a capacitor (as opposed to a battery, which would be heavier and less reliable) when the driver lets off the gas, saving it for later use. This allows the alternator to decouple from the engine for extended periods of time, reducing drag and therefore saving fuel.

The EPA estimates don't change to reflect a mileage improvement with i-Eloop, which is because the EPA's tests are run with almost no electrical load from the car's ancillary systems, but real-world mileage is expected to jump by about five percent. Mazda tells us that the i-Eloop's capacitor is made from coconuts and aluminum foil, that it all weighs about 20 pounds and that it's durable and reliable enough to last the entire life of the car. And we're not making any of that up.

2014 Mazda3 Sedan

The hatch is a bit less aerodynamic ... and it's also a wee bit noisier while driving.

Though the i-Eloop does recapture energy when the driver lets off the gas, it's completely unobtrusive and doesn't result in any odd sensations from the brake pedal like in a typical hybrid. Indeed, braking performance is good, with a pedal that's easy to modulate. Wind noise may not be best-in-class, but it's not bad, aided by a laudable .255 coefficient of drag on sedans equipped with active grille shutters. The hatch is a bit less aerodynamic with a .275 Cd, and it's also a wee bit noisier while driving. Neither engine makes much racket, but there's some audible tire noise at speed to go along with the faint rush of wind.

A base Mazda3 i SV with the 2.0 engine and manual transmission will cost $16,495 (plus $795 for destination) and a fully loaded Mazda3 s Grand Touring (heated leather seats (power for the driver), dual-zone climate control, the Mazda Connect infotainment system, a moonroof, keyless entry and all the audio sources you'd expect) will carry a sticker price of $25,595 with the hatchback going for a bit more across the board. The high-end Grand Touring models also get an optional suite of safety technologies called i-Activsense that includes smart cruise control, smart brake support, forward obstacle warning, lane departure warning, automatic high-beams and adaptive lighting that helps see around corners. Smart City Brake Support, also included, reduces the risk of front-end crashes by automatically applying the brakes when a collision is deemed imminent at speeds between two and 19 miles per hour.

2014 Mazda3 Sedan

The 2014 Mazda3 is not the cheapest car in the compact segment, nor does it ride the smoothest or offer the most interior room. If those are your priorities, several of Mazda's competitors offer nice alternatives, including the Ford Focus, Kia Forte, Honda Civic and Volkswagen Jetta. For drivers that don't want to think about their cars but still need reliable transportation, there's the Toyota Corolla. And there isn't anything wrong with anyone who chooses those cars for any of those reasons. But for the rest of us, and we may be a comparatively small group, the 2014 Mazda3 is more fun to drive than any of its peers. It's also attractive, reasonably priced and can be loaded up with cool technology and safety equipment.

Put as plainly as possible, the new 2014 Mazda3 is our favorite car in the compact class.