2010 Mazda3: What more could you want?

Mazda's redesigned small car is fun, well-built and economical
by: JAIME VALDEZ, Mazda even delivers its Zoom Zoom performance in the company's smallest and least-expensive car, the redesigned Mazda3.

Cost-conscious new car buyers who appreciate performance are always looking for the current It Car - the one reasonably-priced model that does everything well.

The 2010 Mazda3 can make a good case that it is the car of the moment. The newly redesigned version of Mazda's smallest car is an engineering marvel - small on the outside, big on the inside, economical but sporty, stylish without looking silly, and all starting at a little over $15,000.

In fact, just about the only thing wrong with the Mazda3 is that it makes you wonder why anyone would ever buy its larger and more expensive stable mate, the redesigned Mazda6. (Well, the back seat is a little tight in the Mazda3 for adults, but you get the point.)

The smallest Mazda has come a long way since the original Rabbit-fighting GLC (for Great Little Car) was released in 1977. Although praised as one of the best econoboxes of the time, it looked generic and helped keep prices down by using inexpensive interior materials.

Not the new Mazda3. With a huge grill and sharply angled lines, it is easy to distinguish the 2010 model from such other small cars as the Ford Focus and Chevrolet Colbalt. It looks more like a small BMW than a Japanese economy car.

The interior is also among the best designed of any car on the road today, regardless of price. The black-and-silver plastic panels on the dash in our test car were well fitted and looked classy. The gauges are big and clear, the entertainment and climate center controls are logical and easy to use. And the attractive cloth seats iwere both well-bolstered and comfortable.

But it is how the Mazda3 drives that really impresses. Even the base 2.0-liter engine that came in our test model was powerful, making around-town driving fun and freeway passing easy. The 5-speed manual transmission was smooth and responsive - with the manual shift mode offering sports car-like performance. Cornering was flat and neutral up the very edges of adhesion. And the four-wheel disc brakes kept everything from getting out of control.

Even more performance is available with the 2.5-liter engine and the turbocharged Mazdaspeed version due out this fall, but for most drivers, the base version should be more than adequate.

Our test model came with a host of options that made the Mazda3 feel even more expensive than its $21,170 suggested retail price, including a combination moonroof/sunroof/242 watt Bose stereo system. It's not quite clear why these options are packaged together, unless Mazda wants to make sure everyone can hear the car coming. But with its gaping grin and edgy looks, the Mazda3 is hard to miss under any circumstances.

With gasoline prices continuing to fluctuate, hybrids and the upcoming wave of electric cars are getting a lot of attention. But the Mazda3 proves how good a conventional small gasoline-powered can be - and why waiting for the Next Big Thing isn't necessarily the best idea.

Facts and figures

• Test Model: 2010 Mazda3

• Manufacturer: Mazda

• Class: Compact.

• Layout: Front front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five passenger, four door.

• Power train: 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder (148 hp); 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder (167 hp).

• Transmissions: 5-speed manual; 6-speed manual; 5-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 24/33 (test model)

• Price: Beginning at approximately $15,045 (as tested $21,170).