by: MAZDA NORTH AMERICAN OPERATIONS - Everything about the Mazda3 is new or improved for 2014.Mazda has completely redesigned its Mazda3 compact for 2014 and improved just about everything about it. The new Mazda3 is more stylish, more refined, has more power and gets better fuel economy than the 2013 model. It still comes in both sedan and hatchback versions, however, letting buyers decide whether they want a trunk or even more cargo space.

And there's even an I-ELOOP package with regenerative braking and active grill shutters for squeezing the last mile out of a gallon of gas — all for under $30,000, fully loaded.

Mazda needs to do something about the dash, though. The display screen stick straight up from the top, making it look aftermarket. And the pop up panel for showing the speed at eye level hardly ever hit its mark in our test model.

But those quibbles aside, there was plenty to like about our top-of-the-line 2014 Mazda3 S 5-door Grand Touring test car, beginning with its looks. Although it retains the basic shape of the previous model, the lines are more flowing, similar to the styling of the new midsize Mazda6 sedan, CX5 compact crossover and Mazda5 minivan. Gone is goofy grill that looked like a silly smile, replaced with a much more aggressive snout that flows back into a graceful body, ending with rear spoiler above the functional hatchback. It's as though the last generation Mazda3 was a decent looking teenager who matured into an attractive adult.

The interior has undergone an even more radical transformation. The previous dash and gauges looked OK, even sporty, at the time. But they also seemed aimed at younger buyers. The new dash is simpler to the point of being austere, looking more like something from a German touring car. One result is the feeling of far more leg room for both the driver and front seat passenger. The materials are also much improved, with far less hard plastic.

Both engines — the base 2.0-liter and optional 2.5-liter inline fours — get better mileage but have more power than before, a result of Mazda's drive to improve every component in their vehicles, otherwise known as Skyactiv technology. We had the 2.5-liter engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with Sport mode that was smoother but more responsive than some Continuously Variable Transmissions.

As is typical of test vehicles, our test car came with every conceivable option, including heated leather trimmed front sports seat, a Bose nine-speaker stereo, connectivity for personal electronic devices, and an entertainment/navigation system controlled by a console mounted "toggle knob." The overall result was a feeling of refinement well above compact car standards.

The same was true of the ride, which was so smooth and quiet, it was easy to forget Mazda's Zoom-Zoom slogan. Yes, the 2014 Mazda3 is still fun to drive fast, where the precise steering and predictable four-wheel-disc brakes help keep everything under control. But it's also easy to just kick back and relax, comforted by the sophisticated feel that seems to belong to a larger car.

In fact, Mazda has scaled back the performance options. The turbocharged MazdaSpeed3 version is not currently being offered. Rumors are circulating the company may bring it back with all-wheel-drive, but no announcement has yet been made.

That doesn't take anything away from the current models, which are among the best compacts for sale today. The compact market is especially competitive right now, with many new and upgraded models in 2013 and 2014. But the improvements engineered into the most recent Mazda3 keep it near the top of the heap.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 2014 Mazda3 S 5-door Grand Touring.

• Manufacturer: Mazda.

• Class: Compact sedan and hatchback.

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

• Style: Four and five-door car.

• Engines: 2.0-liter inline 4 (155 hp, 150 ft-lbs); 2.5-liter inline 4 (184 hp, 185 ft-lbs).

• Transmissions: Six-speed manual; six-speed automatic.

• Fuel Economy: 30/41/34 (2.0/A); 29/41/33 (2.0/M); 28/39/32 (2.5/A).

• Price: Starting at around $18,000 ($29,360 as tested).

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