Mountain Wheels: Mazda3 emphasizes the efficiency and the electronics |

Mountain Wheels: Mazda3 emphasizes the efficiency and the electronics

2014 Mazda3 5-door Grand Touring

MSRP: $22,245; as tested, $24,635

Powertrain: 155-HP 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, 6-speed manual transmission

EPA mpg: 33 combined: 29 city, 40 highway

Last fall, Mazda introduced an entirely redone, third-generation version of its popular and always affordable Mazda3, a choice that’s also been a favorite among car enthusiasts as it was also fun to drive. For that, you can credit a bit of that longstanding Miata DNA lurking around in the mix.

The Mazda3’s 2014 models retain those cost-conscious objectives but do keep the spirit of less-than-boring driving alive, while at the same time making the car a more efficient and — with all the electronic options — a very sophisticated machine, despite a retail price that can begin as low as $17,000.

While the “zoom-zoom” mantra is still a big part of Mazda’s messaging, the new Mazda3 has been more actively marketed to play up the company’s emerging Skyactiv technologies, a series of fuel-saving modifications that mean the manual-transmission version of the vehicle I drove gets at least 40 mpg on the highway, and probably more if you drive in a reasonable fashion.

The Skyactiv stuff is pretty straightforward: diesel-like compression and direct injection in regular-fuel engines help to up the efficiency considerably, plus an optional high-efficiency six-speed automatic transmission and a series of structural makeovers that make for a lighter frame but 30 percent extra body rigidity.

If 40 mpg seems like hybrid territory, you’re correct; if you want to actually get into hybrid-derived technology, there’s also an optional regenerative braking system that helps power the range of onboard electronics and promises a further 5 percent fuel efficiency gain.

Ultra-efficiency doesn’t quite go with tire-roasting, but it’s not all bad news, either. Mazda3’s engine choices are a 155-HP 2.0-liter four cylinder, which is lighter and torquier than in the past, or a 184-HP 2.5-liter four cylinder. I got the former, plus an easy-going six-speed manual, and the mileage figures ended up being very true.

The entire Mazda family has been getting curvier as the company’s Kodo design philosophy extends even to big machines like the CX-9 crossover; in Mazda3’s case, that’s resulted in a gently swept body of undulating curves, especially the big stylistic arch underneath the doors and sweeping into the rear wheel wells.

There’s a chrome line underlying that broad, shuttered shield of a grille (a common feature across the family), plus wraparound headlamps, an air-splitting lip at curb level and stylistically prominent fog lamps with black surrounds. The spoiler on the tail of the four-door version (there’s also a five-door hatch, naturally, with its own spoiler) is also a nice design touch.

Mazda3 grew, and shrunk, in all the right places. The wheelbase is longer but the car is shorter overall; it’s wider but a little shorter in height, though the headroom remains intact and shoulder room has been improved.

Rear passengers also get better-than-average foot room and some taller rear seatbacks, making it all a reasonably pleasant experience.

Actually, it’s a lot easier than Mazdas of the past thanks to the new Mazdaconnect infotainment system. While I appreciated the cigarette-pack-sized micro screens of the past, the 2014 system brings a large, prominent, tablet-sized screen to the top center of the dash (looking a lot like the pop-up thin-screen system on those very expensive Audis).

You can mess around with some of the functionality, while parked, by touch (pan and zoom maps are cool, like your tablet), but it’s really designed to be run by either voice command or via a new silver bottletop-styled controller knob, surrounded by a series of hard control buttons — a la BMW’s system.

Is it still fun to drive? Sure. Mazda3’s handling, its seating position and its overall vibe still put it well ahead of similar machines in its class.

They’ve made a few extra concessions to driveability, such as moving the A-pillars back so you can see better while doing all of the competitive autocrossing you’re liable to find yourself enaging in after you buy the car.

Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s still a nice vehicle, and a classy overall upgrade.

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