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Mazda3: Fun at 40 mpg

How much fun is there to be had at 40 mpg?
 
Plenty, as I discovered out on SR 14 last week. Sitting high on the North side of the Columbia River, the sparsely traveled, two-lane road blends river-gorge scenery, winding roads and relaxing stretches of string-straight asphalt.
 
Though it makes just 155 horsepower, the four-cylinder engine powering my 2014 Mazda3 hatchback was potent enough to easily overtake slower traffic while delivering fuel efficiency numbers in the mid-30s.
 
Equipped with a 6-speed manual transmission, as my tester was, the 3 earns EPA ratings of 29 mpg city/40 mpg highway and 33 mpg combined. With the optional six-speed automatic — which, by all accounts is a very good one — city mileage improves by 1 mpg.
 
An optional 2.5-liter four makes 185 hp. It can be matched only with the automatic and is rated at 28/38/32.
 
Since the 2011 introduction its SkyActiv efficiency initiative, Mazda has been on a mission to prove that thrift and enthusiasm can coexist peacefully.
 
In the third-generation Mazda3, the dream survives reality. Available in sedan ($17,740, including destination) and five-door hatchback ($19,740) styles, the new 3 is easily the best compact Mazda has ever built, an accomplished little corner-carver with room for four, contemporary cabin tech and available class-leading safety features.
 
Third-gen suspension updates and a longer wheelbase smooth out rough patches and lend the new 3 a mature, large-car composure. Out in the eastern reaches of the gorge, where the road unkinks and speeds escalate, we flew through fast sweepers with minimal body lean and a reassuring feel of connectedness. 
 
The 3’s front seats are revised this year for greater thigh and lower-back support. Bolsters kept me in place when the g forces grew. Assorted seat-height and steering-column controls allowed me to tweak my driving position as the mood struck.
 
Sight lines are very good in all directions, no small feat in a small hatchback.
 
The newly revised electrically assisted steering system felt settled and responsive under hand, with no hint of twitchiness. On-center feel is very good, but little road feel makes its way to the driver’s hands.
 
The 3’s all-new chassis makes liberal use of high-strength steel to cut weight by an average of 100 pounds per model and increase body rigidity by 30 percent.
 
With its long hood, upright A pillars and setback cabin, the hatchback’s proportions recall BMW’s turn-of-the-century Z m coupe, but with better lines. Overall length is down a bit on both body styles, but new seats and better packaging boost livability. Four six-footers can seat themselves comfortably.
 
The redesigned cabin is dressed up in high-quality materials and the driver-centric dashboard puts controls within easy reach. A new generation of lightweight insulation cuts cabin noise substantially.
 
With its redundant controls, Mazda’s Connect infotainment/navigation system is one of the easiest of its kind to operate. The dash-mounted 7-inch display sits high, where it’s easily seen at a glance. 
 
As a practical matter, probing the 3’s deep reserves makes a fiction of its EPA ratings fiction. Still, the fun remains affordable.
 
Contact Don Adair at don@dadair.com.
 
2014 Mazda3 5-door Grand Touring
Vehicle base price: 
Trim level base price: $23,245
As tested: $24,635
Optional equipment included Soul Red metallic paint; rear bumper guard; scuff plates/door sill trim plates.
EPA ratings: 29 city/40 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified