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Mazda3: Small package, big fun

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Buyers today face a raft of good looking, economical and well-equipped compacts, whose starting prices fall well below $20,000. 

Only a handful can make the morning commute rewarding.

That’s the nut Mazda cracks with the 2015 Mazda3 ($17,765, including transportation). Even the entry-level 3, with its 155-horsepower four-cylinder engine and soaring EPA numbers (33 combined/29 city/41 highway), is a proper “driver’s car.”

Step up to the 184-hp 3s and you’ve stumbled upon a high-spirited daily driver.

Available in sedan and hatchback body styles, the 3 was fully made-over for 2014. It received striking new sheet metal, a pair of vigorous yet efficient four-cylinder engines and a new lightweight, high-strength chassis.

This year, the 3 receives a significant powertrain update; the optional 2.5-liter, 184-horsepower engine can be paired with a six-speed manual transmission. It’s perhaps the most fun a buyer can have for less than $25,000. So equipped, the 3 remains the model of efficiency (29 combined/25 city/37 highway).

Add a few choice options and the 3 slips into the near-luxury realm.

Every 3 is well equipped. The entry-level, sedan-only 3i SV includes such standard features as remote keyless entry and push-button start; power folding exterior mirrors; power windows with driver-side one-touch up/down; tilt-and-telescoping steering column; A/C with pollen filter and daytime running lights.
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My Grand Touring tester included not just the new powertrain but also nearly every bell and whistle on the dance card; rain-sensing wipers; navigation; adaptive, high-intensity-discharge headlights (with auto on/of high-beams); a nine-speaker Bose surround-sound audio system; heated leather sport seats; dual-zone automatic climate control, etc.

The price of entry: a modest $26,335.

Trade-offs include a cabin that’s less roomy than the class average and a ride that may be too firm for some buyers, especially with the 18-inch Dunlops aboard.

Mazda compensates for the 3’s shortcomings with inviting cabin design, first-rate ergonomics — including terrific sport seats — and some of the industry’s most intuitive controls. It solves the display-screen real estate challenge by stacking a 7-inch color display atop the dash, where it can be scanned at a glance. The optional head-up speedometer display is the best I’ve seen.

The infotainment system can be controlled either via the touchscreen or a rotary knob similar to those found in far more expensive cars.

But Mazda’s particular magic lies in its ability to merge efficiency, style and comfort with class-leading performance. One of the quickest of the compacts, its dynamics rival those with highfalutin pedigrees. Despite its diminutive size, the 3 feels substantial and stable at speed. 

Its drum-tight chassis allows precise suspension and steering-system tuning — and contributes to outstanding safety results. The 3 aces all crash tests and available technology includes Smart City Brake Support, which can bring the car to a stop at low speeds if the driver fails to react to an imminent collision.

Anyone who enjoys driving but can’t justify spending down the family fortune ought to install the Mazda3 at the top of the shopping list.

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.

2015 Mazda3 S 4DR Grand Touring
Vehicle base price: $16,945
Trim level base price: $25,045
As tested: $26,335
Optional equipment included stuff plates; door-sill trim plates
EPA ratings: 29 combined/25 city/37 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

Ford Fiesta ST: Euro-flavored fun

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There’s no good reason to want Ford’s new Fiesta ST. Fun is its own good reason.

The ST is a sharply focused, sport-tuned subcompact built by Ford in Spain. It debuted in Europe in 1976 and had a three-year US run, from 1978-80.

In 2010, Ford returned the Fiesta to the States, where it’s available in two body styles; sedan ($14,925, including destination) and five-door hatchback ($15,525).

Refined and well-equipped, the Fiesta is fun to drive and comfortable for two adults, with second-row room for a pair of kids.

This year, Fiesta receives a mild facelift and two new variants. A new 123-hp three-cylinder engine available on the midlevel SE trim is rated at 37 mpg combined (32 city/45 highway). 

The ST is a new stand-alone trim that’s available only as a hatchback. Instead of the 120-hp four that powers most models, it gets a turbocharged 197-hp turbocharged four mated to a six-speed manual.

The ST rides 15 millimeters lower than standard trims and gets a sport-tuned suspension, a quicker steering ratio and more powerful brakes. Electronic Torque Vectoring Control stabilizes handling by over-driving the inside front wheel during cornering. A three-mode electronic stability control system lets the driver choose the degree of skid-preventing electronic intervention. 

Recaro sport seats are available as a $2,000 option. Rational adults (i.e., my driving companion) are likely to find the narrow and heavy bolstered Recaros confining, but I like ‘em.

To say the ST is quick is to damn it with too-obvious praise. It’s more than 2 seconds quicker to 60 mph than the normally aspirated Fiesta (7.1 vs. 9.5) but, as always, balance is key. Torque vectoring keeps the tires planted and neutralizes the erratic handling common to high-powered front-drive cars and the buttoned-down suspension minimizes body roll. Gears two through four are tightly spaced to keep the engine in the heart of its power band, while tall final gearing keeps revs down at highway speeds.

Like Mazda’S MX-5 Miata, the ST can be driven to its limits without pushing the speedo into three-digit territory. It’s great, visceral fun to hear the wicked burble that emanates from the dual exhaust system during a downshift, whether it comes at 45 or 75 mph.

Ride quality is quite good, considering the Fiesta’s short wheelbase, aggressively tuned suspension and low profile tires. The cabin gets noisy at highway speeds and the short wheelbase can mean a choppy ride on some surfaces. The young me would have been happy with the ST as my daily driver but those days have fled.

Standard ST gear includes automatic climate control, keyless ignition and entry, MyFord Touch, Sony speakers and HD radio. ST-specific cosmetics include cloth sport seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, aluminum-trimmed pedals, floor mats and door sill plates.

EPA estimates for the ST are 29 mpg combined (26 city/35 highway), which amounts to about as much fun per gallon as you’ll find this side of a BMW diesel.

If you like your fun on four wheels and don’t want to break the bank — or don’t have one to break — Ford’s little import might well be the answer to your transportation needs. 

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.

2014 Ford Fiesta ST
Vehicle base price: $14,130
Trim level base price: $21,400
As tested: $25,995
Options included navigation, heated Recaro seats, heated mirrors, painted 17-inch wheels, Molten Orange tricoat exterior paint.
EPA ratings: 26 city/35 highway/29 combined

Mitsubishi Mirage: Value champ

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The 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage is the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid vehicle sold in America. With its base price of $13,790, including destination, the subcompact hatchback is also one of the country’s least expensive cars.

Only Chevy’s Spark ($12,995) and the Nissan Versa sedan ($12,800) better its price, and neither touches its sparkling EPA ratings: 37 mpg city/44 mpg highway/40 mpg combined.

“I love this car,” writes an owner at edmunds.com. “It gives me everything I need: a roof, an engine, and wheels  …  I'm able to get it up to 56 mpg if I drive it right … For the economically minded, this car can't be beat.”

Even price-aware entry-level buyers want more than a box on wheels, though, so Mirage comes well equipped. Standard equipment includes automatic climate control; electronic stability control; power side mirrors; power windows with driver's side auto-up/down; keyless entry; seven airbags, including a driver's knee bag; and 4-wheel ABS brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist.

The ES trim ($14,490) adds aluminum alloy wheels; fog lamps; leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob; smart-key passive entry; keyless ignition; steering wheel-mounted audio controls; cruise control and a Bluetooth® hands-free phone system.

The Mirage also can be optioned with a navigation system, rearview camera and parking sensors. 

“Getting a ‘loaded’ car, with Navi, for $17K was nice,” wrote another Edmunds commenter.

Buyers pick from eight “vibrant” colors, including Plasma Purple (pictured), a shade my Facebook friends found wildly amusing.

Mitsubishi covers Mirage with a five-year/60,000-mile basic warranty and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain coverage.

So the Mirage is inexpensive to buy and operate. It boasts a decent array of standard content and a great warranty. Obviously, tradeoffs are involved.

They start with a cabin that, while comfortable for two, comes up short on second-row seating. With the seatbacks up, Mirage offers 17.2 cubic feet of cargo space. With the seatbacks down that number jumps to 47 cf.

Cabin furnishings are spare. Hard plastics dominate and fit-and-finish trails the competition. The steering column tilts but doesn’t telescope, but drivers of all sizes should find a comfortable driving position. 

Controls are close at hand and easy to operate.

Mirage is a light car, but its 74-horsepower, 1.2-liter three-cylinder engine labors loudly to accelerate, an effect underscored by the optional continuously variable transmission (CVT). While the standard five-speed manual transmission produces excellent EPA numbers —34/42/37, the CVT, a $1,000 option, gets the bragging rights that go with the 37/44/40 ratings. 

The Mirage joins a growing cohort of cars designed for the urban commute. It’s compact and easy to park and navigate in close quarters. However, its short wheelbase, small tires and suspension fundamentals are overmatched by rough and broken pavement. 

At speed, wind and wind noise intrude, steering is vague and the ride is unsettled. 

But let’s give the last word to satisfied owner, who wrote, “Great bargain, reliable, and feels like you spent more than you did.”

If that sounds like your car, there’s a Mitsu dealer with one in a color meant for you.

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.

2014 Mitsubishi Mirage ES CVT
Vehicle base price: $12,995 
Trim level base price: $15,990
As tested: $15,990
Optional equipment: Our ES tester included no options
EPA rating: 37 city/44 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified

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