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Did we mention that the very first "Drive...He Said" impressions of the 2014 Mazda3 remake came on a road racing circuit? Under-shod (215/60-16 H M+S) and under-displaced (1998 cc 155hp) we were sandwiched between a 429 hp Hyundai Genesis R-Spec and a 350 hp Nissan 370Z Nismo? With a new 450 hp Chevrolet Corvette Stingray 7-speed, 545 hp Nissan GT-R and 640 hp SRT Viper leading the pack?
Totally out of it's league? Perhaps.
Humiliating? Not altogether.
The Mazda3's understeer coming out of a corner wasn't too ugly as a result of a front strut/ rear four-link suspension firm and fast enough to stay planted. The poor Yokohama Avid all-seasons, though, what indescribable pain they endured. The constant pressure applied to the accelerator must have dented the floorboard.
A feather-light clutch and flawless gating meant we never missed a manual transmission shift. Something not always do-able in the 'Vette. The automatic climate A/C kept the cabin refreshing. Unabrupt binders resisted fade, hot lap after hot lap. Front buckets were slightly off the Velcro-effect of the alcantra Recaros in the Ford Fiesta ST. But you didn't have to bruise a kidney to get into them.
Adieu Track, Allo Public Roads:
As we exited the north track of the Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Illinois ours was to explore the abilities of the 2014 Mazda3 on public roads.
The drivetrain is the same in the previous-gen 2012 Mazda3. The 2 lb-ft torque increase at 100 fewer RPM is a nudge made possible by the wheelbase increase for the fitment of the low back-pressure Skyactiv 4-2-1 exhaust header. Fuel economy held despite a 99-pound diet and reduction in drag. 32 miles-per-gallon range approaches diesel territory, obviating the added fuel cost. Adding the high-rpm "frisky factor."
The front-drive transaxle is derived from the 6 speed unit worthy of worship in the 2014 Mazda6 mid-size sport sedan. With taller gearing the key is to keep the engine speed above 2000 rpm, a place where it could be happy all day. This way you'd rarely get caught with your passing pants down, except in 6th gear.
All-season Yokohama Avids on attractive 16" alloy wheels, together with dampers that compress quickly without violent rebound, make like a "Plush Firm" mattress.
So often replacing hydraulic with electric steering assist can be an extra epidural injection to steering feel. Not so with the Mazda 3's rack & pinion gear. The ratio has been hastened to 14:1, squarely in German premium sports sedan territory. Never a burden, the very grippable Mazda3 wheel wants to play.
The Kodo looks of the new Mazda3 blend a higher belt-line with more tapered roof and tailgate. To get one of the slipperiest shapes in car-dom there was some cost to rear head-room. What had been a "Grinning Smiley Face" can now be taken more seriously.
The 2014 Mazda3 grew- and in the end - shrank. Riding on 2.5" inch longer wheelbase but being 2.5" overall shorter than old. Most of the wheelbase went under the hood, to fit the 4-2-1 exhaust header and under the liftgate. The latest in grass-blade thin seating though does improve knee-room in the back by 0.10".
The cabin is far removed from the effects of nature's wind and the occasional buzziness of the 2.0L Skyactiv powerplant. Materials possess durability and textures not uncommon to an E46 BMW. The optional MazdaConnect 7" multi-media / navigation LCD pod is mounted above the dash for all inside [and outside] to see. It replaces a smaller-than-smart-phone 4" unit. In a page out of BMW I-Drive, simply twist through menus and depress the satin-finished rotary controller, aft of the shifter. Flanking home and primary function hard buttons are shortcuts.
Want to turn up the Bose Centerpoint audio system volume? There's a rotary thimble next to the display controller. Mazda USA's Tom McDonald points out that, as self-shifters tend to keep their right hands at the ready, the location makes sense. Tom, we're glad a redundant volume switch was integrated into the steering wheel.
New Gopher on the Fairway:
Costing $24,635, the 2014 Mazda3 i Grand Touring is half way up the 5-door ladder. If you can live with a four-door notch-back, the i SV "3" starts at $16,945. Our Soul Red Metallic tester was only $4K shy of forward collision auto-stop, lane departure warning, a crisp 6-speed auto-gearbox, and the 29hp stronger 2.5-liter engine in the s Grand Touring.
A paired Bluetooth smart device is the data power for included multi-media apps like Pandora and Stitcher internet radio. Displaying approaching cross-street names at the LCD screen top is brilliant. Voice commands are pretty much about hands-free communication, but there is SMS compatibility.
Black leatherette seat covers fooled us for leather. The gauge cluster features a large looming single TFT speedo flanked by smaller tach and a bland, yet legible white LED trip-data display. Less informative is the Blue for Cold and Red for Operating Temp coolant indicator. Automated climate control, artfully simplistic, relies on rotary dials.
The 2014 Mazda3 is brimming with good looks, high craftsmanship, genuine poise and plenty of "走る楽し." Pronounced "Hashiru Tanoshi," it translates from Japanese as "Driving Pleasure." Let's say the gauntlet has been thrown down to the "Fahrvegnugen" crowd at Volkswagen.
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Tags: 2013 Subaru Impreza Sport competitor, 2014 Mazda3 i Grand Touring, 2014 Mazda3 review, Dodge Dart competitor, driver's car, enthusiast's car, five-door, Ford Focus competitor, fuel efficient small family cars, hatchback, Hyundai Elantra GT competitor, Manual Transmission, Mazda3, Skyactiv technology, sportback, Volkswagen Golf competitor