2010 Mazda MAZDA3: Big Grin, Small Car

2010 Mazda MAZDA3 5dr HB Man s Grand Touring Angular Front Exterior View

Mazda's 3 is a compact front-drive sedan that deviates from the Toyota Corolla and Nissan Sentra playbook in style (a Cheshire cat grin) and substance (spirited driveline with grin-inducing athletic chassis).

Steering behavior is playful yet precise, allowing confident laser-like guidance through construction zones.

As an everyday driver, the base 148-hp 2.0-liter four and its five-speed automatic transmission work so well you might not try its manual-shift mode. Those who want more go can pay more dough for the 164-hp, 2.5-liter, which bumps the tested Touring versions price from $20,000 to about $25,000.

Mazda crafts interior parts from an assortment of plastics--hard motorcycle-style instrument cover, textured soft-touch door covers and neatly capped seat tracks. A large center-console knob turns radio tuning into a tactile delight. Its blue surround lighting is interactive. Armrests, however, feel like something from Spaulding--sporting but not comfortable.

Head toward Chicago on I-94 and you'll discover that the Mazda3 feels light, riding like its sprung on taut rubber bands. Road noise is pronounced and the front end clunks. Rough patches induce skating; the Dynamic Stability Control prevents spinouts.

Fuel economy beat estimates: 35 mpg overall. The EPA says: 24 city and 33 highway.

Goofs: optically distorted windshield, engine buzz at higher rpm, cardboard-like headliner and plastic-icky inside pillar covers.

Despite miscues, the 3's a winner. Its responsive handling, gentle ride and good fuel economy set it apart from dull-driving appliances.

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