There's a reason why the Mazda3 is often mentioned in the same breath as the Honda Civic. Both are fun to drive at a reasonable price and both have proven to be sales powerhouses for their respective automakers. Both have passionate fans and both encourage brisk driving on winding canyon roads. But while the Honda and the Mazda3 have a lot in common, there is plenty that differentiates them, too. The Mazda3 is on a very short list of compact cars that are available as a hatchback or a sedan. It also comes with two 6-speed transmissions -- manual or automatic -- and choice of two 4-cylinder engines -- a 155-horsepower 2.0-liter or a 184-horsepower 2.5-liter -- and all of those variations are available with either body style. Its best fuel economy is an EPA-rated 41 mpg on the highway, which is near the top of the class for gasoline-powered cars (tying the Honda Civic, yet another trait they share). That rating applies to the 2.0-liter engine, whether it's backed by a manual or automatic transmission.
That brings us to the Mazda3 we had the opportunity to test. Ours was a white sedan with the 2.0-liter four and the 6-speed automatic transmission. It proved to be everything we have come to love about the Mazda3 since it first went on the market for 2004, and then some. The Mazda3 is even better now --it's all-new for 2014, receiving gorgeous new styling like that of its big-brother Mazda6, easily making it the best-looking car in its class. It also happens to be one of the best to drive, if not the best. The drivetrain feels surprisingly refined, the sedan's steering is well-weighted and has just the right response to driver input, the car's driving dynamics are excellent and the perky engine is both fun and frugal. The suspension feels slightly more biased toward spirited driving, so the ride is slightly firmer than you would find in other compact sedans.
Yet with all of this youthful enthusiasm, the Mazda is still grown-up in all the right ways. It is well put together, and the materials used in the cabin are excellent quality. The interior looks decidedly upscale, too. The infotainment system is operated through a central dial located where your right hand naturally rests when driving. This makes it easy to use the available navigation system, change audio sources and more without taking your eyes off the road. The biggest shortcomings? There are two. The Mazda3's trunk is on the smallish side, and rear-seat legroom is somewhat lacking.
The Mazda3 we drove had an as-tested price of $23,435. At that price, the car came equipped with features like heated side mirrors, one-touch power windows, Bluetooth and an excellent blind-spot monitor. The 2.0-liter engine had plenty of power, and while the 2.5-liter engine is fun, we thoroughly enjoyed our time with the smaller four. Mazda's Mazda3 continues to provide style, value and fun in an easy-to-love efficient package.
Here's how the 2014 Mazda3 sedan compares with the competition:
Mazda Mazda3 vs. Ford Focus
The Mazda3 feels more refined than the Focus, yet is more fun to drive as well. Interior amenities are far beyond what our Focus test model has to offer, and comes in at an as-tested price thousands less. It seems like a narrow spectrum of buyers who would prefer the Focus we drove over the Mazda3.
Mazda Mazda3 vs. Honda Civic
The Mazda3 is similar to the Civic, in that it feels very comfortable on twisting roads, yet will also appeal to people who focus on value. The Mazda3's infotainment system is far better. The Civic offers a high-performance Si, whereas the Mazdaspeed3 is on hiatus, and unlike the Civic there is neither a coupe nor a hybrid in the Mazda3 stable.
Mazda Mazda3 vs. Kia Forte
The Forte isn't as sporty as the Mazda3, but it's value-packed and attractive in a more timeless way than the Mazda. Steering is probably worst of the bunch, while the Mazda's is among the best.
Mazda Mazda3 vs. Nissan Sentra
The sedan with possibly the most comfortable ride of the group and impressive rear-seat legroom is the polar opposite of the Mazda3 when in the driver's seat. The Sentra does everything it's supposed to do, but does not provide the enthusiasm of the perky, fun Mazda. It is much more of an appliance and lacks personality, but the Nissan is still a competent vehicle at a good price.
Mazda Mazda3 vs. Toyota Corolla
The Corolla isn't as much fun to drive as the Mazda3. Its infotainment system is very easy to use and the rear seat is notably roomier than the Mazda's. There's a lot of value for the money, but the Toyota is very noisy.
How much should you pay for a new Mazda3? How does its 5-Year Cost to Own stack up? If you're interested in exploring Mazda's compact sedan further, head to our Mazda3 Editors' Page.
If you're still weighing your options, check out the other five cars included in our 2014 Compact Sedan Comparison Test.