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For our latest comparison test of compact cars, our long-term Mazda3 -- a 2015 Mazda3 i 4-door Grand Touring sedan -- was called into service. This was the only car in the test that had a manual transmission, but that Skyactiv 6-speed gearbox joined forces with the Skyactiv 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine to garner more than a lion's share of the praise in this test as not only the sports car of choice, but also a better-than-average highway cruiser and an easy-to-park city dweller.

Skyactiv, by the way, is the official name for Mazda's recent initiative to improve their motoring family's fuel economy and performance via smart and exact engineering. The Skyactiv benefits in our 2015 Mazda3's 2.0-liter were evident in both fuel economy (29 mpg in the city and a whopping 41 mpg on the highway, according to the EPA) as well as in the 150 horsepower and 155 lb-ft of torque that the engine produces.

2015 Mazda Mazda3 at a Glance

2015 Mazda Mazda3 Compact Car Graph

Starting at $23,565, our Mazda3 needed nothing in terms of options, but the cargo mat and attractive door-sill scuff plates added two touches of class, and as we discovered with our long-term Mazda6 sedan last year, the extra $300 we spent for our Mazda3's Soul Red optional exterior paint adds "mouthwatering" to the words we could use to describe the Mazda's appealing shape.

Like all of the latest Mazda sedans, the Mazda3 wraps around you in a sporty, not confining, way. Its design is modern, efficient and attractive, with a simple instrument-panel layout and easy-to-use controls. Our Grand Touring i Mazda3 gets the 9-speaker Bose upgrade audio system, and the praiseworthy Mazda Connect infotainment system and 7-inch command screen is standard on all Mazda3s but the base model. The synthetic leatherette-trimmed seats feel close enough to the real thing to earn a thumbs up from every comfortable occupant, although some wished for greater ventilation. Only the rear seats were found to be wanting in any way -- we wished for a bit more leg/knee room. But to the credit of the Mazda's cargo capacities, the split rear seatback folded flat, and when the 2nd-row seatbacks were folded down to expand the cargo area, the pass-thru from the trunk to the area behind the front seats was the widest and most usable of any sedan in our group.

As a driver's car, the 2015 Mazda3 will make you proud with its ability to untangle knotted roads and give you real-time reports on what its sporty suspension and responsive steering are doing. It was definitely not the quietest car in our comparison test, but the road noise getting into the cabin never came close to fraying any of our nerves -- small cars just tend to be more vocal. One last thing about driving the Mazda3 needs to be pointed out: You can opt for the 6-speed automatic transmission (you won't find a continuously variable transmission here) and you'll even improve you city fuel economy a bit, but Mazda's 6-speed manual gearbox is a treat to drive, with even clutch take-up, dream-matched gearing and Hill Launch Assist, which prevents the car from rolling backwards for a few seconds when you release the brake pedal, making it easier to concentrate on re-engaging the clutch and pulling cleanly away from an uphill stop sign or traffic light.

Here's how the 2015 Mazda Mazda3 stacks up against the competition:

Mazda Mazda3 vs. Dodge Dart

As much as the Mazda3 is for driving, that's how much the Dodge Dart is for hanging out in. The Dart's comfy seats, interior styling and infotainment system received high marks from our editors. That means that your passengers will probably enjoy the Dart a lot more than you as the driver will. That is, of course, unless those passengers are tall occupants outposted into the marginal 2nd-row seats. In exactly the opposite manner in which the Mazda3 felt connected to the road, the Dart feels made to isolate the people inside -- especially the driver -- from the outside world.

Mazda Mazda3 vs. Ford Focus

What surprised us most about the Ford Focus SE in our test was how well it was set up for the price. Our Focus sedan started well under $20,000, and even with the added price of a 6-speed automatic transmission, a $1,000 appearance package, and a $500 power-seat package, the car still landed under $22,000 out the door and was the least expensive car in our test (compared to the Mazda3's $24,000 price tag). Like the Dart, it offered miserly legroom in the second row, but, like the Mazda3, it drove well in all situations and the cabin stayed quiet on the highway.

Mazda Mazda3 vs. Honda Civic

If the Mazda3 needed a competitor to challenge its popularity in this test, the Honda Civic sedan filled that role. True, the Mazda can drive circles around the Honda, but there's no denying the quality of the package that the Civic offers to buyers. Honda's reputation for quality, reliability and resale value are evident throughout the Civic. And while it's no sports sedan, the Civic will happily convey long-legged adults comfortably in the rear seats (a benefit that's still hard to get in this class), and Honda's continuously variable automatic transmission is arguably the best in the business.

Mazda Mazda3 vs. Subaru Impreza

Our comparison test's outlier was the Subaru Impreza. Not only was it the only all-wheel-drive player in the game, but it was also a 5-door hatchback. The roomy Subaru offers better 2nd-row accommodations than the Mazda3, as well as a cavern's worth of cargo space. Subaru is also doing a lot of impressive work with its interior materials. And while you can't get all-wheel drive in the Mazda, you can get a hatchback version that, while not quite as roomy as the Impreza, is still gifted with flashy good looks and great drivability.

Mazda Mazda3 vs. Toyota Corolla

The popularity of the Toyota Corolla rests primarily in the notion that you can drive it forever enjoying reliability that's as strong as Apple stock, and after forever's over, you can sell your Corolla for a surprisingly good price. All true. And it's also true that the 2015 Corolla offers more rear-seat legroom than the Mazda3 as well as a fairly compliant suspension. However, the lack of attention to the Corolla's transmission options -- which include a substantially unimpressive continuously variable automatic and a 4-speed automatic (Four speeds? That's so last century.) -- are opening compact-car buyers up to some of the alternatives out there, including the Mazda3.

Mazda Mazda3 vs. Volkswagen Jetta

Even though a Volkswagen Jetta may not cost as much as you might think to buy, it's still true that German cars still cost quite a lot to maintain. It is also true, however, that German cars tend to feel more substantial than any others and that they tend to enjoy high speeds and twisty roads (and they always look great in silver). This is all true of the VW Jetta sedan we tested, which was quieter and roomier than the Mazda3, and just as ready to go mountain climbing. It's also available with a diesel engine. It's long-term resale value, however, is a weakness compared to the Mazda's.

More Compact Cars

Build and price your own 2015 Mazda Mazda3, read our full review or check out our Compact Car Buyer's Guide to see more options in the segment.

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