In terms of sportiness, connectivity and fuel efficiency, there may be nothing that gets as close to taking on the Honda Civic as the Mazda3. While there isn't a high-performance version of the Mazda3 at the moment -- we keep waiting to hear when a new Mazdaspeed3 is coming -- to compete with the Civic Si, Mazda offers plenty of compelling alternatives to models that make up the Civic lineup. There are two body styles (sedan or 5-door hatchback), two transmissions (6-speed manual or automatic), and two engines (2.0- or 2.5-liter 4-cylinder). Mazda's best-selling car is almost the compact-car underdog, one we are eager to try for a year.

A Lot for the Money

Our 2015 Mazda3 sedan, an i Grand Touring, is equipped with the 155-horsepower, 2.0-liter SkyActiv 4-cylinder engine and a 6-speed manual transmission. With this engine/transmission pairing, fuel economy is EPA rated at 29 mpg in the city and 41 on the highway. There's an impressive amount of equipment, too: ours has  navigation, which is standard on all Mazda3s except the base sedan, plus niceties like heated front seats, heated power side mirrors, moonroof, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift knob (yet leatherette seats), cruise control, 9-speaker audio, Bluetooth, rearview camera, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. We added a cargo mat ($70) and scuff plates ($125), and as equipped, this Mazda3 comes in at a fairly reasonable $24,060.

Also: The Class of 2015 -- New Vehicles Ready to Roll

The Mazda3 has already proven to be an impressive car in many ways: it is one of KBB's 10 Best Sedans Under $25,000, top of the 10 Coolest Cars Under $18,000, topped KBB's list of 10 Tech-Savviest Cars Under $20,000, and is on our list of 10 Best Back-to-School Cars for 2014. It also impressed when going up against its peers in a compact sedan comparison we did last summer.

When we have this car here for 1- or 2-week jaunts, we love how the car performs and what it offers for the money. The big question is: will we feel the same way about the Mazda3 after driving it every day, after long road trips, and after getting to know what it's like filled with people and stuff? Follow along as we learn what our long-term Mazda3 is all about.

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