Mazda has taken the wraps off the third-generation Mazda3, and it appears the winning formula is intact. Bold style and a class-leading fun factor have earned the Mazda3 compact car a spot on our annual list of the 10 Coolest Cars Under $18,000 every single year since it was introduced for 2004, and it looks like the streak will continue in 2014.

Lower and Wider

In addition to sheetmetal styled with the same design language that debuted on the Mazda CX-5 compact crossover SUV and now graces the new Mazda6 midsize sedan — arguably the best-looking cars in their respective classes — the new Mazda3 is lower, wider and shorter  than today's model, but with a longer wheelbase that benefits roominess and ride quality.

Facebook and Twitter

The Mazda3 was due for a tech makeover, and it got it. The infotainment system has been redesigned to be more intuitive, and it's driven by a new operating system that can be updated with your smartphone via Bluetooth.

Of particular note to social media enthusiasts, the 2014 Mazda3 won't just read aloud your Facebook and Twitter messages — plus emails and texts — it also lets you reply. Expanded voice controls allow you to search the Internet for destinations and directions, while integrated apps like Aha make it easy to access content like Internet radio and podcasts at the push of a button.

Laser and Radar

In addition to a more sophisticated infotainment offering, the Mazda3's tech upgrade includes laser-, radar- and camera-based safety technologies like blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning and adaptive cruise control, plus a Smart City Brake Support system that works at speeds under 19 mph and will go so far as to brake the car automatically if it senses an impending collision.

Also new for 2014 is a kind of head-up display that puts vehicle speed and navigation directions, for instance, closer to the driver's line of sight. Instead of projecting the information onto the windshield, the new Active Driving Display uses a clear pop-up panel placed toward the base of the windshield, which folds back down into the dash when the car is turned off.

And when the driver's door is opened again, the main gauge glows with a pulsing red ring.

Power and Handling

New styling, more tech and added refinement are nice — and necessary in the increasingly competitive compact car category — but the Mazda3's appeal has always been rooted in its superior driving character, and this promises to be the most fun-do-drive Mazda3 yet.

Engine options for the 2014 Mazda3 will include the same Skyactiv-G 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine available in today's Mazda3, and the newer Skyactiv-G 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine found in the CX-5 and new Mazda6 (no word on diesel power as of now).

The base engine will offer 155 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 150 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm, while the 2.5-liter produces 184 horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 185 lb-ft of torque at 3,250 rpm. Transmission choices include a 6-speed automatic and 6-speed manual.

On the efficiency front, new active grille shutters and a brake energy recapture system should contribute to excellent fuel economy numbers.

The increase in power, combined with weight reductions throughout the vehicle and a more rigid foundation, have us expecting good things from a car and an automaker that tend not to disappoint when it comes to matters of performance.

Looking Ahead

When it begins arriving at dealerships this fall, Mazda's best-selling car will be better designed and equipped to take on increasingly strong competition like the vaunted Honda Civic and fun Ford Focus. Whether it's as fun to drive as its predecessors remains to be seen, but our expectations are raised. We'll know the second week of July, when Mazda lets us behind the wheel.

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