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Mazda's fun-to-drive compact continue to impress, even though there are newer competitors on the market

MAZDA NORTH AMERICAN OPERATIONS - The Mazda3 is sharply styled and designed to be driven, a far cry from earlier economy cars.By now the Mazda3 has been receiving glowing reviews for so long, it's more than reasonable to ask, is it still that good — especially considering how many other compacts have been introduced or redesigned since it was first introduced in 2003?

Remarkably, the answer is yes. Although it isn't the fastest or most economical compact on the market, it is still the most fun to drive. It has improved with every update, with the most recent complete redesign happening in 2013.

And that's true even though it does not offer a turbocharged engine option. But while the base 2.0-liter inline 4 is a little underpowered, the more powerful 2.5-liter inline 4 is a joy to drive. It revs freely and, when mated with a six-speed manual transmission like the one in our 2018 Grand Touring edition, makes daily commuting fun.

MAZDA NORTH AMERICAN OPERATIONS - The interior of the Mazda3 is more refined than those of its competitors.Enthusiasts know that Mazda launched a program it calls SKYACTIV a few years ago to increase mileage by reducing weight and getting all of the compoents of their vehicles to work together as efficiently as possible. A side effect is a well controlled ride that feels sporty without every being harsh. Combined with precise steering, the result is a ride that always feels nimble, even in downtown traffic.

And, oh yeah, the strategy also results in very good mileage for vehicles without a small displacement turbocharged or diesel option. Combined EPA ratings range from 28 to 32 miles, depending on body style, engine and transmission choices. I actually got better than the EPA estimated 28 average miles on my five-door, 2.5-liter, six-speed manual model.

The styling of all recent Mazda vehicles is especially worth noting. The company's current KODO: Soul of Motion design theme creates fluid exterior lines that are among the most attractive of all vehicles on the market, and it works especially well on the proportions of the Mazda3 hatchback that I tested. The interior styling is equally refined, giving the cabin a more sophisticated feel than other small economy cars.

MAZDA NORTH AMERICAN OPERATIONS - The available six-speed manual transmission in our test Mazda3 shifted smoothly, and the console mounted knob made it easy to operate the infotainment system.The Mazda3 is available in three trim levels, all of which can be ordered with the base manual or optional six-speed automatic transmission. The Sport model comes with a 2.0-liter inline 4 that produces 155 horsepower, 16-inch wheels and lots of standard equipment. The Touring and Grand Touring models come with a 2.5-liter engine that produces 184 horsepower, 18-inch wheels, more luxurious interiors, and the choice of just about every available automotive technology, especially when the Preferred Equipment package is added.

The Mazda3 received a slight redesign last year that sharpened up some of the exterior lines. Changes this year including adding more standard equipment, such as the Smart City Brake Support system to all trim levels. The Premium Equipment package was also reconfigured to include more safety equipment on a trim levels, too.

Mazda reportedly has more magic in the works. It recently announced their next generation gasoline engines will get to 20 to 30 percent better mileage. The company says its exclusive SKYACTIV-X technology allows ignition from compression under most conditions, significantly improving efficiency without compromising performance.

But that technology won't debut until 2019. So if you're in the market now for an economical but fun to drive compact, don't wait and check out the 2018 Mazda3.

MAZDA NORTH AMERICAN OPERATIONS - Rear seat room is good for two adults or three children in the Mazda3.

2018 Mazda3 Grand Touring

Base price: $18,095

Price as tested: $28,720

Style: Compact hatchback

Engine: 2.5-liter inline 4 (184 hp, 185 lbs-ft)

Transmission: 6-speed manual

EPA fuel economy: 25/33

Length: 180.3 inches

Weight: 2,846 pounds

Final assembly: Hofu, Japan

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