LAGUNA BEACH, CA – Avoiding the temptation to change for change sake can pay off handsomely, and the new ’10 Mazda3 proves the point.

The outgoing Mazda3 was good. So good, in fact, product planners and engineers resisted fiddling around too much with the formula that made the car a leader in the C-segment and Mazda Motor Corp.’s top seller.

“This car was an evolution and not a revolution, and it had to be right,” Robert Davis, senior vice president-research, development and quality, tells Ward’s at a Mazda3 media preview here. “It’s too important for us as a company and for us as a brand.”

Mazda’s decision to keep changes minimal pays off, as the latest model shines in just about every way during a recent test drive here.

On a beautiful stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, the car’s handling attributes stand out.

Few vehicles, even those costing thousands of dollars more than the modestly priced Mazda3, convey such a sense of control to the driver, even through the curvy Southern California roads.

Many of the handling enhancements come courtesy of carefully planned engineering tweaks, including the addition of high-strength steel panels that increase chassis stiffness some 7%. Gussets are used in load-bearing areas, such as suspension mounting points.

To enhance the unibody’s flex resistance, engineers employed a technique called weld bonding to combine structural adhesive and spot welds at key locations – such as the door aperture. The technique was used first on the Mazda6 sedan.

Executives says the stiffer structure provides a quieter ride, improved suspension response to steering and cornering loads and more stable cruising and braking, all while shaving about 24 lbs. (11 kg) from the chassis.

To improve steering precision, engineers added a third mounting point near the center of the car’s electrohydraulic-assisted rack-and-pinion steering gear.

The changes, along with modifying the steering geometry and the layout of the multi-link rear suspension, all but eliminate understeer during turn-in.

While the modifications do much to enhance steering feel, they also result in a slightly harsher ride than the outgoing model. But that’s a small and acceptable price to pay.

Several modifications have been made to the Mazda3’s exterior styling, but perhaps the most significant combines the previous generation’s 2-section grille into one larger opening. The larger grille retains Mazda’s signature 5-point design but reduces the actual opening 20%.

’10 Mazda3
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger sedan
Engine 2.5L DOHC I-4 with variable valve timing
Power (SAE net) 167 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 168 lb.-ft. (228 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
Compression ratio 9.7:1
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 103.9 ins. (264 cm)
Overall length 180.9 ins. (459 cm)
Overall width 69.1 ins. (176 cm)
Overall height 57.9 ins. (147 cm)
Curb weight 2,963 lbs. (1,344 kg)
Base price $21,500
Fuel economy 21/29 city/highway (11.2-8.1 L/100 km)
Competition Chevrolet Cobalt, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, Toyota Corolla
Pros Cons
Still fun to drive Options push up price
New grille boosts air flow Less-aggressive front fascia
6-speed manual Shifting a tad sloppy

The change was made for aesthetic reasons to further separate the Mazda3 from its Mazda6 stable mate, as well as for functional benefits.

“Any air that is taken in the opening of the grille and is not effectively used to cool the engine is essentially lost energy,” says Ruben Archilla, group manager-research and development at Mazda North American Operations. “So the concept we applied was to downsize the opening of the grille and eliminate the amount of lost energy.”

Most of the air now is routed over the hood or around the sides of the car, reducing the drag coefficient from 0.30 to 0.29.

The move to a single, wide-mouth grille also makes the front fascia look less aggressive, which might turn off some driving enthusiasts. But the rest of the exterior retains the smoothly sculptured lines of the outgoing model.

The interior – and the technology found within – may reap the greatest reward, or harshest criticism, for Mazda.

The first-generation Mazda3 sold well for many reasons. It was a simple, no-nonsense car that appealed to those who enjoy driving and don’t need all the frills.

The ’10 Mazda3 offers a bevy of features typically not found in the C-segment, including adaptive headlights, heated front seats, rain-sensing wipers, push-button ignition and Bluetooth connectivity.

While all the options on our tester are easy to operate and prove useful, they might alienate Mazda3 loyalists who prefer a straightforward experience.

But due to the ailing economy, Mazda brass say the C-segment no longer is a stepping stone to mid-luxury or luxury cars, but rather a destination. As such, offering new amenities is important to attract customers who otherwise may have opted for a more upscale car.

Strip away the high-tech features and the Mazda3 retains the core attributes enthusiasts have loved.

The front seats offer plenty of lateral support for high-speed cornering, while the rear seats are surprisingly roomy. Plenty of nooks and crannies are at hand to store small items, such as cell phones and sunglasses.

Materials are pleasing to the eye, and the plastics lack the excessive gloss found in many other C-segment offerings.

The ’10 Mazda3 is available in 4- and 5-door body styles, powered by either a 2.0L inline 4-cyl. producing 148 hp and 135 lb.-ft. (183 Nm) of torque or a 2.5L I-4 making 167 hp and 168 lb.-ft. (228 Nm).

The 2.0L comes mated to either a 5-speed manual or automatic transmission, while the 2.5L pairs with a 6-speed manual or a 5-speed automatic.

Our tester, a 4-door sedan equipped with the 2.5L and manual gearbox, is plenty powerful and capable of brisk acceleration, yet the gear throws are a bit long and not as precise as we would like.

Available in four trim levels, the ’10 Mazda3 already is on sale. Pricing starts at $15,045, not including a $670 destination and delivery charge.

The high-tech gadgetry pushes the top price to $22,300, putting the Mazda3 squarely up against larger midsize offerings, including the entry-level Mazda6.

But the midsizers can’t compete on fuel economy. The Mazda3 equipped with the 2.0L and manual transmission delivers 25/33 mpg city/highway (9.4-7.1 L/100 km), while the 2.5L with the automatic is capable of 22/29 mpg (10.7-8.1 L/100 km).

Overall, the auto maker achieves its goals by improving on certain aspects of the Mazda3 without sacrificing what made it great in the first place.

bpope@wardsauto.com