SAN DIEGO – Mazda took some big risks with the new ’14 Mazda3, a nameplate that generates the bulk of its global sales, by not playing it safe and instead designing a car that pushes styling and performance far beyond its predecessor.

The ’14 Mazda3, available in sedan and hatchback configurations, boasts aggressive sheet metal derived from a new design philosophy dubbed Kodo. Unlike anything else in the C-car segment, the Mazda3 pushes the envelope with its cab-rearward posture, raked profile and striking character lines.

Up front the ’14 Mazda3 loses the grille of its predecessor, which was criticized for resembling a smiley face. In its place is a handsome, 5-point grille with slanted headlamps, making for a much more serious fascia than the outgoing model.

Mazda says both the sedan and the hatch achieve a best-in-class coefficient of drag of 0.255 and 0.275, respectively, when equipped with active-grille shutters.

The new design keeps the Mazda3 from blending in with the crowd, and should attract consumers looking for a little more flavor in their daily driver.

While the exterior design might draw consumers into the dealership, a quick stint behind the wheel should have them pulling out their checkbooks.

The base model is powered by a 2.0L inline 4-cyl. engine producing 155 hp and 150 lb.-ft. (203 Nm) of torque. The mill, featuring Mazda’s Skyactiv engine technology with an extremely high 13.0:1 compression ratio, is a good fit for the car. It’s not terribly powerful, but never feels underpowered, either, and it’s rated at 29/40 mpg (8.1-5.8 L/100 km) city/highway.

Unfortunately, we were unable to achieve the 40 mpg bogey on a recent test drive here, despite our best efforts which included driving a steady 60 mph (96.5 km/h) on a long stretch of highway. We averaged a respectable 36.6 mpg (6.4 L/100 km) during the stint, which is still among the best in the segment.

Mazda3 models with the S trim get a standard 2.5L Skyactiv I-4 making 184 hp and 185 lb.-ft. (251 Nm) of torque, which is rated at 27/37 mpg (8.7-6.3 L/100 km) city/highway. The engine felt slightly more powerful, but we’d stick with the base powertrain and save a few bucks, as you don’t gain all that much more in performance.

Those truly wanting a sporty car should wait for the expected MazdaSpeed3, which is rumored to be in the works.

As with most Mazdas, the Mazda3 is fun to drive, not so much for its straight-line performance, but rather its handling attributes. The car takes corners in a predictable manner, making spirited driving a pleasure.

We spent most of our time behind the wheel of a Mazda3 equipped with the 6-speed manual, which made the drive experience more engaging. The available 6-speed automatic does an admirable job, and is one of the better auto gearboxes in the segment. Gear changes are barely noticeable and occur precisely when needed.

Mazda designers give the interior a full makeover, including the addition of plenty of soft-touch materials. Attention also is paid to ergonomics, with careful consideration given to the placement of each instrument, switch and gauge.

An example of this attention to detail is the placement of Mazda’s all-new Active Driving Display, which provides speed, navigation directions and other pertinent driving information. The display is a pop-up panel vertically mounted on the center of the dash.

Although the placement tends to keep the driver’s eyes on the road, it doesn’t seamlessly tie into the interior. Rather, it looks like a portable navigation system and a bit out of place.

The seats are comfortable and supportive despite being reduced in thickness and width to provide more knee room for rear-seat passengers. A 2-tone leather seat trim is new for ’14 and features contrasting gray stitching to emphasize craftsmanship in the needlework. Red thread is used with the black leather seat trim.

All in all, the all-new ’14 Mazda3, in dealers now, is a refreshing entry into the hotly contested C-car segment. Mazda has established a well-deserved reputation as a builder of fun-to-drive, fuel-efficient sporty cars, and it delivers on all fronts with its new volume model.

bpope@wardsauto.com

’14 Mazda3
Vehicle type 5-seat, 5-door hatchback
Engine 2.0L inline 4-cyl.
Power (SAE net) 155 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 150 lb.-ft. (203 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 83.5 x 91.2
Compression ratio 13.0:1
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 106.3 ins. (2,700 cm)
Overall length 175.6 ins. (4,460 cm)
Overall width 70.7 ins. (1,795 cm)
Overall height 57.3 ins. (1,455 cm)
Curb weight 2,797 lbs. (1,268 kg)
Base price $18,945
Fuel economy 29/40 mpg (8.1-5.8 L/100 km)
Competition Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cruze, Toyota Corolla
Pros Cons
6-speed manual fantastic transmission Most people prefer automatic gearboxes
Aggressive styling Not everyone’s cup of tea
Carefully placed navigation system Looks like an aftermarket add-on