The gauge cluster is clear and glare-free thanks to three deep overlapping binnacles housing the main dials: one for the tach, one for the speedo, and one for the fuel and temp gauges. The single-line LCD readout is similarly hooded and very readable in all conditions with its soft orange background. This display shows outside temperature as well as CD number and track time or radio frequency. No Redbook or ID3 information was displayed from any of the discs or the MP3 player we used. The aux jack is well-located next to a 12-volt power outlet in the center armrest, with an opening to allow a cord to come through. No Bluetooth option is available, nor does the mounting of the audio unit make aftermarket upgrades easy to install.
The "s" trim level includes a leather-wrapped shift knob and steering wheel, both of which added to the sporty feel behind the wheel of the 3. The steering wheel offers redundant controls for the audio system (including a handy mute button) and cruise control. We appreciated the very large glove box, which served as a mobile file cabinet for four days worth of various tickets, credentials, and parking passes, all of which fit along with the owner's manual and with much more room to spare.
Climate controls were simple and effective, with three large round selectors handling the usual functions. Given the warmer than usual, fog-free August weather during our stay in Monterey, we were happy to have the standard (on "s" models) air-conditioning blowing on our feet while shuttling from place to place.
Dual front airbags are standard on all the Mazda3s, but the "s" trim level adds standard front seat-mounted side-impact and front and rear side curtain airbags as well (these are optional on the lesser models). A tire pressure monitoring system comes gratis on all but the lowliest "i Sport" trim level.
Under the hood
The 2007 Mazda3 s Touring bills itself as "redefining what is possible in the compact car category," and while we can't completely agree with the hyperbole, in terms of driving enjoyment and dynamics it is among the best in its class. And under the figurative hood is where the Mazda3 offers some tech features to speak of.
Antilock brakes with brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution are standard fare on many economy cars, but the "i" level Mazda3's offer them only as an option. They are standard on "s" level cars like ours. The Touring models also include dynamic stability control and traction control standard.
The "s" models' 2.3-liter DOHC inline four-cylinder aluminum engine puts out 156 horsepower and achieves PZEV emissions ratings with the help of variable valve timing. This is somewhat modest power output, but the engine revs freely and acceleration feels brisk. The Mazda3's emissions rating puts it on par with most hybrids.
Where the Mazda3 really shines is on winding two-lane roads where the stiff chassis and variable-assist power steering combine to encourage carving into curves and feeling the front wheels pull the car through. And no trip to the Monterey Historics is complete without at least one run across the Laureles Grade between Carmel Valley Road and Laguna Seca Raceway on Highway 68.
The Mazda3 proved an entertaining mount through this road's 16 miles of climbs and descents through sweeping corners. Third and fourth gears are spaced perfectly for this kind of midspeed driving, and overall the five-speed gearbox was easy to use and nicely matched with the power characteristics of the engine. A sixth speed might have improved our highway fuel economy, but we never had the feeling that cruising in fifth on the highway demanded excessive prolonged engine speeds.
The 2007 Mazda3 is apparently intended as an economy performance sedan, and as such offers little in the way of standard creature comforts at its lower trim levels. Left in base form, the car represents a good performance value. But this edge evaporates as tech features present on some of the competition must be added as options that drive up the price of a similarly-equipped 3.
Our Mazda3 s Touring had a base MSRP of $18,425, and the only option present on it was the power moonroof and in-dash CD-changer package, at $890. Adding the delivery and prep charge of $595 brought the total sticker price to $19,910.
In an earlier test we called the hotter Mazdaspeed version of the Mazda 3 the best handling front wheel drive car we'd seen to date. The non-turbo, non-"speed" version isn't quite as much fun as its stronger brother, but nevertheless responds well to being driven hard and isn't prone to the turbo lag and minor torque steer the Mazdaspeed 3 exhibits. If Bluetooth and an aftermarket stereo aren't on your list of must-haves for your starter sport sedan, the Mazda3 is worth a look.