Mazda3 gets a brand-new look, and tech

Starting at $18,945
2014 Mazda3

Mazda brought its new Mazda3 hatchback and sedan, a car improved in every dimension, to the Frankfurt auto show.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

FRANKFURT -- In June, Mazda unveiled its updated Mazda3 hatchback, a car that represented multiple new initiatives by the automaker to increase efficiency, enhance technology, and introduce cohesive styling across the brand. Here at the International Motor Show in Frankfurt, Mazda showed off the hatchback and the new sedan version of the Mazda3.

Both versions of the Mazda3 exhibit the kind of head-turning styling introduced on the new Mazda6. The dimensions of the Mazda3 have been reduced, which also lessens vehicle weight, while the body panels have been smoothed. Unlike the Nagare styling language developed and then dropped by Mazda, which emphasized the sort of ripples seen in nature, the Mazda3 seems to draw its influence from the equally natural gentle curvature of a plum or an apple.

A graceful beltline contour dips at the front doors, then curves up toward the front fenders. The headlight and taillight casings are small and integrated well with the fenders. The hatchback resembles a larger Mazda2.

Both versions sport a long nose, which contains a 2-liter, four-cylinder engine bearing Mazda's Skyactiv label. This engine uses direct injection to produce 155 horsepower and achieve 30 mpg city/41 mpg highway in EPA testing, when equipped with the six-speed automatic transmission. Mazda will also offer a more powerful 2.5-liter engine in the Mazda3 S trim.

Emphasizing modern cabin tech, the Mazda3's LCD sticks up as a standalone piece from the center of the dashboard, similar to recent designs from BMW. Instead of a touch screen, the driver uses a dial on the console to select phone and stereo controls. Navigation will also be available as an SD card-based option.

Mazda also adopts Aha Radio integration, a connected feature that runs on a driver's smartphone but shows information on the car's LCD.

The new Mazda3 cuts a striking figure, and the addition of a sedan to the hatchback model will help sales in the US. As a compact economy car, it is also a very important model for Mazda, as this segment is usually a volume seller.

The exterior styling and cabin technology will help it stand out against competition from Toyota and Honda, brands likely to be cross-shopped. The direct-injection engine and fuel economy should also help the Mazda3's case with buyers.

However, some hard plastic surfaces in the cabin lend it a cheap feeling. Other brands, recognizing the importance of interiors, have given their comparable models an almost premium feel from the driver seat, something not quite achieved in the Mazda3.

Pricing for the car is very compelling, coming in at a base of $16,945. Models with the LCD and navigation will start around $21,000. The 2014 Mazda3 goes on sale in September.

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