2014 Mazda3 s Grand Touring 5-Door review:

Premium feel and tech in an economy car

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The blind spot monitor system, another rare feature in cars of this class, lit up icons in the side mirrors when cars were traveling in the lane to either side. A rearview camera took over the LCD when I put the Mazda3 into reverse.

Tightly tuned
Those tech features are, in many ways, excellent, but they are just the icing on the Mazda3's cake when you consider the superb driving character.

The Mazda3 s Grand Touring gets a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with direct injection, a little more displacement and power than the 2-liter engine of the "i" models. The 2.5-liter mill makes 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque, particularly good numbers when you consider the car weighs just 3,000 pounds when fully equipped.

It was certainly enough power for me to screech the front tires on take-off.

2014 Mazda3
The Mazda3 s models get this 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Josh Miller/CNET

Where the Mazda3 really felt good was in the steering and suspension tuning. The car felt comfortably tight, ready to respond to all my driving inputs. The ride quality was generally excellent, a competent damping out of bumps and rough spots in the pavement. However, over successive bumps the car exhibited some float.

The steering, using electric power boost, was immediately responsive. More importantly, both steering and suspension felt like they were tuned to work together. Some automakers cheap out on their compact cars, using a torsion bar across the rear wheels, but Mazda fits the rear of the Mazda3 with an independent multi-link architecture, allowing for better response to the road and more flexibility in tuning.

Driving around town, the Mazda3 felt as good as cars costing $10,000 more. The six-speed automatic transmission, the only gearbox available on the s Grand Touring trim, lead to an easy driving character, making stop-and-go traffic painless. A couple more gears would have lead to less abrupt shifts and possibly greater fuel economy, really putting the Mazda3 on par with the luxury competition.

2014 Mazda3
Mazda tuned the Mazda3 for a very engaging driving feel. Josh Miller/CNET

Rather than a low range, the transmission includes a manual mode, with paddles on the steering wheel to control the gears. The manual shifts exhibited some slushiness, and seemed more suitable for controlling engine braking on a descent then snapping off changes on a track.

However, as much as the Mazda3 seems like quality commuter for the urban and suburban environment, I couldn't resist the Sport button sitting on the console. Tapping it not only made the throttle more sensitive, it engaged a high-revving transmission program.

Standing on the brakes coming into a turn, I was pleased to see the tach needle jump to 5,000 as the transmission aggressively geared down. With peak power on tap, the Mazda3's front tires bit into the pavement, scrabbling to pull the car in the direction I was turning.

In this kind of driving, the suspension showed a little more sway than I would have liked, but that served to remind me that Mazda should be coming out with the Mazdaspeed version of this car soon. As it was, the Mazda3 let me have more fun than I would have expected from what, at the end of the day, is still an economy car.

Highlighting that economy are the EPA mileage estimates of 28 mpg city and 38 mpg highway. Despite having 30 more horsepower than the 2-liter Mazda3 i trim levels, fuel economy is down only 2 mpg. I turned in an average of 29.6 mpg over a driving course that included ample use of the Sport button.

2014 Mazda3
The regenerative braking system i-Eloop gathers electricity from what would be wasted energy. Josh Miller/CNET

Helping the Mazda3 s achieve its fuel economy is Mazda's i-Eloop regenerative braking system. Similar to hybrid vehicles, i-Eloop converts kinetic energy to electricity when the car is braking or coasting down. Rather than reuse that electricity as drive energy, though, the Mazda3 uses it to power all of the car's auxiliary systems, taking some of the generator load off the engine. BMW uses a similar system.

A cut above
The 2014 Mazda3 punches far above its weight, an extraordinary achievement and one that will make other automakers think twice when tooling up their economy car updates. In top trim, the Mazda3 brings in a good set of driver assistance features and cabin tech. The live traffic integration was a bit of a let-down, something I would like to see Mazda improve in a model refresh, but the Mazda Connect system offers a good amount of features. With the apps menu area, the system looks like a good base for additional features.

A couple of features I would like to see in the future would be adaptive cruise control and online location search in the navigation system.

The driving character shows excellent attention to detail on the part of Mazda. I was completely satisfied with the steering feel and engine response. I wasn't gentle with the car, but it still got decent fuel economy. And I like that one button engaged sport modes for both transmission and throttle. A sport program for the steering would be interesting, but the wheel is already so responsive I don't know where Mazda could take it.

And the idea of an upcoming Mazdaspeed version kept me from yearning for even more sporting behavior.

This fully equipped Mazda3 s Grand Touring hatchback ran over $27,000, pushing the price point of an economy car. However, the tech comes on strong in the Mazda3 i Grand Touring 5-Door with the Mazda Connect system, which begins at $23,245. That trim level may be the sweet spot for most buyers.

Tech specs
Model 2014 Mazda3
Trim s Grand Touring 5-Door
Powertrain Direct injection 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy 28 mpg city/38 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 29.6 mpg
Navigation Standard
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources Internet streaming, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio, HD radio
Audio system Bose nine-speaker system
Driver aids Head-up display, lane-departure warnings, blind-spot monitor, rearview camera
Base price $18,945
Price as tested $27,590

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