Vehicle Overview
Mazda's larger, more powerful replacements for the departed Proteg� sedan and Proteg�5 hatchback went on sale in the 2004 model year. Built on the same platform as the Volvo S40, the compact, front-wheel-drive Mazda3 displayed entirely different styling. A 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine went into the Mazda3 i sedan, while the Mazda3 s sedan and hatchback held a more powerful 2.3-liter four-cylinder.

Modifications are minor for the 2006 model year. The 2.0-liter engine in the Marda3 i sedan adds variable valve timing, boosting its output to 150 horsepower (145 hp in partial-credit Zero Emissions Vehicle models) while promising greater fuel economy. A new five-speed-automatic transmission is available for Madza3 s models. The five-door hatchback includes a standard Sport Package with special bumpers, side skirts, front fog lamps and 17-inch alloy wheels.

A new 2.3-liter s Grand Touring model contains features borrowed from the 2005 special-edition SP23, including heated leather seats, automatic headlights, automatic rain-sensing wipers and a trip computer. A moonroof, a custom-tuned Bose audio system and Sirius Satellite Radio are optional.


Exterior
Comparatively upright in profile, the Mazda3 is built with a wide track and a relatively long (103.9-inch) wheelbase for its size. A Sport Package that includes sport bumpers, side skirts, 17-inch wheels and fog lamps is available on s sedans.

Steel wheels hold 15-inch tires on the Mazda3 i sedan; the Mazda3 s sedan gets 16-inch alloy wheels, while the Mazda3 s hatchback rolls on 17-inch rubber. The wagonlike hatchback has small triangular rear quarter windows. Sedans get a short but high rear deck.


Interior
Up to five people can fit inside the Mazda3. The steering column tilts and telescopes. Instruments sit in a trio of round, recessed nacelles. A ratchet-type mechanism permits seat adjustment allowing the cushion and seatback to move up and down together. Placing the rear-suspension coil springs beneath the floor increases the hatchback's rear storage space.

Under the Hood
The 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the Mazda3 i develops 150 hp (145 hp in PZEV form). The Mazda3 s uses a 2.3-liter four-cylinder that pumps out 160 hp. A five-speed-manual gearbox is standard, and a four-speed-automatic transmission with a manual-shift provision is optional for the Mazda3 i. The 2.3-liter engine can mate with a new five-speed automatic.

Safety
All-disc antilock brakes, side-impact airbags and side curtain-type airbags are included in an option package.

Driving Impressions
The easy-to-drive Mazda3 handles more adeptly than most rivals. The automatic transmission delivers quick, smooth responses. Performance with the larger engine falls short of some sporty compacts, but it will satisfy most drivers. That engine is generally quiet, but it emits a fair amount of blare when pushed. With an easy-shifting manual gearbox and a well-behaved clutch, even the Mazda3 i with the smaller engine feels more spirited than an upper-level model with the automatic.

Although the front seats are nicely shaped, their seatbacks are on the hard side. Rear legroom is limited, but foot space is good. Headroom is average in the rear but meager in the center position. Visibility is good. The Mazda3 instruments are difficult to see on dark days but are lit nicely at night.