The French carmakers - PSA Peugeot Citroën (now a single company) and Renault - build some awesome cars. Partisans of the Mitsubishi Evo VIII or Subaru WRX STi ought to take a few laps in a Renault Clio V6, a rally-bred sport compact with a 255-hp V6 mounted amidships, where the back seat ought to be. Then we'll see who the surrender monkeys are.
I particularly like Renault's sense of adventure when it comes to styling. Cars such as the Vel Satis, the Scénic and the Mégane - with their strangely indented rear hatches, as if they had been kissed by a speeding lorry - exemplify French style, an attitude of shrugging indifference to convention and easy, sans souci confidence.
So, no French cars for us. But we've got the Mazda3 five-door, which could easily pass for a stable mate to the Mégane Hatch. Like the Renault, the Mazda3 five-door (four doors and a hatch, in case you were wondering) is a style-intensive little wagon with a bold face and its pants hitched up high in the back. It's got some sharp edges to it, like good cheese: Sill extensions and rear hatch spoiler are standard. Its rivals include cars such as the Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix, the Ford Focus five-door and the new Chevrolet Cobalt. Only the Mazda3 wouldn't look out of place in a quiet arrondissement in Paris.
And like the Mégane Hatch, the Mazda3 five-door handily exceeds expectations for a low-cost urban runabout. Our test car, a Mazda3 S five-door in "Winning Blue" (it looks like LeMans blue to me), carried a price tag of $22,145, which included optional leather seats; navigation system; six-disc in-dash CD player; xenon headlamps; power moonroof; side-impact airbags and curtains; and a tire pressure monitoring system.
Standard on the Mazda3 sedan is a 148-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine; the 160-hp, 2.3-liter mill, optional on the sedan, is standard on the wagon, shifted through either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. Our five-speed-equipped wagon fended for itself quite well in contentious L.A. traffic - wherein the roulette of merging is less French than Russian - and hummed along effortlessly at freeway speeds. The car returns very decent gas mileage of 25 miles per gallon city, 32 highway, according to the EPA.
Mazda's investment in zoom-zoom - vite vite? - is reflected in the car's capable multilink rear suspension and stabilizer bars front and rear. For a front-drive car, the Mazda wagon feels surprisingly settled, with very little torque steer feeding back through the electric-assist steering under hard acceleration. The grippy, V-rated tires (205/50R17s) maintain good adhesion, and when you flex the four-wheel disc brakes, the car feels like you have plowed into a field of warm Brie.
This is a solid-feeling car - taut, quiet and well tempered - a feeling that begins with its thickly padded steering wheel and ends at the car's hydroelastic body mountings and thick suspension bushings.
Our test car had a rich and interesting inner life. The leather surfaces - the seats, the gearshift knob, the steering wheel (the same as in the Mazda Miata) - offered tactile satisfaction worthy of a car costing $10,000 more. The optional navigation screen, situated centrally on top of the dash, pivoted upward as the car started; the controls, in a panel to the right of the gearshift, included a spin-and-click knob that was reasonably easy to fathom.
As straightforward as the three-dial climate controls were, just that much more complicated were the audio controls. The volume control is a center-position dial - not, as you might intuit, the left-hand dial in the lower set of two. This takes a day or so to get used to. As you change functions on the stereo, orange-red LEDs race back and forth in a superfluous display that seems to taunt you if you are vainly twisting the wrong dial.
Because of its rather upright rear-hatch styling, the Mazda3 five-door doesn't offer quite the cargo capacity of other vehicles in its class - nothing like the PT Cruiser. But once I flipped down the rear seats I was able to put in an 8-foot piece of lumber, several shopping bags from the local man-mall (Home Depot) and two bags of mulch. The hatch itself has a concealed pressure-pad release and rear window defogger and wiper.
With its Euro-cool design, loads of value and affinity for vitesse, the Mazda3 wagon belongs to a growing class of small suburban wagons that takes the short shrift out of thrift. To that, we should all raise a glass of Burgundy.
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2004 Mazda3 five-door
Base price: $16,895
Price, as tested: $22,145
Powertrain: all-aluminum 2.3-liter, 16-valve DOHC inline four-cylinder, variable-valve timing, transversely mounted; five-speed manual transmission; front-wheel drive.
Horsepower: 160 at 6,500 rpm
Torque: 150 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm
Curb weight: 2,826 pounds
0-60 mph: about 9 seconds
Overall length: 176.6 inches
Wheelbase: 103.9 inches
EPA mileage: 25 miles per gallon city/32 highway
EPA cargo volume with rear seats folded: 31.2 cubic feet
Final thoughts: Continental riff
Automotive critic Dan Neil
can be reached at email@example.com.