Case in point: The 2006 Mazda3 s. Though the engine and transmission aren't quite as refined as the new Honda Civic Si -- which, incidentally, only comes as a two-door coupe -- the Mazda3 s sedan is at least as much fun to drive, and it has four doors. Its 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine has 160 horsepower, 37 fewer than the Civic Si's 2.0-liter engine, but the difference doesn't feel that big, likely due in part to the Mazda's 11 extra foot-pounds of torque.
The Mazda3 comes as a regular four-door sedan, such as the test car, or as a four-door hatchback. The base Mazda3 i has a 2.0-liter, 150-horsepower four-cylinder, while the sportier Mazda3 s has a 2.3-liter engine. The hatchback model gets only the 2.3.
Base price of the test car, a Touring model, was $17,615, and that buys a lot of standard equipment, such as side and side-curtain air bags, P205/50R-17 radials on alloy wheels, an AM/FM stereo with CD player and six speakers, cruise control, disc brakes with anti-lock, keyless entry, air conditioning and power locks, mirrors and windows. Options were a power sunroof and a six-disc CD changer, offered as a $890 package. With shipping, the total was $19,065. That's with the five-speed manual transmission; a five-speed automatic adds $950. Mileage with the five-speed manual is an EPA-rated 26 mpg in the city, 32 on the highway.
Inside, the instruments are nicely placed, but I'm not a fan of the sound-system layout, which revolves around a huge on-off/volume button. The front cloth-covered bucket seats are pretty comfortable, and the gearshift lever is in just the right place. The Mazda3 s feels very familiar, very quickly. Rear-seat room is about average for a car this size, as is trunk space. One complaint: On the second speed, the fan for the air conditioning is loud. On the fourth and highest speed, you'll reach for the stereo volume button. Maybe that's why it's so prominent.
The Mazda3 s is certainly happy in the city, and it gives a very good ride on the highway, even on rough pavement. It's most in its element, though, on winding roads, where you can give the independent suspension a workout. Handling is excellent, much more neutral than most front-wheel-drive cars.
The Mazda3 went on sale in December 2003, as a 2004 model, and as the replacement for the Protege. It still looks and feels fresh but has been around long enough for buyers to expect a discount, making an appealing car even more so.
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Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smithcan be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5699.