Not long ago, I wrote about the Mazdaspeed3, Mazda's 263-horsepower hot-rod version of its entry-level car. A reader e-mailed, wondering if it was really worth the price premium over a regular Mazda3 S model: The Mazda- speed3 I tested listed for almost $25,000, and they've been so scarce this year that some dealers have added their own markups to the car.

I told the reader that for me, a regular midlevel version of the Mazda3 was so entertaining that I'd be hard-pressed to justify the extra money, especially since the best you could likely hope for with the Mazdaspeed3 is to pay list price, while you can expect a healthy discount on the regular version.

After a week with a Mazda3 S Touring, I'm pretty comfortable with that answer. While this car isn't the athlete the Mazdaspeed3 is, or even the Honda Civic Si, it's a blast to drive for what it costs. I'm not sure there's a better sub-$20,000 value for those who insist on having fun behind the wheel.

The test car was a sedan version, as opposed to Mazda's wagon like hatchback, which I like just as well. The engine is a willing, eager 2.3-literfour-cylinder with 156 horsepower, and the transmission is an exceptionally smooth five-speed manual. You can get an automatic transmission, but the manual is so good that I'd stick with it and save $950.

As it is, the test car started at $18,425, and that gets you a lot of equipment, including stability control, traction control, anti-lock disc brakes, air conditioning, cruise control, fog lights, power windows and locks and a good six-speaker stereo. Options on the test car were a package that adds a power sunroof and a six-disc CD changer ($890), and Sirius satellite radio ($430). With shipping, list price was $20,340.

If you are slightly less interested in performance, the Mazda3 I starts at less than $15,000, and has a 2.0-liter, 148-horsepower four-cylinder engine. It isn't as sporty as the S -- different suspension, 15-inch tires and wheels, instead of the 17-inchers on the test car -- but for the money, it's a lot of car, though beware that air conditioning is an option.

On the road, the test car is taut and nimble -- it's really surprising that this car has been around in the same basic form since 2004 but still feels fresh. Handling is quite European -- this platform was, after all, developed there -- with a nice mixture of comfort and road feel. Inside, the sound system -- typical for Mazda -- is not particularly intuitive, but other instruments and controls are fine. The cloth-covered bucket seats are supportive and firm. Rear-seat room is acceptable for a car this size, as is trunk space.

There are newer models on the market, and even at list price, the Mazda3 S Touring is exceptionally appealing. But figuring in a nice discount given the age of the model, it goes from being a good buy to one of the best bargains out there.