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Affordable And Comfortable Fun: 2018 Mazda3

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Few cars do so many things so well.

Although the current third generation has been on sale since 2014, the Mazda3 remains an excellent compact sedan and hatchback. It requires no high performance version to earn a spot on several top driver's car lists. Would a new Mazdaspeed3 have been appreciated? Certainly, but in all honesty, the base cars are immensely satisfying enough. Mazda has long used BMW as its performance and handling benchmark, and the results speak for themselves. Will BMW buyers trade in their cars for a Mazda?

Probably not, but just because one doesn't have the money to spend on German luxury doesn't mean they don't deserve some fun behind the wheel. Mazda, with its "Zoom-Zoom" motto, is an excellent alternative and the Mazda3 embodies this perfectly. While the previous second gen model sported more radical styling, its C1 platform was carried over from the previous model with only a few modifications. The current model (sedan and hatchback), however, rides on a new, Mazda-developed Skyactiv platform. It is also the third model to feature the automaker's Kodo design language, which continues to be evolved to this day with Mazda's latest concepts.

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For 2016, the Mazda3 received a facelift featuring slightly restyled front and rear ends and an updated dashboard layout. But the car's secret sauce is really its engine and chassis. Buyers have a choice between two Skyactiv engines, the base Sport offering up a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 155 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque, and the 2.5-liter four with 184 hp and 185 lb-ft of twist. If you're able to swing it, spend the extra couple of grand on the optional engine which Mazda, conveniently enough for 2018, expanded availability to the mid-range Touring trim instead of being standard only on the top-of-the-line Grand Touring.

What we really dig is that, regardless of trim, there's a choice between two gearboxes, a six-speed manual or a fast-shifting six-sped automatic. If you prefer the former, you'll also be saving yourself $1,050. The 2.5 four when paired with the slushbox takes you from 0 to 60 mph in 7 seconds flat and top speed is electronically limited to 132 mph. Okay, so clearly this is no direct threat to the BMW 3 Series, but for what's essentially regarded as a Japanese compact economy sedan, that sprint to 60 time ain't bad at all. But where the Mazda3 really shines is handling. The outstanding suspension tuning allows for solid control when leaning in corners, and also provides everyday comfort.

Unlike the previous entries in this series, the Honda Civic Si, Subaru WRX, and Ford Focus ST, the Mazda3, at least in stock form, is probably not the first choice for an autocross event, and that's just fine because it's not intended to be that type of car straight out of the box. The Mazda3 is all about combining sporty and refinement with just the right amount of luxury to make your car-blivious friend or co-worker mistakenly think they're riding in something more expensive than it actually is. Unfortunately however, rear seat passengers will instantly remember they're riding in a compact sedan or hatch. Regardless of body style, the back seat can be a tight squeeze, as it is smaller than those of its more recent competitors.

Hey, something's gotta give for the exterior's sweeping lines. Another area of some contention is the 7-inch infotainment system located at the top of the dash. Yes, it looks brilliant and, once again, makes us think of BMW and Audi. However, it's not the easiest system to navigate. Mazda needs to make some shortcuts for some of the most basic functions, like changing radio stations. Very soon a redesigned Mazda3 is due for arrival, and like the rest of the automaker's lineup, will be even more premium than it is now inside and out. It'll also boast Mazda's new SkyActiv-X engine technology that promises even better fuel economy than a comparable EV.

For now though, the 2018 Mazda3 sedan and hatchback is the budget enthusiast's choice. With a starting price of $18,095 and a fully-loaded Grand Touring creeping close to $30,000, you're still getting decent value for the money, though our pick of the litter would be the mid-level Touring with the six-speed manual for as low as $22,780. Japanese build quality. Beautiful styling inside and out. Fun to drive and not too expensive. That's the Mazda3 in a nutshell.