The 2013 Mazda3 sedan and hatchback are known for their fun-to-drive attitude and feature-filled cabin. Delivering the kind of ride and handling usually attributed to premium compacts such as the VW GTI, the Mazda3 also delivers mileage estimates up to 40 miles per gallon yet wears a price tag well south of the $25,000 mark. Of course, the GTI can outrun the Mazda3 pretty easily, as can a number of its competitors. But if flat out speed takes a backseat to a well-tuned suspension, a comfortable cabin and a great audio system, the Mazda3 easily takes top honors in the fun-but-frugal category.

What's New for 2013

New available features for 2013 include push-button start, a 5.8-inch touchscreen radio with TomTom navigation, a USB port, streaming Bluetooth and SMS text messaging capability. The s Touring trim has been dropped, while last year's Tech Package was made part of the s Grand Touring's standard equipment.

What We Like

Precise ride and handling; slick 6-speed manual transmission; excellent fuel economy on Skyactiv models; available Bose audio; new TomTom equipped navigation radio

What We Don't

Annoying road and tire noise inside the cabin; limited rear-seat legroom; somewhat polarizing front-end styling; mediocre fuel economy on GT trims

How Much

$17,495-$27,355

Fuel Economy

There are three engine choices for the Mazda3, each with its own strengths. The most affordable Mazda3 is the i SV trim featuring a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine that produces 148 horsepower. While this engine isn't terribly powerful, it is rather efficient, earning an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimate of 25 mpg city and 33 mpg highway with the 5-speed manual and 24 mpg city/33 mpg hwy with the 5-speed automatic.

The i Sport, Touring and Grand Touring are equipped with the new Skyactiv 2.0-liter engine that produces 155 hp. This high compression engine employs direct gasoline injection, providing slightly better performance than in the SV but vastly better fuel economy, with an EPA estimated 27 mpg city/39 mpg hwy with the 6-speed manual and 28 mpg city/40 mpg hwy with the 6-speed Sport AT automatic.

The sportier s Grand Touring trim is motivated by a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine rated at 167 hp. The largest Mazda3 engine provides more low-end torque for faster acceleration and passing, but its fuel economy suffers, with a somewhat marginal 20 mpg city/28 mpg hwy with the 6-speed manual and 22 mpg city/29 mpg hwy when equipped with the 5-speed automatic.

Options and Standard Features

The 2013 Mazda3 comes in four trims and two body styles. The sedan is offered in i SV, i Sport, i Touring and i Grand Touring, as well as s Grand Touring. The 5-door hatchback models are the i Touring, Grand Touring and s Grand Touring.

The entry-level i SV ($17,495 sedan) includes a 5-speed manual transmission, power windows and mirrors, a tilt/telescopic steering wheel with illuminated audio control buttons, air conditioning, AM/FM stereo with four speakers, CD player and auxiliary input, 16-in wheels with plastic covers and a 60/40 split-folding rear seat.

To this the i Sport ($19,170 sedan) adds the Skyactiv engine, a 6-speed manual transmission, power door locks, remote entry, cruise control, a multi-information display, a USB port and remote trunk release.

The i Touring ($20,295 sedan, $20,795 5-door) adds 16-in alloy wheels, 6-speaker stereo (upgraded with two tweeters in the front doors), Bluetooth, dual-zone automatic climate control, Advanced Key keyless entry and push-button start, rear-seat folding center armrest and leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.

The i Grand Touring ($23,595 sedan, $24,095 5-door) brings heated side mirrors, a 265-watt Bose Centerpoint 10-speaker audio system, 8-way power driver's seat, blind spot monitoring, heated front seats, a power moonroof, leather seating surfaces and a 5.8-in touchscreen audio unit with TomTom navigation, Pandora apps and SMS text message delivery and reply.

The s Grand Touring ($25,145 sedan, $26,645 5-door) adds 17-in alloy wheels, pivoting adaptive front bi-xenon headlights, fog lights, dual exhaust, rain-sensing wipers, auto on/off headlights, driver and passenger illuminated vanity mirrors and SiriusXM satellite radio with a 4-month free trial subscription.

The i SV Convenience Package adds power door locks with remote entry and trunk release, while the i Touring's Preferred Equipment Package brings the blind spot monitoring system, Bose Centerpoint audio with 10 speakers and a power moonroof. The i Grand Touring can be equipped with the Technology Package that includes rain-sensing wipers, adaptive front bi-xenon headlights, auto on/off headlights and satellite radio.

A 6-speed Sport AT automatic transmission with manual sport mode is optional on all Mazda3 Skyactiv trims; all other models offer a 5-speed Sport AT automatic.

Safety

Every Mazda3 comes standard with anti-lock brakes, electronic traction and stability control and six airbags, including front-side impact and side curtain airbags. Available blind spot monitoring warns of traffic lurking in the driver's side blind spot, while the standard tire pressure monitor alerts when one or more tires is low on air.

As for safety, the 2013 Mazda3 earns good-to-fair marks in the newest crash tests of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA): five out of five stars in the front collision test, three stars in the side-impact test and four stars in the rollover test. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the Mazda3 good ratings in all of its tests (IIHS did not perform a small overlap front crash test on the Mazda3) and awards it a Top Safety Pick designation.

Behind the Wheel

Mazda is spending a lot of time and money advertising its new Skyactiv technology. And it's working. Before we got hold of the Mazda3 Skyactiv, we were very excited to see what their engineers had cooked up. But once we were behind the wheel, the Skyactiv-powered Mazda3 underwhelmed.

Unfortunately, the car was neither quick nor particularly quiet on the road, but for its price range, we'd venture to say that the Mazda3 is still one of the sportiest economy cars in the bunch.

The best aspect of the Mazda3 was by far its handling. On remote country roads during spirited driving or on the highway, the Mazda3 never lost its footing and easily inspired confidence in its abilities to handle whatever the road threw at it.

We experienced the car's handling prowess in spades when the California Highway Patrol closed Interstate 5 and we were forced to venture back south to find Highway 101 to once again find our way back north.

We first connected with Highway 299 near Redding and found ourselves on a delightfully twisty road carved from the side of a series of hills and mountains. As the sun set to our left, we hammered the Mazda3 around the remote switchbacks, chasing a 2010 Toyota Corolla S. Though we did eventually overtake the Corolla, we were constantly high-revving the motor while praying for more power.

Other Cars to Consider

Volkswagen Golf TDI- The Golf TDI is much quicker than the Mazda3 and it offers the same great fuel economy, albeit running on diesel fuel. The Golf is also much quieter on the road and its interior materials are far nicer.

Hyundai Elantra - The Elantra costs less than the Mazda3, is better equipped at the lower end, achieves 38 mpg highway and, in addition to a sedan and hatchback, can be had in coupe form. The Elantra also offers a better warranty at 10 years/100,000 miles.

Chevrolet Cruze - The Cruze may not offer the convenience of a hatchback, but it does have a 40 mpg model (the Eco) and its overall ride comfort and build quality make it feel like a much more substantial car. GM's MyLink is one of the most intuitive, easy-to-use infotainment systems in the biz.

AutoTrader's Advice

For the money, we think the best buy here is the i Grand Touring model. It's loaded with features, has great gas mileage and handles like a dream. It's not the most powerful trim in the Madza3 lineup, but for less than $25,000, it's a lot of car for the money.

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Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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