The world of compact cars isn't known for excitement. Many compacts bring drivers from point A to point B and little else. Sure, some models boast upscale equipment or the occasional novel feature. But most compact cars prioritize fuel economy and value over fun and enjoyment.

Of course, there are a few exceptions, and the biggest is the Mazda3. Long known for its emphasis on enjoyment, the 2014 Mazda3 marks the third generation of Mazda's sporty compact. We spent time behind the wheel of hatchback and sedan models to see if the latest Mazda3 retains the fun-to-drive character of earlier versions.

Fun, Fun, Fun

During our test of the Mazda3, we also spent time in a few other modern compacts, such as the Ford Focus and the 2014 Toyota Corolla. Our conclusion was simple: While those models are competent in many ways, few compact cars can match the Mazda3's fun factor.

It starts with handling. The Mazda3's steering is crisp and surprisingly well balanced, especially for a small car. Chalk that up to Mazda engineers intent on providing good steering feel in an era of driver aids and electronic power steering. In turns, the 2014 Mazda3 responds exactly how you'd expect, with little understeer and almost no drama (such as squealing tires) in the harshest corners.

Acceleration also stands out. No, the base-level Mazda3, with its 155-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, is no excitement machine -- even if you stick with the slick 6-speed manual. But it's more than capable of keeping up with traffic. For drivers who want real performance, there's an optional 185-hp 2.5-liter 4-cylinder that makes the car feel truly quick. We expect you won't be disappointed by either choice, though you may be pleasantly surprised by the 2.5-liter.

Beyond the Fun

Of course, the Mazda3 is about more than just driving enjoyment. How does it stack up against the competition in other areas?

In terms of pricing, the Mazda3 is about average for its class. Base-level Mazda3i models start around $17,500 with shipping, which places it above some rivals and below others. The Mazda3 with the 2.5-liter 4-cylinder is closer to $25,000. That's a strong figure, even with the large engine.

But look closer and it becomes clear why Mazda charges that price. Mazda3 models don't just offer more power, they also include an extensive list of features, such as heated front seats, a navigation system, a rearview camera and 18-inch alloy wheels. The safety features of standard Mazda3s include a rear cross traffic alert system and a blind spot monitor. And keyless access with push-button starting is standard on all models starting with the $20,000 Mazda3i Touring.

The Mazda3 isn't just a great value in the showroom. It gives you great bang for your buck on the road, too. That's especially true in the fuel economy realm, where the Mazda3i returns 30 miles per gallon city/41 mpg hwy -- on par with the top models in its class. Even the powerful Mazda3 offers 28 mpg city/39 mpg hwy. In other words, the Mazda3 lets you dial up the sport or the fuel efficiency, depending on what you want.

Great All-Around

It's easy to gush over the latest Mazda3. While styling is subjective, we find it handsome, inside and out. Refinement is improved for 2014, as are interior materials. Fuel economy is excellent. Features abound, both standard and optional. The driving experience leads the compact car segment. And resale value has always been a strong point.

It's easy to see why the Mazda3 accounts for more than 40 percent of the brand's U.S. sales. And while the 2014 model plays in a crowded field of rivals, it clearly can stand out above the rest.

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Doug DeMuro has a wide range of automotive industry experience, from work at a Ferrari dealership to a manager for Porsche North America. A lifelong car enthusiast, Doug's eclectic vehicle purchases include a Porsche 911 Turbo, an E63 AMG wagon, an old Range Rover and a Mercedes Benz G-wagen.

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