LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. -- Zipping through a narrow canyon course etched into walls of granite, a pavement-hugging compact-class hatchback handles like a sports car on the Ortega Highway, California 74, which runs across the Santa Ana Mountains from the Pacific Coast at San Juan Capistrano up to Lake Elsinore.
Dubbed simply as the 3 -- or Mazda 3 5-Door to denote a five-door format in wagon-like variation of the Mazda 3 4-Door sedan -- this cool compact comes from that "Zoom-Zoom" brand based in Japan.
The issues for 2010 represent a new generational treatment with a fresh and clean body design, boosted driving traits due to enhancements in chassis and powertrain, added on-board safety gear and keener content for cabin equipment, either standard or optional.
So we're driving it hard through the Ortega convolutions on a morning with scant traffic simply to feel the agility and spunk of this new 3.
It tracks through curves with precise control.
Big tires draw a tight line around the turns as a stiff independent suspension -- MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link in back -- allows each wheel to float through so many pavement irregularities while still blocking side-to-side sway from undue body roll.
The skeletal steel safety cage of Mazda 3 was beefed up to improve structural rigidity. Measurements indicate increases for the form's resistance to vertical bending and torsional rigidity.
In motion you can feel that stiffness now with far less flex evident in the chassis.
It rolls on sporty P205/50R17 V-rated rubber with 17-inch alloy wheels and rides on a platform with a wide 60-inch wheel track and long 103.9-inch wheelbase for stability.
And there's a high-revving 2.5-liter four-in-line plant under the hood which produces an unexpected kick through a short-stick manual six-speed transmission or a smooth five-speed electronic automatic with manual shift mode (MSM).
Building an agile little hatchback has historical precedents in Mazda's product line, tracing back as far as 1977 to a three-door subcompact hatchback called the GLC -- Great Little Car. With only 65 hp from a 1.5-liter engine directed to the rear wheels, spunky GLC was thrifty but still fun to drive.
A five-door wagon variation emerged in 1979 and continued for four subsequent years. By 1986 Mazda produced a new three-door hatchback 323 as replacement for the GLC, and two years later, a souped-up GTX rally car emerged.
Next came the Protege5 of 1990 off a four-door sedan, followed by new renditions in 1995, 1999 and a fresh Protege5 in 2002.
Commencing in 2004, though, Mazda used a global platform developed by Volvo to underpin new compact-class vehicles badged as Mazda 3 4-Door sedan and 5-Door hatch.
These were redesigned in 2007 and gained more standard content in safety equipment for 2008.
Now the 2010 Mazda 3 5-Door and 4-Door pop out as Generation 2.0 -- new and enhanced in every aspect.
Mazda 3 4-Door is styled as a four-door notchback sedan with two versions packing a 2.0-liter four-pack (Mazda 3i) or the 2.5-liter upgrade engine (Mazda 3s).
The aluminum 2.0-liter in-line-four with dual cams and variable valve timing (VVT) nets 148 hp at 6500 rpm with 135 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm.
The new 2.5-liter upgrade achieves 167 hp at 6000 rpm plus torque of 168 lb-ft at 4000 rpm.
Mazda 3s 5-Door as a long-body hatchback is skewed toward the youth market and decked out with foglamps, low side skirts and the 17-inch wheels.
The 3 5-Door draws strictly from the larger engine as Mazda 3s.
In Mazda's sporty tradition, the four-in-line engines show a manual transmission (five-speed for 3i and six-speed for 3s), or the optional five-speed automatic MSM.
Body styling of sedan and hatchback differs, as the 4-Door features smooth contours on a bulbous form while the 5-Door shows edgy shapes for an aggressive posture.
Mazda 3s 5-Door as a long-body hatchback shows sporty aerodynamic elements, such as crisp side sills and a spoiler on the trailing edge of the roof, that disguise boxy parameters of the hatchback format.
Mazda's 5-Door also gets foglamps, low side skirts and the 17-inch wheels.
The slinky prow of 3s 5-Door pins narrow cat-eye headlamps with multiple lenses on corners flanking a wide-mouth grille traversed by black-out bar, with a pair of trapezoidal foglamps prominent in the air dam.
Shapely sides in a monochromic treatment break for exaggerated round wheelwells as two side doors blend into the panels due to blackened roof pillars on each side which disguise the four-door format and make the hatchback seem like a little coupe with high-hiking roofline.
At the tail, corner lamps covered in clear plastic frame the bulging hatchback door with twin exhaust pipes projecting from the low monochrome fascia.
Inside, there's big-time cabin space magically crafted from the confines of a compact-class chassis with two buckets up front followed by a brief bench for three.
And the hatchback design with a folding rear seatback (split 40/60 in two sections) forges a cargo bay with 17 cubic feet of space when rear seatbacks are up.
Front seats carry firm bolsters on flanks and fit in sporty fashion when you toss the car around on a wiggly route like our course stringing across the Santa Ana Mountains.
The driver's bucket makes adjustments for lumbar back support. Seat position is elevated so you sit erect in ideal position in relation to the leather-wrapped steering wheel and a shifter stick studding the center console.
Among many improvements for Mazda 3, there are more safety systems such as a big disc brake mounted at every wheel with electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and computer linkage to an anti-lock brake system (ABS), a traction control system (TCS) plus a dynamic stability control (DSC) anti-skid device.
Mazda's MSRP figures for the 2010 Mazda 3 begin at $15,0450 for a 6i 4-Door SV and extend to $22,300 for 6s 5-Door Grand Touring.