An automotive maxim no longer true is that no one builds a great small car.
Yes, yes, we know this is the age of the SUV, but that hasn't prevented automakers from designing and building a whole fleet of safe, comfortable and even fun-to-drive compact cars with prices that begin around $20,000. Less in some cases.
The Kia Forte, Honda Civic, Chevy Cruze, Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra, and Veloster, Volkswagen Jetta and GTI, Subaru Impreza and WRX all have earned praise in this space as cars well worth their asking prices.
Picking a favorite in such a crowded and competitive field is a fool's errand, but that's never stopped us before. We think the best compact car on the market is the all-new Mazda3.
We arrived at this conclusion within five minutes and, oh, five blocks from where we first pushed the start button.
How do we love thee, Mazda3? Let us count the ways.
First introduced in Japan in 2003, the first three generations of the car were marketed in Japan as the Axela, a combination of "accelerate" and "excellent." A more precise description of a car's fundamental personality cannot be found.
The Mazda3 has always distinguished itself as a sportier option than offerings from Toyota, Nissan, and Honda.
A fresh redesign for this year added an elegant and quiet interior and a more refined ride.
The 2019 Mazda3 added more emotional design cues with more elegant proportions.
Styling is so subjective that we don't mention it much but, frankly, we like the heck out of this car's looks. Just sayin'.
What we really like is how the car drives and rides. Mazda's naturally-aspirated, 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine, and six-speed automatic click together as smoothly as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Zero to 60 comes in less than 8 seconds, which is pretty good for a car with a base price of $21,895 ($23,600 for hatchback).
Speed and performance are about more — oh, so much more — than drag racing.
Pushed hard through the curves is where the Mazda3 really shines. Body control isn't as crisp as previous iterations, but the car still has excellent grip and muscular brakes.
The attention to detail across the instrument panel and throughout the cabin is reminiscent of German cars costing $10,000 to $20,000 more.
Roomy analog gauges flank a digital speedometer.
An optional head-up display projects vital information — like speed and the speed limit — in crisp and clear images. The heating and radio controls look they were borrowed from Audi and BMW with easy-to-read switches and knobs.
The steering wheel telescopes out nearly an extra inch to allow for optimum placement of hands and arms for quick-response steering.
Front seating is dialed into adult needs.
There's more thigh support and the seat's design places the pelvis so that it is easier to control upper body position in bumps and curves.
By toning down the steering inputs, Mazda engineers helped move the car into a more family-friendly vehicle. The ride is firm and controlled, but still soft enough to keep crumb crunchers in the back happy.
For its category, the Mazda3 is exceptionally quiet and comfortable.
Reasons to move up
As it sits, the base Mazda3 is an almost great little car. If you wish to equip your car — as every new car should be — with life-saving, driver-assist safety technology, you will need to add at least $2,600 for the select trim.
That will get you adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning with lane-keeping assist, a blind spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert, and automatic high-beam headlights.
These things reduce casualties by a third.
Last year, 40,000 Americans lost their lives in car crashes, so with up-to-date safety gear, we could save some 12,000 lives a year. Toyota makes most of those things standard, and if everyone refused to buy cars without them, perhaps manufacturers would stop gouging people for them.
To digress, for all those people who abhor the notion of autonomous automobiles, do you think of 40,000 deaths a year as a highly efficient system.
Our tester was a hatchback with premium package and all-wheel drive, price as tested $31,330, delivery included.
That's pretty much all the money one can spend on a new Mazda3.
We think the AWD (about $1,400) is something we can do without in the South.
Certainly, the car's handling is great, but that occurs at limits greater than most of us are willing to drive.
More importantly, it dropped the EPA estimated fuel economy from 30 mpg, low for a compact we think, to 27 mpg.
Comfort, durability, owner satisfaction, drivability are all areas where the Mazda4 tops the charts.
If there's a small car in your future, you'd be well advised to give this one a close look.