The biggest fear for many was that the new model wouldn't be as fun to drive as its predecessor. Thankfully, that attribute is still firmly intact. The underlying platform is mostly unchanged, save for the added use of high-strength steel and a retuned version of the suspension, which combine to give the new 3 better body control without any additional ride harshness. The steering remains communicative and confidence-inspiring, while the amount of vibration transmitted to the driver's hands has been reduced. The result is a more polished version of what was already a highly refined and fun car.
The base 2.0-liter four-cylinder remains unchanged in terms of power, but fuel economy has improved thanks to a new five-speed automatic transmission. While not quite at the gas-sipping level of the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, the new 3 can no longer be slagged for relatively gluttonous fuel consumption. The bigger four-cylinder gets pumped up to 2.5 liters and a healthy 167 horsepower, and its fuel economy improves by 1 mpg on the highway. These are two of the peppiest power plants found in the economy sedan class.
The biggest changes are on the styling front, with an all-new exterior and interior covering the 3's virtually unchanged dimensions. The smiley front end has garnered mixed reactions, but at least there's a rational explanation for it -- Mazda designed it to maximize aerodynamics for increased gas mileage and decreased wind noise. The flared wheel arches are an obvious Mazda family cue, while the tail ends of both sedan and hatchback body styles are curvier evolutions of their predecessors. The interior is less controversial, with a more modern, eye-catching design and improved materials. Uninitiated passengers might even mistake the cabin of the Mazda 3 in fully loaded Grand Touring guise for that of an entry-level luxury sedan.
For those who find the 3's ride too firm or its interior controls too complicated, the Hyundai Elantra and Honda Civic are good alternatives. The Volkswagen Rabbit and Jetta could also be considered against the 3's trim levels. Nonetheless, the 2010 Mazda 3 remains our top choice in the economy sedan category thanks to its pleasing driving demeanor, strong powertrains, ample equipment, excellent quality and versatile body styles. Far from screwing it up, Mazda has made the new 3 a thoroughly satisfying sequel.