The 2014 Mazda 3 is the one of the more eagerly-awaited compact cars hereabouts, and now we've had a chance to spend 90 minutes behind the wheel.
During a recent test drive that brought together Best Car To Buy 2014 finalists, every High Gear Media editor got a chance to drive a variety of vehicles through the scenic rolling hills of Georgia.
Collectively, we swapped cars, compared notes, and winnowed down the field to each site's final nominees.
MORE: Green Car Reports' Best Car To Buy 2014: The Nominees
We still need to spend more time in a Mazda 3 to do a proper fuel-economy test; our relatively energetic driving on a variety of a terrains didn't reflect our usual test cycle.
But we can say that Mazda's all-new compact Mazda3 retains its sporty character, in a stylish and very distinctive new body--and early indications are that its SkyActiv powertrain will be quite fuel-efficient indeed.
2014 Mazda Mazda3
Approaching the Mazda 3 from the front, its profile isn't entirely apparent.
Thankfully, Mazda has dumped the rictus front "smile" styling for a prominent and handsome family grille that gives the new 3 a serious, substantial air.
It's not until you look at the side view that you can appreciate the new 3's long hood--necessary to accommodate the spaghetti-like SkyActiv exhaust headers--and the tapering roofline that makes the Mazda 3 hatchback almost what was called in the Sixties a "fastback".
That roofline doesn't do much for rear-seat room; this isn't a car you'll want to carry four big adults in for any length of time, unless some other compact entries.
MORE: 2014 Mazda 3 - Summary Review
But Mazdas have always been drivers' cars, and the all-new 3 doesn't disappoint on that front.
The interior is straightforward, sensible, and easy to figure out. The gauges are legible and the knobs are relatively intuitive.
2014 Mazda 3 5-door s GT
We particularly liked the Active Driving Display, a clear panel that rises from behind the instrument cluster that shows speed, turn-by-turn directions, and other critical information.
Head-Up Displays are still a rare feature on any compact, though it's worth noting our test car was a top-of-the-line model with a sticker price right around $30,000.
Behind the wheel, the Mazda 3 held the road well, though the ride was firm and certain road surfaces brought out a fair amount of tire noise.
Mazda has always had some of the best electric power steering, with good (simulated) feedback from the road, and the new compact 3 continues in that tradition.
The 184-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine in our test car was responsive and delivered brisk acceleration when pushed.
Our car had the six-speed automatic transmission, though a six-speed manual is also available--we suspect the automatic will deliver better gas mileage.
2014 Mazda 3, test drive, Atlanta region, Oct 2013
Which brings us to the big question: How did the car do on fuel efficiency?
In several runs up and down a hilly mountain road, along with straight shots up and back along freeways and multi-lane arterial roads solidly lined with strip malls, we got readings of 31 mpg and 33 mpg.
This particular model is EPA-rated at 31 mpg combined (27 mpg city, 37 mpg highway), so we at least confirmed that it hits its ratings.
Our experience with two earlier SkyActiv Mazda models--a CX-5 and an earlier 2012 Mazda 3--made us think that our new 2014 Mazda 3 will do considerably better in more representative driving.
We look forward to having that chance soon.
Meanwhile, for readers who are seeking sporty looks, good roadholding, and high fuel efficiency--but don't necessarily require the largest rear seats in the world--the 2014 Mazda 3 is a new and worthwhile entry to consider.