Terraza Stained Glass breathing new life into old artform

2017 Mazda3 compact sedan handles crowded class

Mazda makes good cars. But with only six models in the U.S., including the two-seat roadster known as Miata, the marque doesn't get the exposure — or the dealer network — of larger makes. Yet few automakers can balance sportiness, fuel economy, style and premium-leaning trim levels as harmoniously as Mazda.

The compact Mazda3 is, on paper, a lot like the compact car competition. But a spin behind the wheel — better yet a thoroughly indulgent test drive — is key to understanding Mazda's essence, its feel, its ineffable competitive advantage.

Mazda3 gets a midcycle refresh to keep pace with evolutionary redesigns of the Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra, as well as a new hatchback, the Chevy Cruze. Each model has merit for different reasons, with Mazda most appealing for the way it feels behind the wheel.

It doesn't look much different from the outside. The long nose and stretched wheelbase has always given the 3 — and all Mazdas — an athletic stance. Updates are subtle: The narrow headlights extend from the wide grille more fluidly, and there are new 18-inch wheel options.

While we prefer the hatch ($750 more) to sedans and crossovers, the compact sedan tester was versatile enough to fit a mountain bike with the wheels on.

The compact came with the larger-displacement four-cylinder engine Mazda calls Skyactiv. Instead of a turbocharger, there is a higher compression ratio in the cylinders to deliver more power (or less fuel) per stroke. At just over 3,000 rpm, the 185 pound-feet of torque provides a potent punch of speed. Before that, it's up to you and the transmission to feed the need.

Fortunately, the Mazda3 came with the excellent six-speed manual. I'm not a purist wishing for four on the floor and decrying all these newfangled dual-clutch things, but Mazda's manual gearbox should be used in driver's programs across the country for old and new drivers to understand how transmissions propel a car. It's smooth, simple and the clutch pedal provides plenty of grace to recover from letting off too quickly. You can row hard to simulate track fantasies or row easy to induce sleep in the smallest passengers.

The driver's connectedness with the car is Mazda's guiding principle, called jinba ittai. The biggest change to the Mazda3 is one that is very hard to notice without a back-to-back comparison.

In turns, the weight of the car shifts to the front wheels until accelerating again, when weight shifts to the rear. Mazda calls it G-Vectoring Control. Instead of torque vectoring, which uses individual braking to redirect torque to one of four wheels, Mazda's system automatically reduces engine torque a bit when the wheel is turned. Weight, or load, shifts to the front axle, just as it would under light braking or letting off the throttle. G-Vectoring is not braking, though, so it feels smoother, more linear, more secure. More precise steering means a reduced chance of overcorrecting, which is where most spinouts occur, especially in snow, ice or rain. It also minimizes body roll so the wheels and passengers stay more planted.

More controlled turning means safe drivers feel more secure, and less safe drivers can hit turns even faster. In short, it improves on what Mazda does best: handling.

The top-of-the-line Grand Touring trim of the test model is nice too at this price point. It comes with a heated steering wheel, leather-trimmed seats, satin nickel accents, and a sleek accordionlike cup holder cover. Room was made on the center console by replacing the ungainly parking brake handle with a small button. And of course, there is new safety technology available (for a reasonable $1,100), which includes lane keep and lane departure warnings.

Mazda says it added more sound-deadening insulation, but there is still a faint ticking sound at idle that can be heard from inside the cabin.

The Grand Touring trim, like Civic Touring, Cruze Premier, Focus Titanium, all come in at about $25,000. They're all so close in features and appointments that the deciding factor is personal taste over any objective criteria.

I like the feel of the Mazda3 over the competition, the way the controls are laid out, how the knob in the center console controls the large infotainment screen like German luxury models. In the crowded, homogenous compact class overshadowed by so many crossovers, the Mazda3 should not be overlooked. It deserves a second and third test drive.

rduffer@chicagotribune.com

2017 Mazda3 GT at a glance

Vehicle type: Compact sedan

Base price: $23,145

As tested: $26,045

Mpg: 25 city, 34 highway

Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Parting shot: Good handling has gotten better.

This story was corrected to clarify G-Vectoring Control.

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