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The new ‘graphical user interface; looks promising, although it was not functioning on the test cars. (Mazda)
The new ‘graphical user interface; looks promising, although it was not functioning on the test cars. (Mazda)

First Drive: 2014 Mazda3

In 2014, Mazda3 will be the compact car to beat Add to ...

Mazda’s engineers promised their new Mazda3 compact car would be a joy in my hands. Hallelujah and praise the nerds with pocket protectors.

They also promised a new take on in-car technology, that their new and clever human-machine interface (HMI) and heads-up display system would set the industry on its ear. Well, the Active Driving Display – the heads-up display – looks terrific on colour PowerPoint slides, but our prototype test cars did not have a proper functioning device on hand.

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And the HMI interface also looks intriguing and promising, as does the 3’s new “graphical user interface” – the readouts on the new seven-inch touchscreen display. Again, the prototypes were not equipped with functioning gear, so I can only tell you that I think they may have nailed this critical piece of any new gizmo-loaded car. But I can’t say for certain. Not until I am entertained and hopefully amused by a working model.

Ah, but the driving part: The 2014 Mazda3 is the most dynamically sound compact car on the market. No doubt about it.

The steering is tight but not silly like a race car and there is feedback coming from a system using electronic power assist that is unmatched in any car less than $30,000. The brakes are strong but not grabby. The suspension is firm enough to take a corner at twice the posted speed without scaring your passenger half to death. Not that I did this, of course. It just feels as such.

The base engine, a 155-horsepower, direct-injection, 2.0-litre four-cylinder is decently powerful without resorting to turbocharging, thus fuel-efficient in the real world, not just test cycles. The racier 184-hp four, a derivative of the 2.0-litre, is gutsy and smooth. The manual gearbox, a six-speed, is buttery and precise. The six-speed electronic automatic is even better. Its shifts are gentle, but fast, and the software has been properly programmed to hold a gear in a corner when you need it held. You can buy the 2014 Mazda3 with a manual shift function for the autobox, and it is as seamless a device as you’ll find in any car for less than $30,000.

Of course, when the 2014 goes on sale in September, you’ll surely be able to buy a starter version of the 3 for around $16,000. That’s what this sort of car sells for in its most basic form. Speaking of basics, Mazda will sell both a sedan and four-door hatchback version of the 3, as has been the case for a decade or so.

If you spend into the high teens or $20,000s, then you’ll have access to technology such as the new HMI device. It will throw up vehicle speed, the state of active safety systems such as lane departure warning, as well as turn-by-turn navigation and your chosen cruise control speed. All in the driver’s eye-line, projected on a small, clear screen.

The new HMI device includes a small, round controller located on the centre console where it falls to your right hand nicely. The “Commander” knob is surrounded by buttons that instantly send you to the home screen (on the seven-inch display just below eye level), as well as the navigation and audio screens and “favourites,” which you program for each system. Also close to your right hand is a knob for volume control. Mazda engineers say they spent nearly forever simplifying operations here. If they’ve managed to make this thing user-friendly, it will be an award-winning industry first and I will sing its praises.

The 3 will also be available with all sorts of active safety goodies, from radar cruise control to blind-spot monitoring. The full suite of active safety gizmos is being sold as i-ActivSense on the current Mazda6 sedan. Heck, Mazda even plans to offer the 2014 3 with adaptive front lighting that aims the headlamps around curves.

Not to be lost in all this is the design. Mazda is well down the road to casting its lineup with cars and light trucks based on the “Kodo” design language. It works better in the 3 than any other Mazda vehicle we’ve seen yet. Designers at Mazda talk a lot about creating a sense of speed and tension in their new cars. They’ve done so here. On top of that, the design is functional. That is, the Mazda3 for 2014 will be class-leading in aerodynamics.

What’s not to like? Well, the front doors have a bottle holder, but no door pockets to hold odds and ends. That’s a mistake. I’d also like to see firmer cushions on the base of the new seats. This would make the Mazda3 more comfortable for long-distance drives. The car itself is roomy enough for the segment, though the raw numbers suggest a snugger cabin than the outgoing 2013 car. I did not feel tight or unhappy after several hours inside.

As a driving machine, the Mazda3 feels like the new standard among affordable compacts. The rest of it, all the gizmos and such, remain untested but generously promised.

jcato@globeandmail.com

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