For a few weeks there earlier this year, the Mazda3 was Canada's best-selling car. Then Honda noticed. That was that.
Honda refocused on the normal order of things. That would be putting in place the right combination of pricing, incentives, features and inventory to get the Honda Civic back atop the heap as Canada's most popular car.
Fleeting as it was, the Mazda3's time atop the charts made a statement: stylish and sporty sells, as long as it doesn't sell for too much.
And reining in the price tag is behind the formula Mazda used to jazz up its compact Mazda3 sedan for 2010. Mazda spent the money where you'll see it and feel it.
For instance, on the outside there is a new and controversial front-end design. Inside, crimson backlights dress up the ringed gauges of the instrument panel. There is also a digital welcome message in the cluster. Cute.
As for what you might feel, a bigger-displacement engine and a stiffer chassis with a sportier-tuned suspension are there to keep the Mazda3 among the industry leaders when it comes to entertaining handling.
Mazda didn't spend much in areas you are unlikely to notice. The Mazda3 isn't bigger than before, the base four-cylinder engine is no more powerful than before and many major chassis pieces are carried over.
As before, the lineup includes a four-door sedan and four-door hatchback (or a so-called "five-door"). Prices for the least-expensive model, the GX sedan, start at $15,995, while the top-of-the-line Sport hatchback lists for $23,995.
The standard gear on even the least pricey 3 includes front, side and overhead air bags; AM/FM CD stereo with four speakers; two power outlets; power windows, door locks and side mirrors; a 60/40 flat-folding rear bench; and even projector beam headlights. Air conditioning ($1,195) and a five-speed autobox ($1,200) might be options many will want, though not necessarily need.
The point is, the $16,000 starter model has the goods most car buyers can't live without. If you want a stripped-down, very basic Mazda compact, forget it. Mazda doesn't sell one, although the subcompact Mazda2 might fill that gap when it arrives later this year or next.
Over all, the Mazda3 is a snappy, appealing traffic fighter. If you like to move quickly, you may want the higher-priced model with the 167-horsepower, 2.5-litre four-cylinder and a five-speed automatic transmission.
Just keep in mind that the least-expensive 3 is nicely furnished and its 148-hp, 2.0-litre, four-banger with five-speed manual is plenty of car. In fact, it's a hoot to drive.
This 3 is quick and responsive and has enough power for almost any situation. The manual gearbox is a clean, tidy shifter. Here is an eye-grabbing little car that is very entertaining - especially for the money.
Then there are the details. Take the trunk. Mazda didn't scrimp and save there; you'd see that. The lid has a nice lining and expensive-looking hinges are designed so they do not consume luggage space.
The cabin is big enough for six-footers. There is space for four adults, none of whom will suffer if the drive lasts more than half an hour.
Yet Mazda didn't make the cabin any larger than before. Obviously, no need. However, on the outside, the car is slightly longer from bumper to bumper. This is to accommodate a larger fuel tank and a unique muffler design on pricier models.
The shape of the sheet metal, though, is drawing mixed reviews. The character lines of the hood and body sides are new and they give off a feeling of movement. No problem there.
But the grille and whole front end are something else entirely. This face has the Mazda family look, but not everyone thinks it's a look that is working particularly well.
Mazda's engineering types say the beak is functional, designed to limit airflow to the engine compartment and therefore make the 3 more aerodynamic.
In fact, Mazda says all sorts of smart thinking went into the efficiency of this design - from a guide in the front bumper sending air into the radiator to subtle deflectors in the fenders that smooth the airflow around the tires.
Yes, well here's a number: 0.29. That's the drag coefficient, a measure of slipperiness. For some perspective, a big SUV would run in the range of 0.39 or higher, while the brick-like 2010 Nissan Cube is 0.36.
Mazda also tried to improve performance and fuel efficiency by taking out weight. In key areas, Mazda swapped regular steel for more expensive and stronger high-tensile steel. So the structure is stronger and more rigid, yet less weighty.
Still, the Mazda3 is heavier than a Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, comparably equipped. Thus, fuel economy - 8.1 litres/100 km city/5.9 highway, using regular gas - is okay, but not outstanding.
Mazda has sold nearly two million 3s worldwide since the car's 2004 launch. Here's why: This economy car looks more expensive than it is, the road manners are a treat and small things such as colourful lighting and handsome finishes give the impression of a more expensive car.
That and good quality, solid safety scores and competitive pricing mean Honda cannot ignore the Mazda3 - not if Honda wants the Civic to own the top sales spot.
***** ***** *****
2010 MAZDA3 GX SEDAN
Type: Compact sedan
Base Price: $15,995
Engine: 2.0-litre, inline-four-cylinder, DOHC
Horsepower/Torque: 155 hp/136 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.1 city/5.9 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Chevrolet Cobalt, Pontiac G5, Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Dodge Caliber, Ford Escape, Hyundai Elantra, Nissan Sentra, Mitsubishi Lancer, Saturn Astra, Volkswagen City Jetta and City Golf, Volkswagen Rabbit, Volkswagen Jetta, Subaru Impreza, Suzuki SX4
- Sharp-edged design set off by aggressive nose and fancy lighting
- Easy-to-manage cockpit controls and instruments
- Quick handling
- No real added cabin space
- Modest improvements all around when bold moves might have been better