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Overall Rating
The most important car of the past decade – the compact economy car that every other auto maker would have liked to have had in its lineup. You’ll like this car if: you aspire to champagne performance but live on a beer budget.
Looks Rating
Mazda cleaned up the front end last year in response to criticisms and it has helped. This car looks sporty and balanced.
Interior Rating
The cabin materials are nice and the instruments/controls make sense. Back seat room is a little tight, but the hatchback configuration is flexible.
Ride Rating
The handling is first-rate yet, in a straight line on an open highway, ride comfort is very good – if a little noisy. The engine is smooth and the manual shifter is superb.
Safety Rating
An IIHS Top Safety Pick, like almost all its rivals.
Green Rating
The Mazda3 delivers excellent real-world fuel economy, with no compromise in performance.

Here's my vote for the most important car of the last decade (2003-2013): the Mazda3.

And here's why: It's pretty easy to make the case that the 3 is the compact car every other auto maker in the world would have liked to have had in its lineup for the last decade. Folks, here we have something of a BMW 3-Series on the cheap.

A stretch? Maybe. But I've heard it said by more than a few Mazda3 owners. Believe it. Mostly they gush about the style and the performance and they take more than a passing interest in the actual driving part of owning this car. None of them wants a toaster with wheels – an appliance.

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Then again, not every car buyer is passionate about cars, especially those counting every penny. And that explains why Honda sells more Civics, Toyota more Corollas, Hyundai more Elantras, Ford more Focuses (Foci?) and Chevrolet more Cruzes. All these are more appliance than joyous celebration of the automobile, though.

Let me pause here and say a few words about the Focus, which really is a nifty blend of technology and driving dynamics – at a price. It's not the slightest coincidence that the latest Focus follows the Mazda3 formula to a T. Many of the best engineers at Ford cut their teeth at Mazda back when Ford was in control. Case in point: Ford's global powertrain boss, Joe Bakaj. He oversaw the development of this latest Focus just a few years after finishing a multi-year stint as product development boss at Mazda in the 2000s.

Back to Mazda in the auto jungle. All of Mazda's main rivals are gorillas to Mazda's chimpanzee. They all snap together compacts in massive numbers far exceeding anything little Mazda can do. And they all have much bigger marketing muscle to push out the message.

Mazda, however, would surely sell more Mazda3s if the company had the foresight, resources and, most of all, courage to gamble on expansion outside of Japan a decade ago – to build a plant, say, in Mexico, to juice manufacturing capacity of the 3. By the way, Mazda is finally building that Mexican plant and it will open in 2014, building – you guessed it – Mazda3 and Mazda2 small cars. Plant capacity: 230,000 a year by early 2016.

That would almost double Mazda's capacity to spit out 3s, if the plant focused exclusively on one model, the enduringly popular Mazda3. Mazda might do that if more people climb behind the wheel of the Mazda3 Sport SkyActiv I just tested ($20,695 base). We are talking about a little four-door hatchback with what Consumer Reports' research suggests has excellent reliability across the board. The U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates the Mazda3 hatchback a Top Safety Pick thanks to "good" crash test scores, too. Fuel economy is first-rate, too.

The secret there is Mazda's SkyActiv package of technologies, including the 155-horsepower Skyactiv four-cylinder and, in my test car, the slick six-speed manual gearbox – one of the niftiest shifters you can get in any car for less than $40,000. So what do you know about SkyActiv? Maybe nothing, and certainly not enough if you're Russell Wager, Mazda's new North American marketing boss.

As Automotive News recently pointed out, his challenge is to make a small Japanese auto maker stand out in a crowded field of mainstream auto brands – brands with deep pockets. Wager wants you to know more about Mazda's SkyActiv technologies, this collection of advanced engines, transmissions, chassis and frame technologies designed to boost efficiency.

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He tells the industry publication that even Mazda followers are unfamiliar with SkyActiv – that only 40 to 50 per cent associate SkyActiv with Mazda and that's "really low." Somehow Mazda must do a better job of getting the message out. "It's a job we still have to do," he adds.

The term "SkyActiv" is part of the problem. It sounds like something out of a Joss Whedon sci-fi movie, a la Serenity, the 2005 space western with the same cult following Mazda has been cultivating for years. The thing is, cars run on the ground; they don't zoom-zoom around in the sky like a Firefly spaceship. Every time I hear "SkyActiv," I think spaceships.

Marketing criticism aside, the technology is real. I'm hardly the first to say the Mazda3 with SkyActiv is one of the better small cars for sale. We're all part of a chorus, including CR. This car's engine is buttery. It deliciously churns up power and delivers it to the front wheels in an unhurried way. The handling is nimble and precise and, while the ride is firm, it's not uncomfortable on straight highway stretches. A little noisy? Yes, but not out of line with other cars of its ilk.

Mazda's 3 isn't the roomiest compact, but it's big enough and the cabin materials and layout are nice. Across the board, this is a very good car – the most important of the last decade, in fact.

Tech specs

2013 Mazda3 Sport GS-SKY

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Type: Compact four-door hatchback

Price: $20,695 (freight $1,695)

Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 155 hp/148 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

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Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.6 city/5.1 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra, Mitsubishi Lancer, Dodge Dart, Subaru Impreza, Volkswagen Golf

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