Styling that splits opinions. There’s no denying that the Mazda3 is a striking car. Whether its aggressive forward-leaning profile appeals to you is a matter not just of personal taste, but also which body style you choose – and even the color. In Soul Crystal Red, the hatchback looks like an Alfa Romeo, but in plainer colors, its high window line has a certain squatness. By contrast, the sedan looks great in any shade. Brighter hues catch the light in all sorts of interesting ways, with concave doors and a forward-canted front grille adding points of interest.

The interior is a cut above many rivals, with double-stitched leather and a minimalist dash. Everything you touch has a quality feel, reflecting the fact that Mazdas always wear well. The seats are comfortable on long journeys, though three adults will feel cramped in the back, especially if either the driver or front passenger are tall. Given the car’s length, cabin and trunk space are disappointing.

Avoid the base models. Basic Mazda3 models are sparsely equipped, with only a few notable features like keyless start and LED headlights. You’ll need to move up to S trim for smartphone mirroring, which should really be an across-the-range staple. S Preferred lives up to its name by adding heated front seats, a sunroof, and eight-way power for the driver’s seat. However, for our money, Premium is where it’s at – it’s got features you wouldn’t necessarily expect on a compact car, such as a head-up display and paddle shifters.

At least there’s plenty of choice across the 3 range, besides the array of trims. There are sedan and hatchback designs, front or all-wheel drive, three engines including a 227-hp turbo, plus the option of a stick shift on the mid-range 186 hp 2.5-liter gas engine. As with trims, we’d avoid the cheapest engine. This 155 hp two-liter unit is smooth enough paired with a slick six-speed auto transmission, but it’s a lethargic performer with average fuel economy.

Safety first. The Mazda3 is class-leading in terms of safety. Even base models come with adaptive radar-guided cruise control, automatic emergency braking and active lane control. Move up the range and you can benefit from a surround-view camera system and blind-spot monitoring.

The NHTSA has given the 3 a five-star safety rating and a Top Safety Pick+ award, praising the adaptive LED headlights on higher models. Once again, this reflects the advantages of staying away from the cheaper trim levels. The sedan also offers superior visibility; those Italian-inspired curves on the hatch’s rear pillars make it much harder to spot obstacles behind you when reversing.

A comfortable cruiser. Mazda invested heavily in sound deadening on the current-generation 3, and it’s certainly a more refined freeway cruiser than previous models. It’s also got a better ride than its predecessors, making this compact equally suitable around town or on long drives. It’s not tiring in any way.

A smooth ride doesn’t come at the cost of handling, either. While the $1,400 option of all-wheel drive gives a dependable grip in any weather, front-wheel drive models rarely tax their traction control systems. There’s little body lean through the corners and the steering is crisp and responsive, giving you confidence to thread your way through a series of bends. Allied to a smooth six-speed auto ‘box, the two most powerful engines make the 3 brisk enough without offering any racing thrills.

Final thoughts. The Mazda3 is a hard car to summarize because its competence varies hugely across the range. Drive the entry-level hatchback trim with the smallest engine, and you’ll probably wonder how this car hopes to compete with the Audi A3 or Mercedes-Benz A-Class. Yet a higher-trim sedan with a 2.5-liter engine is a completely different beast. Suddenly, it feels refined and sophisticated, comfortable and punchy. This really is a range where everything from paint color to trim level needs to be chosen carefully.

There’s no doubting that higher trims with bigger engines are genuinely good cars, but is that enough to undo the disappointment of entry-level models? On balance, yes. The 3 is a characterful car in an often generic market, and there’s a sense of quality in the cabin which almost makes up for its limited space. For smaller families who can afford to skip the cheapest models, this distinctive compact has plenty to offer – and it’s built to last, too.

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