2010 Mazda3 has snappy appeal for a small car

MARINA DEL REY, Calif. -- Whatever formula Mazda used to jazz up its compact Mazda3 sedan for 2010 certainly included two squirts of ugly.

Open-mouth grille, like a fish, makes the front look so heavy you expect the car to tip on its snout. Gratuitous front-fender bulge. Trunk lid echoes the ugly BMW raised-trunk look.

Mazda insists that viewed head-on, the 3 looks like an exotic sports car. Reasonable people can disagree on matters of taste.

Then, move to the hardware. Has Mazda improved its keen little sedan, or just changed it?

Key question, because the Mazda3 is "the most important car" in the lineup, says James O'Sullivan, CEO of North American operations: It's Mazda's U.S. best seller and has sold 1.8 million worldwide since its introduction five years ago.

The 2010 is bigger and more powerful. Mazda plans to sell a four-door sedan and four-door hatchback (a so-called five-door) in the U.S. beginning in January. It rolled out only the sedan for journalists here (70% of four-door sales are in North America). The hatch made its debut Wednesday at the Bologna (Italy) Motor Show (70% of hatchback sales are in Europe). The primary difference is just the hatch vs. trunk configuration.

In what's quickly become a tired pitch, Mazda says it'll sell the 3 to move-down buyers weary of the fuel use and payments of bigger cars. To satisfy downsizers, the pitch goes, the 3 offers features heretofore considered lavish for small cars: high-intensity discharge headlights, leather seats, navigation systems, dual-zone climate control, etc.

Beyond the dressing up, the 3 remains a snappy, appealing small car. Two test sedans were preproduction models tuned to regular-production specifications: an S Grand Touring, a well-equipped version of the higher-priced model with the 167-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder and a five-speed automatic transmission and an I Touring, a nicely furnished version of the lower-price model with a 148-hp 2-liter four-banger and five-speed manual. The latter is a hoot, the way small cars universally seemed to be back in the day. Quick, nimble, sufficiently powerful for most conditions, well-enough appointed to delight most small-car folks.

The smile-provoking behavior of the 2-liter I doubtless was due to the fun-to-shift manual. The clutch seemed just so, and enough of the engine's modest power was available at low engine speed.

Contributing to I's spiffy persona: slightly less weight — and the assumption its sporting character will come for at least $2,000 less than an S.

Unfortunately for comparison-shopping, Mazda refused to disclose prices, saying only that they will be "competitive." Base prices for the current, 2009 model, range from $15,160 to $22,215 and are similar to Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.

The fancier S was solid, surefooted. The 2.5-liter engine had enough go for most drivers, notably more than the 2-liter. Cornering was more than credible. Leather bucket seats were comfortable and supportive, with high bolsters that kept you in place as you flung the 3 about.

Worth noting, especially in a small car:

About the 2010 Mazda3

•Trip computer. Mazda's seen the light and offers it on the 3.

•Trunk. No skimping. Nice lining, classy hinges that don't eat luggage space. Details mean a lot.

•Memory seats. No more fussing with power-seat adjustments after somebody else drives.

Drawbacks on the 2.5 S, not noticed on the I: horrible tire noise on grooved concrete and an exaggerated throttle tip-in that made it difficult to ease away smoothly.

Will you like the Mazda3 if you're downsizing? It's hard to be satisfied with less after driving more.

For small-car fans, however, who understand that small needn't mean boring or bland or bashful, the Mazda3 remains a top contender.

•What? Redesigned, four-door, front-drive compact. Sedan or hatchback.

•When? On sale February 2009.

•Where:Built at Hofu, Japan.

•Why? Time for change to compete with redone Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, other small sedans.

•How much? Mazda will say at Detroit auto show in January. Starting prices for current models: about $16,000 to $22,000.

•How potent? The I models have 2-liter four-cylinder rated 148 horsepower at 6,500 rpm, 135 pounds-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm; S models have 2.5-liter four-cylinder rated 167 hp at 6,000, 168 lbs.-ft. at 4,000.

Two-liter is available with five-speed manual transmission or five-speed automatic; 2.5-liter with six-speed manual or five-speed automatic.

•How lavish? Not very at the bottom, quite at the top. You must buy the uplevel S to get what you really want.

•How big? Very close to Civic. Sedan is 180.7 inches long (180.9 in. with 2.5-liter engine), 69.1 in. wide, 57.9 in. tall on a 103.9-in. wheelbase. Weight: 2,868 lbs. (2-liter manual) to 3,025 lbs. (2.5-liter automatic).

Sedan trunk is 11.8 cubic feet; hatchback cargo area is 17 cu. ft. behind rear seat.

Towing not recommended.

•How thirsty? Mazda forecasts 24-25 miles per gallon in town, 33 mpg highway for the 2-liter; 21-22 town, 29 highway for the 2.5-liter.

Trip computer in 2.5-liter automatic showed 21.5 mpg in rural two-lane and suburban driving.

Tank holds 14.5 gallons (2-liter) or 15.9 gallons (2.5-liter). Regular gasoline is specified.

•Overall:Tempting. A sporty alternative. But wait for pricing.