reprinted from chicagonow.com/drive-he-said

(Contributing Editor: George Straton, Roadblazing.com)

In 1938, Ferdinand Porsche designed an simple, efficient, affordable small family People’s Car for a national road network conceived for theoretically unlimited speeds.

Almost 8 decades later the United States never did get public roads designed for unlimited speeds. Fuel became a lot more costly.

But that didn’t mean that small family cars couldn’t be attractive, well made, practical & efficient. And, at the same time, ENGAGING TO DRIVE.

WHAT: 2016 Mazda3 i 4-door Grand Touring manual

WHAT (A) DIFFERENCE:

Over The 5-Door (Hatchback): Sedan version of 5 door Mazda3 i Sportback reviewed back in early 2014. With a trunk. Front to rear overhangs appear more proportionate. Lower drag coefficient & improved front / rear weight distribution for slightly better fuel economy.

In Looks: Same swooping “KODO” language low nose rising to high arching fenders, making even 16″ alloy wheels seem diminutive. Low cowl & sharply raked windshield. Sloping rear backlight meeting high notchback yields 4-Door Coupe profile. Think 5/6ths Mazda 6 mid-size family sedan.

WHY: For the more discrete look; Trunks are practical; JINBA ITTAI; DRIVING MATTERS.

WHEN: On-Sale (in the U.S.) since late fall 2015

WHERE: Mazda new car dealers

WHERE MADE: Hofu, Yamaguchi, Japan

HOW STRONG: 2.0L DOHC direct injected gas I-4 / 6-speed manual gearbox combo is so willing that 29 hp > optional 2.5L isn’t missed; Feels quicker than 8 second 0-60 run. Powerplant is same screamer [turned lengthwise] in ND 2016 Mazda MX-5.;But newly improved insulation makes cabin oblivious to posted 2500 rpm on the tach; 4th & 5th gears have short enough ratios to avoid mucho downshifting. Such positive lever action means never missing a gear shift; Clutch pedal takeup is smooth; Brake to accelerator pedal placement pair well for heel to toe action.

HOW LIMBER: Electric assist steering rack is overly sensitive at speed, but delivers abundant road feel; Front strut / rear 4-link independent chassis resists roll in fast cloverleaves; It forgives hard braking well into a hairpin: A heavy front driven nose threatens of understeer at 8/10ths, but grip ample for confident quick turn in; Initially tepid brake travel response must be regarded. Damping is compliant without heaving.

HOW FAR: Mazda says EPA says 33 mpg combined. We say 36 mpg; Almost 500 miles on a tankful of 87 octane gas.

HOW BIG: Generous cabin leg and elbow space despite short wheelbase; Low front cowl for improved outward sight-lines.

HOW LITTLE: Sloping roof shaves some rear seat headroom; Rear outboard bucket seating bunches center position.

HOW USEFUL: Trunk fits 2 full size and two carry-ons; That’s before folding down rear split seat backs; Thin door panel & large Bose speaker housing deplete door pocket storage; Glove box adequate; Smart phone size tray is fore of shifter; 2x USB ports 1x 12V power outlet inside front center armrest bin.

HOW SAFE: earns IIHS 2015 Top Pick Plus trophy: 8 airbags, Lots of high tensile steel; Driver assist technology: BSW, Rear camera w/ park gridlines, Rear Cross traffic warning.

HOW FRIENDLY: Spirited-driving suited, leatherette/ contrasting red-piping sport front buckets; Entire dash top & upper door panels are pliable; Tilt & extending leather-wrapped helm & shifter knob sized right; Redundant media switches need more distinction; Conflict between simulated brushed metallic accents, piano black bezels & faux carbon fiber surfaces; Triple channel door seals and thicker glass have improved cabin muting.

Primary pod analog speedometer is ELD, with glowing red LED halo, flanked by bright, concise TFT tach and MFD, but still a bit sun-glare prone;

7″-inch LCD media display is mounted high atop the center stack the better for every surrounding vehicle to gawk at; Never quite sure when to spin, depress or toggle center console rotary command controller;

HOW “APP” -LICABLE: Not sure when Mazda’s future Android Auto and Apple Car Play infotainment interface update will happen; For now: Pandora, Aha & Stitcher each must be separately sync’ed to corresponding smart phone apps; Bose Centerpoint 265 watt audio isn’t significantly louder than base unit.

HOW MUCH: $23,435 , including HDD GPS Navigation and BSW, Rear CTW. This year saw a much needed price drop and content increase across the Mazda3 line.

WHAT’S MISSING: Nothing other than less nervous steering on center. More distinguishable steering wheel spoke switches.

ANY COMPETITION: Volkswagen Jetta TSi , spiritual successor to original People’s Car. Not MCA exhibit worthy. Like the Mazda3 i, it has a fully independent suspension; (So do the re-designed 2016 Honda Civic and about to be discontinued Dodge Dart .) Jetta rides more compliant and has less fussy steering; However, Jetta’s manual transmission is somewhat sticky 5-spd offered only on lower trims; New Honda Civic sedan resembles a hatchback. It’s front seat comfort is narrow, with a steep bottom cusion, gauges distractively digitized. Despite Civic being a sweet handler, ride isn’t that forgiving, optional 1.5L turbo engine is slightly laggy, and steering wheel disproportionately large.