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Before the big changeover, a last look at the 2018 Mazda3

The 2018 Mazda3 Grand Touring is the perfect car for a hatchback lover who likes a fun driving experience and a time-tested design.
The 2018 Mazda3 Grand Touring is the perfect car for a hatchback lover who likes a fun driving experience and a time-tested design.Read moreMazda

2018 Mazda3 5-Door Grand Touring: Just under the wire, a last look at the old style, as a new one is headed our way early next year.

Price: $27,720 as tested, but there’s probably a lot of wiggle room coming up.

Conventional wisdom: Car and Driver likes the “dapper styling, joyous road manners, upscale cabin and trimmings,” but not that it “lacks low-end power, some ride choppiness, short on luxury amenities.”

Marketer’s pitch: “How it drives starts with how it’s made.”

Reality: Maybe it’s not fair to place this review so close on the heels of the Kia Rio and Hyundai Accent.

What’s new: Not a lot, and that’s great news. Let’s see if the 2019 due early next year is a complete improvement.

The Mazda3 has long resonated with me as an inexpensive hatchback that’s as fun to drive and driver-focused as cars costing twice as much, and the 2018 model shows this tradition remains alive.

Up to speed: The 2.5-liter engine creates 184 horsepower. While the engine needs better tuning for Mazda’s other vehicles, its performance is spot-on for the 3.

The little hatchback reaches 60 mph in 7.4 seconds, according to Car and Driver, a nice time for the Mazda3. (A 2.0-liter creating 155 horsepower is also available.)

On the road: Here, most Mazdas shine brightly. Small-car lovers should thank Mazda for concentrating its focus on the 3. Handling on winding roads is superb, and highway and city pavements are not too rough on the spine. The Mazda3 feels as comfortable as a rear- or all-wheel-drive sedan, but its powertrain moves the front wheels.

Shifty: Mr. Driver’s Seat’s first experience with ShiftTronic shiftable automatics came in his old Protege5. I was unaware of how good I had it.

Like that car from 15 years ago, today’s Mazda3 offers smooth shifts in either setting, although now the car is blessed with six gears. Shift via the shift lever, or the paddles on the steering wheel (part of the $1,600 Premium EQ package, which also added a host of safety options and heated steering wheel).

Mazda also offers enough downshifting help in shift mode to make stopping and passing easier, while not taking too much control away from the driver — an important consideration in a smaller car.

Driver’s Seat: The Mazda3 as tested featured a power leather seat with a manual lumbar adjustment. Comfort was superior, although Mazda’s leather can be extra firm.

Information, please: The gauge pod is almost oversimplified. The bottom right corner of the tachometer features a simple digital readout of the speed, and gas gauge and other features sit along wings on either side. Fuel economy and other information is a little on the small side.

Friends and stuff: I finally got to try out the hatchback version of the Mazda3. The higher rear roofline does help with headroom in the back. Legroom and foot room are not cramped, but they’re not spacious, either. The middle passenger certainly will sigh heavily, if not openly weep.

Cargo space is 20.2 cubic feet with the rear seat and 47.1 with it folded down.

Play some tunes: Mazda has blissfully left its stereo system alone as well. The console-mounted dial and buttons follow the BMW path to user-friendliness. Sound quality is delightful.

As I spend more time with the system, I find one downside can be switching from station to station or source to source. Some days, I’m just Mr. Indecisive Seat and fish around for the right musical accompaniment.

Night shift: The headlights illuminated the roadway just fine, though the interior lights were a little on the bright side.

Tiny tank: Expect to visit the Wawa more frequently than usual for fill-ups. Evidently, Mazda anticipated far better economy than I got in the test vehicle — and that previous occupants had gotten over the last few thousand miles — and my range was a mere 280 miles.

Fuel economy: Speaking of which, the Mazda3 averaged just over 28 mpg in the usual Mr. Driver’s Seat round of testing, a bit of a disappointment.

Where it’s built: Hiroshima, Japan.

How it’s built: The Mazda3 gets a 5 for 5 in reliability from Consumer Reports and a “recommended” rating as well.

In the end: Mazda has ridden so high on Mr. Driver’s Seat’s list over the years that it’s its own worst enemy now. The CX-5 left me pleased but not as delighted as before, and the CX-3 is the first Mazda review that ended with a nastygram from a Mazda rep.

But the Mazda3 remains right up there with the MX-5 Miata among cars that punch far about their weight and should always be on your shopping list.