Mazda isn't like other car companies. The small automaker is determined to carve its own niche in an industry dominated by giants. Right or wrong, Mazda charts its own course.

That independent streak has led Mazda down wondrous paths and into dead ends. Mazda created the marvelous Miata when nobody else was building roadsters, but it also stuck with the oddball Wankel rotary engine years after other automakers abandoned it.

The 2014 Mazda 3 compact sedan and hatchback display the automaker's split personality with a number of appealing features and a few missteps.

The 3 competes with cars like the Chevrolet Cruze, Dodge Dart, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Nissan Sentra, Toyota Corolla and Volkswagen Jetta.

Prices range widely, starting at $16,945 for a sedan with a 155-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automatic raises it to $17,995. A 184-horsepower 2.5-liter engine with the automatic transmission starts at $25,495.

Prices for hatchbacks begin at $18,945 with the 2.0L engine and manual. Hatchbacks with the 2.5L and automatic transmission start at $25,095.

I tested a 2.5L Mazda 3 Grand Touring hatchback loaded with features including navigation, Bluetooth phone and music compatibility, Bose audio and a sunroof. It stickered at $28,390. All these prices exclude destination charges.

That's pricey for a compact, but few competitors offer options like lane departure warning and automatic braking to avoid low-speed collisions.

The 3 uses new engines Mazda developed with a 13:1 compression ratio. Contrary to Mazda's claims, that's not even close to a diesel's compression ratio, but it helps the engine generate 185 pound-feet of torque at just 3,250 rpm.

Despite that good output, its acceleration was uninspired. The automatic transmission is smooth and responds well to its paddle shifters.

The 2.5L hatchback scored an EPA rating of 27 mpg in the city, 37 on the highway and 31 in combined driving. That's in the middle of the pack, though it's more powerful than most competitors except the 1Cruze and Jetta diesels.

The 3's steering, handling and ride are exceptional. Its electric power steering provides good feedback, and the car handles fast turns with aplomb.

The interior is roomy and comfortable, the cargo space accommodating. Good-looking, soft materials cover nearly every surface.

The controls mix traditional gauges and dials with a couple less-than-successful innovations. Mazda projects a head-up display on a transparent panel that pops up from the dash. I found it less useful than conventional HUDs that project their image on the lower part of the windshield.

A combination of a touch screen and a rotary controller manage navigation, audio, phone and other functions. Mazda disables the touch screen when the car is moving to force you to use a dial and buttons in the center console. That's a mistake. If there's any lesson in the age of the website, iPhone and MyFord Touch, it's that the control strategies that give the user the most options win. Making me look at a nonfunctional touch screen located above the dash while using a dial and buttons near my knee is distracting and annoying.

The voice-recognition system should handle some functions, including phone calls and navigation, but it worked inconsistently in the car I tested. The audio system also had intermittent faults in its controls and display.

The 3 hatchback is a beautiful car, with a long hood, dramatic grille and sweeping lines from nose to tail. It looks like it flowed from the pen of one of Italy's finest stylists.

Mazda blazed its own path again with the 2014 Mazda 3's looks, features and handling. It's a worthwhile trip despite a few wrong turns.

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2014 MAZDA 3 GRAND TOURING:

–Type of vehicle: Front-wheel-drive five passenger compact hatchback

–Rating: Three out of four stars

–Reasons to buy: Looks, features, cargo space

–Shortcomings: Price, intermittent audio and voice recognition system faults

–Engine: 2.5-liter 16-valve four-cylinder.

–Power: 184 horsepower at 5,700 rpm; 185 pound-feet of torque at 3,250 rpm

–Transmission: 6-speed automatic

–EPA fuel economy rating: 28 mpg city/38 highway/32 combined. Regular gasoline

–Wheelbase: 106.3 inches

–Length: 175.6 inches

–Width: 70.7 inches

–Height: 57.3 inches

–Curb weight: 3,002 pounds

–Base price, base model: $18,945

–Base price, model tested: $26,495

–Price as tested: $28,390

All prices exclude destination charge.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at mmphelan@freepress.com.

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