Our 2010 Mazda3i Touring tester.

I’ve noticed over the past several months a certain shift in my attitudes toward driving. It’s a disconnect. I simply can’t find that groove these days. If you’re any kind of enthusiast (and you must be if you put up with our nonsense) then you know what I’m getting at. Every auto writer has waxed philosophical at one time or another about the connection between man and machine and how, from time to time, the elements come together to form a rare moment of perfect automotive bliss. Sometimes it’s triggered by the perfect road; sometimes it comes from having the perfect car. Hell, sometimes it happens when you’re stuck in traffic on a beautiful evening with the breeze coming through the windows of your ’94 Caravan while one of your favorite songs crackles from the half-shot factory speakers. It’s in that confluence of events that we remember why we love what we do and why we’re willing to make sacrifices for it.

But those moments are few and far between for me these days and more and more I’ve come to realize it’s a product of my living situation. I have a super convenient apartment and a catered commute. I don’t need to drive at all during the week. Hell, I don’t want to either, because you can’t go more than ten miles in any direction before sunset without hitting traffic. Weekday or weekend, driving anywhere around here is a chore. When you’re at least 40 minutes from the closest two-lane that isn’t littered with cops or traffic signals (or both), just getting to the open roads sucks most of the joy out of driving them.

And any icebreaker conversation inevitably leads to the same question: “Wait a second, you live in an apartment in Alexandria and you own four cars?”

Yep. Four cars. And last week, when we hosted Mazda’s latest 3, it was five.

Once you have four cars (three of them 2005 or newer, mind you, no lawn parking lot ornaments here), adding a fifth to the stable, especially on a temporary basis, really isn’t a big deal. It’s just one more, after all. Think Jon & Kate Plus 8; after the first two or three, you’re just on cruise control.

But having the 2010 in the fleet stirred some feelings I had long forgotten. For one, I remembered just how much I love driving something new and different. It should be pretty obvious that variety is a spice that I use in abundance (“Four cars!?”), but such is the depth of my disorder that even our diverse fleet can’t sate my thirst for something different. Before I had a car of my own I’d make any excuse to borrow another friend or relative’s car. From a ’77 Bronco Ranger to an ’87 Town Car (chrome and silver leather, no less) to a ’91 Accord that my absolute-opposite-end-of-the-spectrum-from-a-car-guy buddy drove into the ground, I drove them and I loved them. And then I let them go.

There are a lot of things to love about the new 3. The styling may or may not be one of them. If you’re not familiar with the face, you should take some time to acquaint yourself. Some colors and trims change up the appearance of the face, but it doesn’t get any smaller or less “OH HAI!” no matter what you do. As a part of the overall styling though, it really works. If you look at the car from anywhere but on your knees directly in front of it (apparently the auto show photographer’s position of choice), the smile fades into an overall execution which ultimately makes the outgoing car look dated. It’s as if somebody told the styling department to simply take the last-generation car and flip it inside-out — the showier, more childish elements now bolted to the exterior and the subtle European details of the old car’s sheetmetal now draped around the driver.

The re-style extends beyond the happy face. The new body lines may invoke the me-too Toyota Matrix, but the character is distinctly Mazda.

And while we may never know exactly what direction the interior stylists were really given, I can tell you for certain that it works. Everything from the shifter (up an inch or two from where it was mounted in the old car and more directly in line with the edge of the wheel) to the sloped center stack has a better sense of placement and cohesiveness. With two glaring exceptions (the placement of the power window switches out of the natural reach of the driver and the cheap silver paintwork on the center stack, some of which already showed wear after only 3,000 miles), the look and feel are spot-on. And while exceptionally supportive, the cloth seats in our tester were a bit too firm for our tastes.

Another controversial change in the 2010, this time in the interior, is the relocation and downsizing of the optional navigation system. Instead of offering a double-DIN style screen in the center stack, Mazda opted to go with an aftermarket-sized screen nestled into the top level of the two-tiered dash. Our car did not come so equipped, however the infotainment MFD housed in its place was fantastic. The satellite radio (an added option on our car, AM/FM/CD+wma/mp3 and aux-input is standard) display was housed here, along with outside temperature and what would be trip computer information on higher trim models. Everything was easy to read and fell naturally just below the sightline in normal driving. Also on the same plane, housed between the tachometer and speedometer, is the digital gas gauge — a neat, if unnecessary feature. The steering wheel controls have also been reworked, the old up-down buttons replaced by very substantial-feeling rocker switches. The standard Bluetooth integration system was also fantastic. Syncing up phones is a trouble-free affair, but must be done while the car is stationary. A bummer for bored passengers looking to fiddle with gadgets on long road trips, but not entirely unwelcome in the “bff jill” culture that is northern Virginia.

The interior benefits from improvements in both materials and ergonomics. Its not flawless, but its certainly near the top of its class.

The interior benefits from improvements in both materials and ergonomics. It's not flawless, but it's enough to put it in the running with the class leaders.

Gone is the cross-hatched, medium-high gloss door and dash plastic, replaced with a more substantial and highly-glare-resistant, textured surface that is more pleasing to the eye and to the touch. Soft-touch rears its head in many frequently-touch areas (the now-wider arm rests, for example) and some ergonomic issues and cost-cutting measures from the old model are addressed. Both front doors now feature a full grab-handle, however this forced the relocation of the window switches and led to our earlier complaint about their new home. The aforementioned ergonomic quibbles and stylistic preferences aside however, the interior slots right up there with the class leaders. It may lack the quasi-upscale visual impact of a well-optioned Jetta’s interior (which, in lower trims, also abuses silver paint on some control surfaces to break up the otherwise sterile sea of black plastic), but it delivers on a combination of improved surface plastics, a nicely-evolved control layout and the carried-over touches here and there that remind you that you’re in a Mazda.

Once you insert Mazda’s switchblade key (push-button ignition with a remote key fob is available on higher trims) and fire up the engine, you again find a mix of old and new. The 148hp, 2.0L inline-four is essentially a carry-over from the old car. Producing an adequate 135ft-lbs of torque, the engine isn’t terribly punchy from a stop  but thanks to aggressive drive-by-wire throttle mapping and a relatively short 5th gear, in-gear freeway passes feel livelier than they really are. Gearing and weight (just shy of 2900lbs) are essentially identical to the outgoing model, so acceleration and fuel economy (25/34 city/highway) are unchanged.

But genuine improvements exist in the actual driving experience. It’s clear that Mazda tweaked the suspension and chassis ever so slightly. The ride is quieter and more composed, but try as I might I can’t find any resultant performance compromises. Like its predecessor, the 2010 communicates brilliantly, warning of camber changes and road imperfections the instant they happen. For a lower-trim model specced out for comfortable commutes to and from the office or sorority house, this is a very well-buttoned down car.

The steering wheel in our tester was the basic rubberized plastic model, but it’s sized just right and the steering is weighted perfectly — a little on the heavier side, but not so much that you feel like you’re fighting the car just to make subtle adjustments at speed. The clutch action has been improved significantly; gone is the sponge-like behavior of the older car car’s third pedal. The effort is light and it returns crisply and without hesitation. Never do you feel like you’re getting ahead of the car in a quick shift. The only negative carry-over here is the engagement point. It seems to be a hair closer to the floor than it was before — an improvement — but there’s still very little feedback from the clutch. On occasion I found it difficult to place the full-engagement point and found myself pulling my foot briskly off the pedal a hair early, the car punishing me with a lurch as the clutch fully mated with the flywheel.

And speaking of shifts, the lever itself has been improved. The throws feel shorter and the feedback is improved. There’s still a rubbery feel when you hit the gates, but the action is so natural that you can flick the car from gear to gear with any part of your hand. Use your finger, if you like. You’ll find the gear you want on the first try and it’ll slip right in with an ever-so-muffled snick.

All in all, Mazda has an excellent sequel to their segment-busting overhaul of the Protege.  If it were my money, I’d keep an eye on Mazda’s inevitable mid-cycle refresh of the 5-Door 3s. Hatchback practicality, the punchier 2.5L engine, sportier suspension and the likely availability of piano black interior trim (in place of the silver-painted plastic) would make for an outstanding package that simply can’t be beat for the money. Make mine a Grand Touring in blue or black, please.

Having the 2010 3 in the fleet represented many things, but chief among them were obligation (I had to write this) and freedom. How did it represent freedom? It gave me a reason to just get out and drive. Visiting my family back in Annapolis, I was in close proximity to my long-time favorite driving roads. I had an opportunity and an excuse. When I picked up the keys, they asked me where I was going. My response didn’t really answer their question, but at the same time it explained my errand. “I have to drive the car,” I said. And they understood.

And when I handed Mazda’s press car back after our time was up I felt a sense of loss, not for the car itself, but for what it represented to me — a time when I could just grab the keys and go for a drive.

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Byron Hurd

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