The most remarkable thing about the 2010 Mazda3 compact may be the fact that there isn’t anything remarkable about it at all.

It's not a hybrid, or alternatively-fueled. There is no headline grabbing killer app on the options list. It's not even notably bigger, or, for that matter, smaller than the cars it competes with. The spec sheet is so generic that it could almost be described as boilerplate.

And that’s fantastic, because since Mazda's engineers weren't busy trying to reinvent the wheel, they were able to focus on perfecting it, instead.

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The Mazda3 is available as either a 4-door sedan or 5-door wagon. The wagon comes with a 167 horsepower 2.5 liter 4-cylinder engine, while the sedan can also be had with a more-than-peppy 148 hp 2.0 liter 4-cylinder engine. I spent a few days in a 4-door with the small motor and its standard 5-speed manual transmission, and a day on a racetrack with a third model that we’ll attempt to catch up with later.

Despite its new looks, the $16,045 Mazda3 isn't an all-new car, but a major refresh of one that didn't have a lot of negatives to start with, most of which have now been ironed out. If you're OK with the cheeky and grinning exterior design, there’s not much at all left to complain about.

The motif of arcs and sweeping lines that adorn the body carries over to the interior, where a dashboard laden with high-quality plastics is far from cookie cutter. Controls are well-placed, and the sporty, deeply-set gauges of the instrument cluster are a constant reminder of the Zoom Zoom ethos Mazda aims to embed in all of its cars.

While there are no blockbuster features, all of today’s popular hits are available in various trim levels, including Bluetooth phone connectivity, iPod integration, and stability control. Unfortunately, a navigation system can only be ordered on models with the 2.5 liter engine, but it is a stand out for how well it blends in. The screen is only 3" across, a small breath of fresh air in an automotive market where displays as large as 8” are common, robbing more than their fair share of real estate on the dashboard. More important in an economy car, the price is relatively small, too. A $1,195 option package gets you the nav, satellite radio, alarm, keyless entry, and pushbutton start. Hit that last one, and you'll find out what really makes this car worthy of your consideration.

The Mazda3 operates like it’s been bathed in refinement. From the smooth-revving engine to the short-throw, well-oiled stick shift, this is a car that you can enjoy while sitting in the driveway fiddling around with it like a 12-year left alone at home for the first time with the keys to the family car.

Click here for an interview with Mazda North America President and CEO, Jim O'Sullivan

For those with valid driver's licenses, or very lenient parents, you can slip it into first gear, let out the light clutch, get over the fact that it engages a little high in its travel, and pull away into a state of bliss not often attainable in the sub-$20k segment.

On the cruise, the Mazda3 is one mellow ride. The interior is quiet and the ride supple. Road imperfections are a trifle, the suspension dispensing with them as easily as it keeps body motions under control. It's a driver's car on non-drowsy painkillers.

While the Mazda3 isn’t any larger than average, the 2.0 liter engine feels much bigger than it is. The power band is broad, and you can just leave the transmission in third gear and forget about it, if you don’t feel like shifting. From 20 mph up to whatever the speed limit is it pulls strongly, though you will want to change gears at some point if you hope to achieve the EPA fuel economy rating of 33 mpg highway. Unless you live in the mountains, or spend a lot of time competing in autocross events, the 2.5 liter hardly seems worth the extra three grand or so that it takes to get into one of the models that offers it, not to mention the 4 mpg hit it takes on fuel economy. Besides, if power is really a concern, you might as well go whole hog.

The Mazdaspeed3 is the high-performance version of the Mazda3. With the demise of the Dodge Caliber SRT4, it is now the most powerful sub-$25G front-wheel drive compact sold in the United States. That’s not always a good thing, as the previous version proved. The turbocharged 263 hp 2.3 liter 4-cylinder stuffed under the hood made it fun, but a handful. Thankfully, there’s more to the new model than the mill.

Rather than worry about pumping up the power, which remains the same, Mazda focused on making the rest of the car better able to manage it. A stiffer body structure, firmer suspension, and wider 18” wheels all contribute to this end. The Mazdaspeed3 is only available as a 5-door, an indication of the value-oriented customers who are willing to spend $23,945 on a compact performance car, since it likely will be their only ride.

At the product launch of the Mazdaspeed3 at California’s Laguna Seca raceway, the positive effect of the alterations was very apparent. Granted, the track doubles as Mazda’s U.S. testing facility, so if the car is going to perform well anywhere it’s there, but there’s no hiding from the laws of physics, even with a home field advantage.

Click here for VIDEO of the Mazdaspeed3 at Laguna Seca

Into and out of corners, the car exhibits quick turn-in and a neutral stance that is astonishingly composed for a boosted front-driver. Fast or slow, understeer is merely a suggestion, even with all of that weight and power concentrated at the bow. Just the same, the hatchback isn’t interested in trading places with the hood and its big air-gulping scoop for the intercooler. The tail stays put through curves, allowing you to transfer a good amount of weight to the rear tires with hefty doses of throttle. There’s just a hint of a twitch transmitted through the steering wheel when you initially get on the gas, and the engine management system is actually programmed to attenuate power delivery slightly in first and second gears to limit this effect. The Mazdaspeed3 also has a clever system that uses an electric motor to power the hydraulic steering assist, eliminating the need for an energy-sapping engine mounted belt while still transmitting excellent road feel.

Oomph builds steadily, not brutally, and the 6-speed manual – the only transmission available – makes the most of a relatively thin power band. The torque peak of 280 lb-ft hits at 3,000 rpm, while horsepower maxes out at 5,500 rpm. Although the redline is set at 6,500 rpm there’s rarely a reason to tap into that last 1,000 rpm.

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Nevertheless, like the standard Mazda3, the car is so quiet that I found myself hitting the rev limiter anyway. With the windows up, the engine is a distant hum, and the exhaust even quieter than that. In a car that plays in the raucous crowd that this one does, it’s a bit of a letdown.

Sometimes perfection comes with a price, even if you don’t have to pay extra for it.

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2010 Mazda3 and Mazdaspeed3

Base Price: $16,045/$23,945

Type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 4-door sedan or 5-door wagon

Engine: 2.0L inline-4; 2.5L inline-4; 2.3L turbocharged inline-4

Power: 148hp, 135 lb-ft torque; 167hp, 168 lb-ft torque; 263hp, 280 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 5-speed manual; 5-speed automatic; 6-speed manual

MPG: 18-25 city/25-33 hwy

What do you think of the 3?

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