Compact family cars may be small, affordable and somewhat cuddly, but the arena in which they duke it out is a bloody battlefield.

Compact family cars may be small, affordable and somewhat cuddly, but the arena in which they duke it out is a bloody battlefield. Number one and two in sales for 2015, the Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra have just been redone from nose to tail. They’re vastly improved and are currently tearing up the Canadian charts, both up about 20 percent year-to-date. And now there’s an all-new Chevy Cruze that impresses with a standard 1.4L turbo four and luxury-car NVH levels.

There’s a driver-focused ethos found in every vehicle Mazda makes, so how does it shake out in the compact car class?

The Mazda3 was fourth on the hit parade last year (just behind the Toyota Corolla), so in light of all the new metal in the segment, we think it’s time to revisit this offering from the Japanese automaker who brought us Zoom-Zoom and snick-snick (that would be the Miata’s shifter). There’s a driver-focused ethos found in every vehicle Mazda makes, so how does it shake out in the compact car class?

Today we’re looking at the Mazda3 Sport GS with a six-speed manual that carries a list price of $20,850. The Sport designation in Mazda3-land means five-door hatchback, and this body configuration costs $1,000 over the four-door sedan. Arguably better looking and certainly more functional, the hatchback to sedan split of Canadian Mazda3 sales is about 40/60.

The Mazda3 Sport starts with the entry-level $19,350 GX, and that gets air conditioning, push-button start, six-speed manual transmission, 16-inch steel wheels, back-up camera, steering wheel–mounted cruise controls, six-speaker audio with Bluetooth, tachometer, trip computer and seven-inch touchscreen with Mazda Connect. A six-speed automatic transmission runs $1,300.

Next up is the GS, and for 2016 Mazda has juiced up its spec list with some items that previously were part of a Convenience Package upgrade – heated front seats, rain-sensing wipers, leather-wrapped steering wheel, brake lever and shift knob, auto headlights and heated exterior mirrors with integrated turn signals. The GS also gets upgraded upholstery, illuminated vanity mirrors, overhead console, exterior temperature display, rear centre armrest with cup holders, some upgraded interior and exterior trim and handsome 16-inch alloys. All this for a reasonable $1,500 over the GX. As you’d expect, the GS is the volume seller.

Power comes from a 2.0L four-cylinder that makes an earnest 155 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque. It may not have a lot of wallop, but you certainly can’t argue with the engine’s eagerness to please. It delivers its goods in a smooth, linear fashion, and once past 3,000 rpm, the little hatch moves out smartly.

At only 1,300 kg, the Mazda3 Sport GS is indeed frisky and light on its feet. Mazda’s SkyActiv is an overarching engineering strategy that finds efficiency through reduced mass, improved aerodynamics, reduced internal friction and modestly powered naturally aspirated engines.

Both the clutch action and shift efforts are light and expertly matched. Similarly, the 3’s electric steering offers little friction and is quick (2.6 turns lock to lock), accurate, and feelsome. Roll this in with nimble handling, and you’ve got a hatch that sets itself apart when it comes to driver involvement.

Find a twisty road and the Sport GS is a joyful rig. The 3 is all about balance – no aspect of its performance is overwhelming, yet every aspect works in sweet harmony. The finely contoured steering wheel melts into your hands, the bolstered seats hold you in place, and the pedals are well placed for heel-and-toe action should you be so inclined. The expertly tuned suspension (front MacPherson Strut, rear multi-link) balances poise and ride compliance to great effect.

The downside to all this “lightness of being” is higher levels of wind and road noise, something the new competitors (namely Chevrolet Cruze and Hyundai Elantra) quell to great effect.

The Sport’s cabin is elegant and exceptionally well constructed - certainly one of the best in its class, although it’s pretty heavy on the black. Lacking any kind of glitz or frippery, its marquee feature is Mazda’s Euro-style interface with a colour touchscreen display mounted atop the dash. This works with a rotary controller featuring press and nudge functions that falls to hand just behind the shifter. Very Audi, BMW and Mercedes of you, Mazda. Below the screen we find HVAC controls with intuitive buttons and knobs. All controls work with an expensive feel.

The touch function on the screen is somewhat redundant as the rotary controller does it all anyway. As a nod to safety, touch function is disabled when the car is in motion. Still, this car could use some good old-fashioned radio preset buttons. The presumably simple act of changing radio stations requires way too much in the way of menu searching, knob twirling and pressing.

Another gripe I have with the interior is the small, non-backlit central speedo and dim, monochromic digital clusters (tachometer, fuel gauge, etc) flanking the speedo. They look to be from another era. Honda and Hyundai are rocking it when it comes to crystal clear, colourful displays.

The only option on this tester was a $900 sliding sunroof. Navigation can be added to the interface for a reasonable $450.

The back seats are nicely contoured, but legroom is tight if the front chairs are adjusted for those lanky of frame. Behind the 60/40 rear seats we find 572 L of cargo space – 1,334 when folded. The stylin’ swoopy rear roofline hampers the Mazda3 Sport a bit in this regard. To compare, the boxy VW Golf offers up 646/1,492 litres.

Official fuel economy numbers for the 2016 Mazda3 Sport GS are 8.2 L/100 city and 5.9 L/100 highway for the manual, and 8.0 L/100 km city and 5.9 L/100 highway for the automatic. My week ended up right in the middle at 7.5 L/100 km.

Standard on all 2016 Mazda vehicles is unlimited mileage on all warranties – three-year new vehicle, three-year roadside assistance, five-year powertrain and seven-year perforation.

The Mazda3 has always represented good value, and now that the volume GS trim gets an extra helpin’ of kit for 2016, it’s an even more enticing proposition. Yes, there are other offerings in this segment that manage to dish up some decent driver involvement – the VW Golf, Ford Focus and new Honda Civic – but the Mazda3 Sport has its own finely honed, almost delicate balance that sets this svelte player apart.

Warranty:
3 years/unlimited distance; 5 years/unlimited distance powertrain; 7 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 3 years/unlimited distance roadside assistance

Competitors:
Chevrolet Cruze Diesel
Dodge Dart GT
Ford Focus Titanium
Honda Civic Touring
Hyundai Elantra GT SE
Kia Forte SX
Nissan Sentra SR
Subaru Impreza Sport
Toyota Corolla
Volkswagen Jetta

Specifications

Model Tested 2016 Mazda3 Sport GS   Destination Fee $1,695
Base Price $20,850   Price as Tested $23,545
A/C Tax $100  
Optional Equipment
Sunroof $900