Critic’s Notebook: 2016 Mazda 3

Quieter, richer and better than a car this basic has a right to be.

2016 Mazda 3

This is how the world works. Over the holidays, some The Drive staffers grab $84k luxury 4x4s with enough differentials and terrain-response modes to scale Kilimanjaro, yet never see a drop of precipitation. Me? I drove a summer-tire-shod Mazda 3 over a small Vermont mountain in a foot of snow. Heat-seaters heating, tail wagging and traction-control light flashing like a wee orange strobe, I spurred Mazda's sexy hatchback into service as a improvised snowmobile. I would have it no other way; the Mazda is fantastic.

Though it plays in a budget-conscious segment—that of Corolla, Elantra, Focus—the Mazda 3 draws from the playbook of the Volkswagen Golf and, to some extent, the new Honda Civic, which is: Give the people the good stuff on the cheap. In the Mazda, that means looks for days. In profile—long hood, slinky hatch, hooded eyes—the 3 may as well be an Alfa Romeo, especially in my car's radiant Soul Red, whose depth and verve only underscore the Japanese hatchback's Italianate vibes. The wheels, like those on Fiat's hell-raising 500 Abarth, came in a quite serious gunmetal gray, suspending the whole car over four rich-looking little stormclouds. (Base-spec 14-inch steelies of economy cars of the past, these ain't.) Just as the NA Miata offered British-style handling and proportion, minus the wiggles and niggles, the 3 has copped swagger from beloved Italian hatchbacks but left their troublesome reliability on the table next to the capicola.

Inside, the Mazda is 90-percent as successful. The seats were athletically sculptured and covered in perforated "Almond" leather and, God bless, it's actually the color of the inside of a nut! Creamy, white, presumably full of Vitamin E and manganese. The steering wheel and shifter are both solid, but the triumph is the e-brake. It feels like a leather-encased mulling iron. Depending on Mazda USA's drifting policy, I either did or did not use the old-fashioned cable brake to pull two dozen snowy handbrake and J-turns. The Mazda 3, taut and responsive on the tarmac, also makes magic on slick surfaces. Four-wheel drive? That's altogether too much traction.

The Mazda 3 is a great little car, more beautiful than it has a right to be. Though the as-tested price is typically high for a press-car, all the good stuff, looks included, comes on the $25k version. It's a car you'd stick with even after your ship came in. The head-up display is crap, but otherwise, the Mazda 3 is best-friend material—through thick, thin and, yes, snow.

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2016 Mazda 3 S Grand Touring
PRICE (as tested): $29,135
POWERTRAIN: 2.5-liter I-4, six-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive
MPG: 28 city/39 highway
Cheap Thrills: Strong, abiding