It’s difficult to look at a Mazda3 and think of it as a track car. The Mazda3 has evolved through three designs over its lifespan as the replacement for the much-loved Protege5, a unique cross between a four-door hatchback and a small wagon. Though we have yet to see a Mazdaspeed3 in the current generation, we do get it in S trim and as a Grand Touring model.

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We had the chance to sample a Mazda3 GT at the Motor Press Guild’s Track Days event at Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, Calif. No, it wasn’t offered for test drives on the ultra-fast “big track,” but on the smaller “Streets of Willow” track.

That was probably the better move because the new 3 is well suited to that track, with its more technical layout and tighter radii. On track, the engine feels peppy and lively, fun even. It’s a 13:1 compression-ratio, 184-horsepower inline four-cylinder pulling along 2,978 pounds of curb weight, so the car has a power-to-weight ratio of 16:1, or just under where a Performance Touring E car ranks. It also has 185 pound-feet of torque at 3,250 rpm, which helps contribute to the lively feel.

In terms of handling, the car exhibits great balance, but was a little prone to understeer, something more attributable to a car offered for sale to the general driving public rather than to a deficiency in suspension design. The car did have antilock brakes and electronic stability control, but they were well behaved even under track conditions. The Mazda3 makes for a good daily driver/autocross car and something you can take to HPDE on occasion. As equipped, the car stickered for $25,045.

For that price you get a car with an outstanding driving position and excellent fuel mileage and generous passenger space.

“Compact cars are roomy without being bulky, offer impressive fuel economy, have starting prices consumers can afford and also can be seen as a sort of testing ground for new technologies,” said Jim O’Sullivan, president and CEO, Mazda North American Operations. “To remain competitive in a segment where consumers are eager for the next big thing, Mazda3 needs to have lofty goals – and meet them.”

Our test model was rated for 25 city, 37 combined and 39 mpg highway. It’s good for 40 mpg if equipped with Mazda’s optional i-ELOOP system. i-ELOOP is a regenerative braking system that converts the vehicle’s kinetic energy — coasting or braking — and stores it as electrical energy in an onboard capacitor.

According to Mazda literature, “This electricity is captured and then stored for later use as a means to power all of the vehicle’s electrical components, such as headlights, climate control and audio systems, which reduces the need for the engine to burn extra fuel in order to generate electricity and, therefore, improves fuel economy without sacrificing driving performance.”

Obviously, we didn’t test fuel economy at the Track Days event, but Mazda says the system is good for a 5 percent boost in fuel economy with no detriment to driving dynamics.

In terms of style, the new KODO-design Mazda3 is tough to beat. It is the class of the class. The design was inspired by the movements of wildlife that live in savannahs, jungles and forests. The graceful body lines trace across the flanks and integrate nicely from vertical to horizontal surfaces. The body lines also are repeated on the interior door panels.

On the inside, the Mazda3 punches way above its weight. Fit and finish and materials are on par with luxury German brands like Mercedes and Audi. It’s that good. The seats are comfortable and the driving position is first rate. That it’s possible to set the seat and steering wheels so you can heel-and-toe easily shows how much thought went into driving ergonomics.

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Until and unless we see a Mazdaspeed3, the Mazda3 Grand Touring will make for a great daily driver that can get you on track in a pinch and through an autocross course in a hurry. And when you’re not thrashing it around, it delivers fantastic fuel economy and a decidedly more plush interior than you might expect from a car in this class.

Specifications

Engine:

2.5-liter I4

Horsepower:

184 @ 5,700 rpm

Torque:

185 @ 3,250 rpm

Front suspension:

Independent McPherson strut

Rear suspension:

Independent multi-link

Transmission:

six-speed manual

Rear axle ratio:

3.39:1

Curb Weight:

2,978 lbs.

MSRP:

$25,045
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Image courtesy of Mazda