c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

Mazda fans are like the denizens of a cool underground speakeasy, hidden behind a false door and a mounted antelope head. Theyíd love people to know how much fun theyíre having, but they may not want the masses to force their way inside.

The automaker, of course, would happily drop the velvet rope and put more people into the driverís seat of its cars ó as long as the party didnít turn into a Toyotathon filled with earnest dweebs arguing about hypermiling techniques.

Yet with the government mandating that automakersí fleets average 54.5 mpg by 2025, even Mazda canít focus exclusively on sporty high jinks at the expense of fuel economy. Thatís been demonstrated, in triplicate, by its CX-5 crossover and the redesigns of its Mazda 6 midsize sedan and now its compact Mazda 3 hatchback and sedan.

All of these models have adopted Mazdaís Skyactiv technology, which may sound like a sinister missile-defense system but is actually a bundle of improvements to the carsí powertrains, chassis and aerodynamics.

Last yearís Mazda 3, even on its farewell tour, was beating up most of its competition. So itís not surprising that the all-new 2014 edition forges strong claims as the front-runner among affordable small cars.

The 3 has grown better-looking outside and more deluxe inside. The chassis is said to be 30 percent stiffer, the cabin is quieter and weights have dropped by 60 to 100 pounds. The 3 is more powerful, more aerodynamic and more advanced, and comes with new active safety features.

But itís the carís yin-yang combination ó an entertaining driving experience with much improved economy ó that puts it over the top. Highway fuel economy has soared by as much as 10 mpg, to 41 mpg with the standard 155-horsepower 2-liter Skyactiv-G engine in the 3i, and to 39 mpg with the 3sís 184-horse 2.5-liter.

I drove a winning pair of 3s: a 3i Grand Touring hatchback with manual transmission and a sticker price of $24,635 including options, and the 3s Grand Touring for $29,185. With more grunt and notably stickier 18-inch tires ó 3i models make do with 16-inchers ó the 3s model remains the enthusiastís choice, at least until Mazda creates a higher-performance Mazdaspeed 3 version.

What the 3s models donít yet allow is a manual transmission, although Mazda has pledged to offer one later. But thereís consolation in the automatic, a novel 6-speed that blends functions of conventional and dual-clutch units. Paired with the 2.5 engine, a pushbutton Sport mode holds gears and automatically downshifts while braking, and there are paddle shifters behind the steering wheel.

The departing 3 was already handsome by the standards of its class, aside from a goblin grin plastered across its grille. Plastic surgery has changed that grimace into a Mona Lisa smile. And like its striking new stablemates, the 3 adopts Mazdaís Kodo design language, a Euro-tinged whisper of touchable curves and intriguing shapes.

With its prominent hood, scalloped sides and curvy hips, the 3 recalls the beloved old BMW M Coupe, spiced with a dash of Alfa Romeo. The front roof pillars are repositioned 3.9 inches toward the stern, accentuating the new modelís cab-rearward profile. A 2.4-inch stretch in the wheelbase and taller rear seatbacks enhance interior room and comfort.

Even the sedan, a body style often relegated to grunt duty among affordable cars, looks alluring.

Like the original 3 of a decade ago, the new model carries the premium theme inside. And the Mazda meets modern expectations with design, materials and features that are just-this-close to what youíd find in a midsize sedan.

The interior is clean, softly padded and symmetrical, including a small-radius sport steering wheel. Fealty to drivers shows in features like pedals that line up precisely with the seated driver. In this class, only the Volkswagen Golf matches the Mazdaís naturally upright, poised-for-action seating position. The Mazdaís stylish, body-coddling sport seats ó clad in cloth, leatherette or leather ó surpass the VWís.

Drivers who prefer a co-pilot can choose electronic helpers, including radar adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitors and rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, automatic high-beam control and a new feature called Smart City Brake Support: Its laser system scans for potential low-speed collisions and can prepare for stops or even brake automatically at speeds from 2 to 19 mph. Itís the kind of system you would expect on a luxury car, not a mainstream compact.

For all of its strengths, Mazda has lagged behind its rivals in introducing useful navigation and infotainment systems. With the 3, Mazda has made its best try yet, with an option called Mazda Connect. It perches a 7-inch touch screen atop the central dash and includes an Audi-style multifunction rotary control knob on the console, in addition to steering-wheel controls. Mazda Connect also integrates Harmanís Aha app, which aggregates 40,000 free audio stations, along with apps like Pandora, Stitcher, Yelp, Twitter and Facebook. Onboard software can be updated, preventing obsolescence.

(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)

Engineers worked to minimize driver distraction with the system, and itís far better than most Version 1.0 attempts, including rage-inducers like MyFord Touch and Cadillacís CUE. Mazda does fall into the BMW trap of using obscure on-screen hieroglyphs, rather than words, to represent selections like station lists and presets. Scrolling to functions often calls up a description in English, but that wastes time and pulls your eyes off the road.

The top-end Grand Touring models feature a heads-up display on a translucent screen that flips up atop the driverís gauges to show such information as speed and turn-by-turn directions.

(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)

But beyond supplying the gadgets that more small-car drivers are willing to spring for, Mazda has massaged the 3ís performance and raised its efficiency.

In Mazdaís heavier CX-5 crossover, the direct-injected 2-liter Skyactiv engine can feel overwhelmed. But its 148 pound-feet of peak torque is ideally suited to a compact car that weighs from 2,800 to 3,000 pounds.

A new, more efficient exhaust manifold ó it wouldnít fit below the hood of the previous 3 ó generates better midrange torque for more flexible, linear power. And excellent new 6-speed transmissions, manual or automatic, deftly balance performance, smoothness and economy.

Both direct-injected engines are not just more powerful, they are much more frugal. The 3s Grand Touring offers an extra fuel-saving trick: It is Americaís first car that captures braking energy in a capacitor, a storage device thatís lighter, longer-lasting and faster-charging than a battery.

Mazdaís i-ELOOP capacitor helps to power headlights and other electrical systems, allowing the engine and the variable-voltage alternator to conserve energy. That raises the EPA fuel economy rating by 1 mpg for the 3s Grand Touring hatchback, to 28 city and 38 highway. The 3s Grand Touring sedan is rated 1 mpg better on the highway, with or without i-ELOOP, which seems odd.

Mazdaís explanation is that the EPA test procedure fails to credit the systemís reduction on electric loads and insists that i-ELOOP raises real-world fuel economy by about 5 percent. But getting the capacitor costs $1,600: i-ELOOP is part of an optional technology package that includes fuel-saving active grille shutters, Smart City Braking, lane-departure warning and other safety features.

The less powerful 3i sedan gets even better mileage, 30 mpg in town, 41 on the highway, with the automatic transmission. (The 3i hatchback is rated 30/40 mpg.)

(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)

As ever, conservation feels secondary when you put the Mazda through its nimble paces. Once up to speed, the 3 has no difficulty keeping up with BMWs or Audis on roller-coaster roads.

The steering is slightly overassisted, but it remains one of the most precise and sensitive electric units around.

(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)

Price shoppers can find a basic 3i SV sedan for $17,740 with the 2-liter engine and a stick shift. The lowest-priced hatchback is the 3i Sport, at $19,740, with the 6-speed automatic adding a further $1,050.

(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)

As with the Ford Focus ó which is probably the 3ís closest rival for the small-car crown ó the price can climb rapidly. Versions with the 2.5-liter engine range from $25,390 for the 3s Touring sedan to $27,290 for a 3s Grand Touring hatchback.

Having introduced a trio of critical hits in the Mazda 6, CX-5 and now the 3, the question remains: Whatís it going to take for more people to discover these stylish, entertaining and finely engineered cars?

(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)

With Mazda plugging away at about 2 percent of the U.S. market, perhaps the 3 represents more than a model name: It could also be a market-share goal for a carmaker that deserves a closer look.