2005 Mazda3

Last year's Mazda3 delivered on its "Zoom-Zoom" promise, which may explain why changes for the 2005 model year are limited to details — a new 15-in. wheel-cover design, optional Sirius satellite radio, and more color choices.

The standard rack-and-pinion steering with electronic powerassist delivers smooth handling and good responsiveness. And excellent braking is assured by power-assisted four-wheel disc brakes, also standard. The car's fun-to-drive character stems in part from fully independent suspension, with multilink rear suspension similar to that of the Mazda6. However, I found the ride a little too stiff. Maybe the low-profile tires played a part in that.

Powered by an all-aluminum DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder engine producing 160 hp, the Mazda3 is not your average economy car. The optional 2.3-liter engine produces a robust 160-hp at 6,500 rpm and 150 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. Variable timing on the intake valves maximizes power throughout the rpm range for lowend smoothness and high-end punch.

Inside, there's plenty of headroom. And the telescoping steering column is great for long-legged drivers who find themselves reaching forward and straining their lower backs to grab the wheel at "10 and 2." On the downside, the mechanical release for the tilt-and-telescoping steering column is difficult to operate, and it requires considerable effort to push it in and out.

As for those steering-wheel audio controls, they're the way to go — especially for channel surfers like me. But I found the electroluminescent gages somewhat distracting, until I discovered they could be dimmed with a knob to the left of the steering wheel.

The only significant shortcoming is the back seat. Passengers might want to assume the lotus position to avoid injuring their lower extremities. I'm a little over 6 ft and when I adjusted the front seat to a comfortable position, legroom in back all but disappeared.

The Mazda3 comes in four and five-door models. Options on our vehicle included the four-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission ($900); combination of antilock brakes, side-impact air bags and curtains ($800); power moonroof and in-dash six-disc CD package ($890); plus the sport package with 17-in. alloy wheels ($490).

Base price for the 2.0-liter 148-hp model is $14,200 or $16,615 for the 2.3-liter version. Sticker on our test car is $20,255. The 2.3-liter version is rated at 24 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway with the automatic transmission, and 25/32 with the manual. A 48-month or 50,000-mile "bumper-to-bumper" warranty, 24-hr roadside assistance, and loaner car program are all standard.

Patrick Mahoney