Vehicle overview When the appearance of the popular Mazda 3 was refreshed last year, its new smiling face didn't immediately win over some people, including us. Of course, the 2011 Mazda 3 looks the same, but now that folks have had a chance to warm up to the perpetually grinning car, it seems that the Mazda 3 is having the last laugh. The main reason is that the Mazda 3's fun-to-drive personality has been not only preserved but also enhanced as part of last year's makeover. This means the steering is still communicative, the chassis even more athletic and the ride somewhat smoother, with less vibration coming into the cabin. Furthermore, the new-generation car with the base 2.0-liter four is better on gas compared to the older Mazda 3 base model, which was rather thirsty compared to fuel-sippers such as the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Though the base engine's performance is merely adequate, the available 2.5-liter mill is one of the most responsive and energetic in the segment. While the exterior of the Mazda 3 might be controversial, the interior is hard to criticize. The 3 has long been known as having one of the nicest cabins in the economy car segment. One might even mistake the interior of a fully optioned Grand Touring version with its interesting design architecture and leather upholstery for that of an entry-level luxury car. The Mazda 3 is also notable for the number of upmarket features that are available, including bi-xenon headlights, keyless ignition/entry and dual-zone automatic climate control. For 2011, the 3's appeal is further increased thanks to the addition of more standard features. All models now have stability control, while the Grand Touring trims receive the formerly optional Bose audio system and sunroof. That said, the 2011 Mazda 3 might not please everybody, as some drivers could find the 3's ride too firm and the controls too complicated. For them, the 2011 Honda Civic and 2011 Hyundai Elantra are good alternatives. The 2011 Volkswagen Golf and Jetta could also be considered against the Mazda 3's higher trim levels, as the VWs also provide upscale cabins. Nonetheless, the 2011 Mazda 3 remains one of our top picks in the economy sedan class thanks to its pleasing driving demeanor, ample equipment, excellent quality and choice of body styles. 2011 Mazda 3 models The 2011 Mazda 3 is available in four-door compact sedan and hatchback body styles. The 3i model (sedan only) is offered in SV, Sport and Touring trim levels. Standard equipment on the SV includes 16-inch steel wheels, a 60/40-split-folding seat, height-adjustable driver seat, a tilt-and-telescoping steering column, full power accessories and a four-speaker stereo with a CD player, an auxiliary audio jack and steering-wheel controls. The 3i Sport adds air-conditioning, a temperature display and the option of an automatic transmission. The 3i Touring adds 16-inch alloy wheels, remote keyless entry, cruise control, Bluetooth phone and audio connections, and a six-speaker stereo. The 3s Sport (available as sedan and hatchback) adds the more powerful 2.5-liter engine, different front and rear fascias, 17-inch alloy wheels, foglights, dual exhaust tips, rear spoiler, aggressively bolstered front seats, upgraded upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, a trip computer and electroluminescent gauges. The 3s Grand Touring adds a sunroof, heated outside mirrors, dual-zone automatic climate control, a 10-speaker Bose audio system (with an in-dash, six-disc CD changer), heated front seats, leather upholstery and an eight-way power driver seat. Some of the Grand Touring features (such as the Bose audio system and sunroof) are available on the lower trims as options. The Technology package (available for the 3s Sport and 3s Grand Touring) includes rain-sensing windshield wipers, automatic headlights, adaptive bi-xenon headlights, LED taillights, keyless ignition/entry, satellite radio and a navigation system (with steering-wheel controls and a small, high-mounted display screen). An iPod interface is available as a dealer-installed accessory. 2011 Highlights The 2011 Mazda 3 sees some shuffling of its equipment packages. The Grand Touring version loses its formerly standard adaptive xenon headlights but gains the Bose audio system and a sunroof. Also, all trims now have standard stability control. Performance & mpg The 2011 Mazda 3i comes with a 2.0-liter inline-4 that produces 148 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed manual is standard, while a five-speed automatic is optional on all but the 3i SV. Estimated fuel economy is 24 mpg city/33 mpg highway and 27 mpg combined with the automatic -- the manual stands at 25/33/28. This is a few mpg less on the highway than class leaders. The Mazda 3s is powered by a 2.5-liter inline-4 good for 167 hp and 168 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual is standard here, with a five-speed automatic optional. In performance testing, a manual-equipped 3s went from zero to 60 mph in 8.1 seconds. Estimated fuel economy is 22 mpg city/29 mpg highway and 25 mpg combined with the automatic (20/28/23 with the manual). Both fuel economy and acceleration are on par with similarly powerful small cars. Safety Standard safety equipment on the 2011 Mazda 3 includes stability and traction control, antilock disc brakes (with brake assist), active front head restraints, front side airbags and side curtain airbags. In Edmunds testing, the 3s Grand Touring came to a stop from 60 mph in 119 feet -- a solid performance for this type of car. In government crash tests, the Mazda 3 earned five stars (the highest rating) in frontal impact protection for both driver and passenger. In side impact testing, the 3 scored five stars for the front passengers and four stars for the rear. In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety testing, the 3 earned the highest rating of Good in both frontal-offset and side-impact tests. Driving The 2011 Mazda 3 has refined road manners that will likely come as a pleasant surprise to most economy car shoppers. Thanks to its performance-oriented chassis tuning, the 3 is blessed with minimal body roll and a healthy amount of grip on twisty blacktop, and the steering is quick and communicative. In the real world, this translates into a greater sense of driver confidence. The 3's highway ride is smooth enough to please most commuters, although drivers who prefer softly sprung compacts like the Toyota Corolla might think the 3 is too firm. The beefed-up 2.5-liter engine in 3s models is the same one that powers the midsize Mazda 6. It's a wise choice for driving enthusiasts or those downsizing from a bigger, more powerful car. The smaller four-cylinder found in the 3i still isn't quite as fuel-efficient as what's found in the Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla, but it's a bit more powerful. Interior The 2011 Mazda 3 is a class leader in terms of interior design, quality and feature content. Most Mazda 3 hatchbacks and sedans sold won't be the upper Touring and Grand Touring models, but they'll still greet their owners with high-quality materials, comfortable front seats, ample space and easy-to-reach controls. However, the stereo controls in particular aren't as simple as those in a Civic or Elantra. The optional navigation system is a bit tedious to operate and has a small display screen, but we've generally found it to be useful, and it carries a relatively affordable price. The Mazda 3 sedan is a bit less spacious than its competitors, particularly in back where long-legged people might feel cramped. However, the driver seat offers a wide range of adjustment (especially if equipped with the power adjustments), and the tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel is a welcome feature. Taller drivers should note that the optional sunroof chews into front headroom considerably. The 3 hatchback would be our body style choice, since it offers all the sedan's high points while adding a greater level of practicality. Cargo capacity (with the rear seats up) is 17 cubic feet with the hatch, but only 11.8 with the sedan.