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The 2018 Mazda3 5-door combines utility and nifty handling.
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The 2018 Mazda3 five-door has a functional but slightly dated interior.

FAST FACTS

* Model: 2018 Mazda3 5-door Grand Touring

* Exterior color: Machine Gray Metallic

* Interior color: Black

* Engine: 2.5-liter, four-cylinder

* Horsepower: 184

* Transmission: six-speed automatic

* Fuel economy: 35 mpg highway, 26 mpg city

* Local Dealer: Tim Short Mazda

* Price (as tested): $29,785


View other Test Drive stories by Mark Kennedy



Looking for a used or new car?

When you drive 75-100 new vehicles a year, like I do, things tend to blend and blur.

But then along comes a vehicle that snaps everything back into focus. It's doubly delightful when this quality auto is not a new face but an old friend.

Despite a sprinkle of upgrades over time, the Mazda3 5-door hatchback is essentially the same car it has been for the last five years, and yet it never fails to delight us. Cleverly designed and brilliantly executed, the Mazda3 is beginning to age around the edges (especially the interior design), but maintains it's fun-to-drive street cred through taut handling and brisk acceleration.

Several years ago Mazda decided to break from the pack and produce light, nimble cars and SUVs powered by naturally aspirated engines. While other automakers were bolting turbochargers onto their engines for added power, Mazda put its vehicles on a diet. As a result, Mazdas simply handle and drive better than most of their rivals, in our view. Throttle response is quicker, handling is responsive and fuel economy is superb.

Locally, Tim Short Mazda on International Drive had about 16 Mazda3 sedans and hatches on the ground this week. We prefer the hatch version for its retro-mod styling and added utility. People who are stuck on buying a compact SUV, but who don't need the added ground clearance, should consider the Mazda3 5-door.

WHAT IS IT? The Mazda3 hatch is a five-door compact car equipped with a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine that makes 184 horsepower. It's comfortable for four passengers but can carry five in a pinch. Flip the hatch for easy access to cargo.

HOW MUCH? Our tester, a top-of-the line model in Grand Touring trim plus about $4,000 in options has an MSRP of $29,785. That price includes almost every available safety and comfort upgrade. Trim levels for the Mazda3 5-door include Sport (starting at $19,345), Touring ($21,890) and Grand Touring ($24,945).

WHAT WE LOVED: The 18-inch, dark alloy wheels, sublime handling up and down our East Tennessee mountain roads, impressive rear seat legroom, ample horsepower and the spunky "sport" mode.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: Needs second-row air-conditioning vents, the plastic heads-up display looks flimsy, and the seat bolsters were a bit tight for my frame.

WORTHWHILE OPTIONS: The ($1,600) "premium equipment package" that includes navigation, paddle shifters, radar cruise control, lane departure warning and lane-keep assist.

BOTTOM LINE: The Mazda5 5-door Grand Touring is a high-quality compact hatchback which packs tons of driving enjoyment into a user-friendly package.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

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