Brown paint over cream leather seems like a colorway for geriatric transportation — something we’d expect on a ’77 Buick LeSabre. But on the Mazda3 S Grand Touring ($25,545), the shades are different. The metallic brown is called Platinum Flash (and matches the name), the cream leather is an almond hue with sporty perforations and racy red stitching. And even though the cockpit isn’t lined with Alcantara, the hatch still had me flying through the gears like a kid furiously mixing cookie dough. The Japanese five-door isn’t the pinnacle of performance for Mazda — the Mazdaspeed3 still waits in the wings — but it does show that Mazda gives a shit about the driver. Which — as some engineers seem to have fallen asleep at their desks — is an important distinction.

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The Japanese five-door isn’t the pinnacle of performance for Mazda, but it does show that Mazda gives a shit about the driver.

Just like the previous Mazda3, the five-door hatchback takes the sedan to the mats in the looks department. While the four-door looks clean, there’s a boring element to it. The five-door eschews that mundanity with its shooting brake style. The old Nagare “flow” design language on the last-generation Mazdas, including the 3, polarized buyers. While the overall body shape was probably better proportioned than the new car, the five-pointed grille on the former-gen 3 looked more like the mouth on a whale shark rather than the intended five-point design. The current Mazda3 looks noticeably longer (despite its slightly smaller interior seating space) and more muscular thanks to flared fenders and flowing character lines along the body.

Inside, the cockpit materials are excellent for this price point, and the layout is driver centric — something Mazda does better than anybody these days. The supportive, sporty bucket seats in almond leather draw a nice contrast to the black dash and door panels. Mazda made the seats great to sit in for long drives, but also eye catching with black backs and red stitching — which is also found on the shift knob boot and the center armrest. The fat tach is parked right in the middle of the instrument binnacle where it belongs, and speed is tossed onto the retractable and attention-grabbing Active Driving Display (Mazda’s version of a Heads Up Display). To the left of the tach, there’s also a shift indicator, telling you when — well, recommending when to change gears on the 6-speed manual transmission.

Under the Hood
Engine: SKYACTIV-G 2.5L DOHC 4-cylinder with VVT
Horsepower: 184 horsepower @ 5,700 rpm
Torque: 185 lb-ft @ 3,250 rpm
Fuel Economy: 25 / 37
Base: $25,545

The shifter is a thing of beauty. The throws are short and smooth, and the clutch is easy to modulate with the right amount of uptake and feel. The throttle response is fantastic, taking immediacy seriously in all gears. With regard to power output, there’s 184 horsepower at your disposal from a 2.5-liter engine, and absolutely none of it feels like a shortcoming. The chassis is unflappable and the steering feel is enough to make the Mazda3 s GT’s topless brother, the Miata, proud.

The 2015 Mazda3 s Grand Touring is a car you can get used to owning. Upvote to Mazda for the engine upgrade from last year’s 155 horsepower base 2-liter SkyActiv engine, even though it’s still a solid powertrain. There’s ample torque on hand with 185 lb-ft — ten more than the Civic Si. Of course, you won’t rip out any stumps or warp any pavement, but there’s plenty of on-demand quickness. The hot hatch turns trips to 7-Eleven into qualifying laps. And unlike most sporty cars, you can drive the 3 at 10/10ths without fear of meeting your maker. It’s eminently exploitable at the limit.

The hot hatch turns trips to 7-Eleven into qualifying laps. And unlike most sporty cars, you can drive the 3 at 10/10ths without fear of meeting your maker.

The chassis, suspension, engine and brakes work so well together that throwing it around a curve is both relaxing and thrilling. Coming out of a turn, don’t mash the gas too hard or you’ll experience that front-wheel-drive wheelspin, and if you enter a turn too hard, the front end will push. But the car does respond to inputs with aplomb, and even when driven hard there’s practically zero anxiety — only the excitement of driving a practical city car that also happens to perform like a civilized track toy. If everyday usage is what’s important to you, the 3 is an excellent choice. It takes kids, golf clubs, groceries and loads of gear with ease. The Grand Touring model also brings creature comforts, including rain-sensing windshield wipers, perforated leather sport seats and an adaptive front lighting system. In addition, the 18-inch 10-spoke alloy wheels (a massive visual upgrade from the 16-inch base wheels), the Bi-Xenon headlights, LED day-running lights and partial LED taillights give the 3 an upscale, sporty look that compliments the design.

The Mazda3 is a heavy-hitting contender with the VW Golf, the Ford Focus and the Mini Cooper. There’s no non-performance badged small hatchback in recent memory that we’ve enjoyed more. It’s so well rounded, so entertaining to helm and so affordable, it can’t be ignored.