By Clint Williams
Green Right Now

Cars that are fun to drive typically come with a catch. There is, it seems, always a but…

The Jaguar XK is fun to drive but the starting MSRP is $84,500.

Mazda3 2012

Chevrolet’s Corvette is a blast to drive but there is only room for two.

The 2012 Mazda3 is fun to drive and eminently practical, getting 40 mpg on the highway with room to haul the kid and the dog.

This latest model showcases Mazda’s new Skyactiv Technology – a redesign of the engine and transmission designed to boost performance and fuel efficiency. The direct-injection, 2-liter four-cylinder engine delivers 155 horsepower and 148 pounds-feet of torque – giving a bit of scoot to an economy car. The 0-60 mph performance won’t thrill you, but the 50-70 mph punch will give you confidence to negotiate heavy freeway traffic or pass the chicken truck on a twisting mountain road.

The six-speed automatic transmission seemed smooth and responsive. You can also get a six-speed manual transmission.

What sets the Mazda3 apart from others in its class is its handling – tight, precise, great for zipping along curvy back roads. Mazda engineers improved rigidity for better agility, in part, by increasing the number of spot welds to join suspension crossmembers to the reinforced body areas.

The cabin is comfortable and fairly quiet. The backseat is a bit tight on legroom – most adults will find their knees pressed against the back of the front seat.

A $1,400 optional technology package includes satellite radio and a blind spot monitoring system that uses 24GHz radar sensors to detect approaching vehicles within a range of 13 feet to the left or right, and within 26 feet from the rear. When a vehicle is detected entering the blind spot area, indicator lamps housed within the door mirrors will light. If a turn signal is activated while the indicators are lit, the indicators flash and a buzzer serves as an additional warning.

The Mazda3 is as frugal is it is fun. The EPA fuel economy estimate is 28 mpg in city driving and 40 mpg on the highway. We got 35.9 mpg is a mix of driving. The MSRP is less than $25,000 – even with the technology package.

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