Let’s for the moment put aside the watch face-sized infotainment screen that’s standard here – even if it is nicely integrated into the top of the dash. It’s a tiny thing here in 2019.

This car is a looker.

Instead, let’s focus on the big picture — the one about the reinvented, fourth-generation Mazda3 compact car, and in this case, specifically, the sedan version, which is a $26,200 Mazda3 GT.

Here, you can see the first serious but still tepid attempt by Mazda to push its brand upmarket. Here, in the 3 – both sedan and GT hatchback versions of the Mazda3 – we see Mazda zeroing in on the idea that its cars and SUVs will for now and evermore be premium offerings, not just an alternative to the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic and Chevrolet Cruze, to name three rivals.

It’s there in black and white in the Mazda PR bumph. For 2019, with the arrival of the fourth-generation Mazda3, the company is ushering in the era of “Mazda Premium.”

For at the last the last decade, many commentators, various experts and a legion of know-it-alls (me included) have been urging Mazda to ditch any mainstream sensibilities or pretensions and instead focus on turning this southern Japan car company — fiercely independent but tiny by global standards — into the Japanese BMW.

Mazda’s designers know how make a cabin functional and comfortable and handsome.

Mazda has tip-toed around that idea, fearing a dedicated push upmarket would kill the company. The jump, so the story goes, would be too great shock for consumers who still associated Mazda with hobby-gardener pickups and rusting runabouts.

In this latest 3, however, Mazda has taken a proper leap into Premium Land. The GT sedan I just enjoyed is as luxurious a car as most Canadians could ever want. It looks quite modern and handsome, too.

At $30,695 all in (including $2,800 in options and $1,695 in freight and dealer prep) it’s not inexpensive, but it won’t blow up your budget, either. $30,000 is about the average transaction price for a new car in Canada.

If you buy it, and take Mazda Canada’s current 1.27 per cent rate for 48 months, the monthly tab will hit about $650 plus tax. The 48-month lease payment will come it around $430 a month. Those are the published numbers; I’m certain some dealers can do better.

Get the biggest screen available. It’s still not big enough in 2019, but it’ll do. And nicely integrated.

In any case, this small car is a gem. Mazda has long had good interior designers, but this package – the full execution of everything – is terrific. I would, in particular, point to the way those designers have managed to gracefully integrate the infotainment screen into the dashboard.

And on this topic, you simply mush pay a little extra for the bigger 8.8-inch Mazda Connect screen. It’s still a bit undersized in this age of smartphones the size of Big Ben, but it’s at least acceptable as an interface to all the gadgets and functions.

Note, too, that this is not a touch screen, which can get smeared with fingerprints. Everything is operated by a controller located in the centre console, one that nicely fall to your right hand. You will be able to manage everything through it — without ever cracking the manual. Trust me.

Yes, the Mazda3 is a front-driver, but that’s not a negative in a small car that counts cabin space and fuel economy among its attributes (8.8 city/6.6 highway in litres/100 km for the 186 horsepower 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine). Power delivery is steady and pure, like turning on a tap. We have here a very fine engine/6-speed automatic powertrain combination.

Seats: the bases are too small and the padding is a little thin.

Here’s something else I’d urge anyone who is judging Mazda on its “premium” claims: assess the quality of the paint, the tightness of the body panels, the execution of instruments and controls. Toyota and Honda (Corolla and Civic) make fine little cars, but Mazda has passed them in terms of premium-ness.

So far, however, the marketplace has yet to respond. Mazda3 sales are down 16 per cent on the year, though Civic sales are off 10.4 per cent, Corolla sales have slipped 1.3 per cent and Hyundai Elantra sales have slumped nearly 9.0 per cent. This is an industry-wide trend: compact car sales in Canada are down 15.3 per cent this year (figures supplied by DesRosiers Automotive Consultants).

Buyers today are stampeding into SUVs (sport-utility vehicles), eschewing small cars, no matter how good they are. The reinvented Mazda3 is among the best, but I doubt it will make a dent in reversing this trend.

Looks good going away, too.

2019 Mazda3 GT sedan

Base price: $26,200. As tested, all fees included: $30,695. (The Mazda3 sedan line starts at $19,820, all-in.)

Powertrain: 2.5-litre four-cylinder (196 hp/186 lb-ft torque).

Transmission: six-speed automatic.

Drive: front-wheel.

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.8 city/6.6 hwy.

This is what a proper instrument cluster should look like.


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