For 2006, the Mazda3 undergoes a few changes. On the sedan, the 2.0-litre engine’s horsepower increases to 150 hp from 148 hp; a five-speed automatic transmission is available on 2.3-litre models; there’s a standard CD player on GX trim; the GS and GT receive a trip computer with fuel economy, range and average speed data; and there’s a new exterior colour, Snow Flake White Pearl.

On the Sport hatchback, a five-speed automatic transmission replaces the four-speed of 2005, the new trip computer is standard, and the GT receives LED “Hanabi” taillamps. Exterior colours Copper Red and Snow Flake White Pearl have been added, while Sunset Orange Mica is gone.

On all Mazda3 models, an exterior temperature gauge has been added to all trim levels, and a micron air filter has been added to all models with air conditioning.

The Mazda3 is available as a sedan or Sport hatchback. In sedan configuration, it’s available as the base GX or mid-level GS, both with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual transmission that can be optioned up to a four-speed automatic. The top-of-the-line GT uses a 2.3-litre four-cylinder and five-speed manual that options up to a five-speed automatic.

The Sport hatchback comes in GS and GT trim, and both lines use the larger 2.3-litre with five-speed manual or optional five-speed automatic.

The GX sedan features 15-inch steel wheels, manual remote mirrors, CD player with two speakers, tilt and telescopic wheel, cloth seats, 60/40 folding rear seat, and floor mats.

The GS sedan adds 15-inch alloy wheels, rain-sensing intermittent wipers, CD player with four speakers and wheel-mounted controls, power locks with keyless entry, and map lights.

The GT sedan adds ABS, 16-inch alloy wheels, heated power mirrors, fog lights, six speakers, air conditioning, cruise control, and anti-theft alarm system.

On the Mazda3 Sport, the GS includes ABS, 16-inch alloy wheels, manual remote mirrors, rain-sensing intermittent wipers, CD player with four speakers and wheel-mounted controls, tilt and telescopic wheel, power locks with keyless entry, power windows, cloth sport-type seats, 60/40 folding rear seat, and floor mats.

The GT adds 17-inch alloy wheels, six speakers, cruise control, anti-theft alarm, and leather-wrapped wheel and shifter knob. Air conditioning is optional on both Sport models.

The Mazda3 is an exceptional car for its price; even in base form, it feels far more expensive than a vehicle that starts well under $17,000. Price increases over 2005 models are $210 or less, depending on the trim line. Its platform is a corporate one also shared with the Volvo S40 and European Ford Focus. It handles impressively, responding immediately to steering input, and corners flatter than you’d expect from an economy car. A tight turning radius and good visibility make it effortless to park. The five-speed shifter is creamy-smooth. The 2.0-litre does an excellent job, but the bigger engine is even more fun to drive.

The Mazda3’s interior is roomy and spacious up front, and with adequate passenger space in the second row. The hatchback offers more cargo versatility, as well as sportier rear-end styling. Small-parcel space abounds, including a cavern of a glove box: it’s 260 mm deep and can swallow a purse. Interior fit-and-finish is excellent, and a tilt-and-telescopic wheel on even the base model helps to accommodate drivers of all sizes. It’s a three-way race between Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Mazda3, with no clear-cut winner: you’ll have to test-drive them all to find your personal favourite.

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