2019 Mazda 3 essentials: Consider the bar raised

Our Opinion: The days I have been spending in the new Mazda 3 are in a front-drive sedan with the automatic transmission. Pretty much the opposite of how I’d order mine — I’d get the manual and the hatchback body for the practicality.
Both body styles look good; simple, clean shapes, a low nose and short overhangs. The interior is wonderful in terms of materials and assembly; it’s the new small car standard.
As the outgoing model was, this new 3 is a delightful driver, with quick steering, a well-balanced chassis and a smooth, quiet ride. I’m especially impressed with the quiet cabin on the freeway. It’s in luxury car territory.
And while I believe the 2.5-liter four could use more power, the car is no dog, and the automatic transmission is smooth. I’d like to try to the manual gearbox. I’m guessing it would let me get the most from the four and put the light, nimble chassis to best use. That said, I bet more power is coming sooner rather than later. The chassis sure feels like it could handle more.
Before I can say the 2019 Mazda 3 remains near the top of the small car category, or not, (besides trying the manual transmission) I’d like to drive one with all-wheel drive and some models lower in the food chain to get a better sense of the how the other trims stack up.
For now I’d say the new 3 and the Volkswagen Golf are the two small cars I’d recommend most often.
–Wes Raynal, editor