As March has come and gone, taking the last of winter with it, we’re left with a healthy appreciation for the 2014 Mazda 3. Shrugging off relentless ice, snow, slush, and salt without complaint over the last few months, the 3 has proven itself as one of our most trusted Four Seasons cars. It begs the question, then, why aren't more people catching the Mazda bug and buying one?

“To me it seems to be a matter of public perception,” said associate web editor Joey Capparella. “Most people still think of Mazda as a budget brand playing second fiddle to Toyota and Honda, but if Mazda can get people into the showrooms, this could change quickly. I think most buyers would be surprised by how far Mazda has come.”

While their cars have caught up and in many ways surpassed the competition, Mazda's sales still lie in the shadow of the other Japanese brands. Sales of the Mazda 3 stagnated in the first two months of 2014, in line with industry-wide slumps, but March deliveries totaled a respectable 10,536 units. Still, that’s far behind each of the Corolla and Civic’s 70,000-plus units, whose buyers might have found themselves happier on Mazda’s side of the fence.

The Mazda 3's responsive steering and nimble handling communicate the proper dosage of sportiness in a mass-market compact, allowing the driver to have fun without diminishing the car's viability as a daily driver. Ride is perhaps on the firmer side, but it’s frankly a breath of fresh air compared to the snooze-worthy Corolla. Power from the 2.5-liter Skyactiv four-cylinder comes on predictably and with enough pep for enthusiastic passing on the highway—while it's no Miata in the fun department, the Mazda 3 has still got that elusive “zoom-zoom” running through its veins.

Inside, the leatherette seating surfaces and glossy black plastic trim feel legitimately premium and modern, much like the Ford Focus did when it was redesigned in for the 2011 model year. The Mazda 3’s exterior is equally striking, with sporty hot-hatch proportions that associate editor Greg Migliore compared to “a shooting brake with two extra doors.” Big 18-inch aluminum wheels and adjustable xenon headlamps also help give the Mazda 3 enough attitude to earn it some well-deserved street cred.

There's time yet for small-car buyers to come around to our opinion, and we're convinced that the 2014 Mazda 3's combination of affordable technology, engaging driving dynamics, and year-round usability should be more than enough to convince them. It certainly swayed us enough to select the Mazda 3 as a 2014 Automobile Magazine All-Star. Although we love the functionality and appearance of the hatchback, the 3 sedan shouldn’t be ignored, either—Mazda's 2.0-liter version emerged victorious in our eight-car compact sedan comparison test.

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