Move over, Missy Higgins. Step down, Dan Brown. Because the real surprise success story of last year was the Mazda 3.

From nowhere it burst onto the local car market in early 2004, appealing to small, mid-sized and premium car buyers alike with its sassy style, exemplary road manners and value pricing.

The Mazda has become one of those packages with widespread appeal. Suddenly, people who’d previously drive only a VW, a Peugeot or even an Audi consider the 3. Which is unexpected because its predecessor, the 323 Astina/ Prot?, was worthy but a bit white bread in flavour.

The most multi-grain of the new-wave Mazda small cars is the overtly sporty, $29,120 SP23. But before you baulk at 30 big ones for a small Mazda, consider this.

If you step inside the SP23 blindfolded and then take it for a long, spirited drive with eyes as well as mind wide open, you might be in for a shock as to how mature it is.

For the 3, Mazda switched to a new and sophisticated small-car platform that is also shared with Volvo’s impressive new S40/ V50 and the next-generation Ford Focus due here soon.

This move is central to the Mazda’s refinement and composure, as it means that there’s an expensive and high-quality multi-link suspension taking care of things.

The 3 also sits on a longer-than-usual wheelbase and its body is strong and rigid, helping out the handling. Thus a hefty weightiness keeps keen drivers connected with what’s going on down below.

They will dig its feel and fluency, with no shock or kickback, while the turning circle is sweetly city-savvy.

The 3 is a revelation if comparing it to the Toyota Corolla, Holden Astra or Nissan Pulsar, and it even gives the equally sophisticated new VW Golf and Audi A3 a big fright.

When most others get messy being hustled through a tight corner, the 3 glides through with reassuring poise. Actually, the more you manhandle this Mazda, the better it responds. The driver always feels in control.

It also possesses an unexpectedly supple ride. Neither bumps and ridges, nor larger potholes and speed humps, disturb progress.

Only the at-times intrusive road noise spoils a perfect picture.

Initially, the 2.3-litre engine (nicked from the Mazda 6) doesn’t seem especially quick, particularly as there’s 115kW of power to play with. But all it takes is a heavy right foot and the hi-tech motor will pile on the punch, especially past 4,000rpm. After that it is a sweet and strong unit with deep reserves of oomph.

Stirring the SP along is easy, with a satisfyingly weighty and positive manual gear change. The same also applies to the clutch and brakes. And even if you’re not a speed queen, you’ll still find plenty to like inside the SP23.

A long wheelbase liberates a surprising amount of space inside, ably accommodating large bodies with ease. An excellent driving position -“ with a multi-adjustable chair and steering wheel -“ aids the driver while the seats do a great job in keeping everybody happy.

Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of the interior is the Mazda RX-8-like dash and instrumentation. A big step forward in quality and design from before, it most clearly communicates Mazda’s sporty yet practical ambitions.

Not only are all switches and controls within easy reach, there’s real substance to them. It’s well equipped too. But the piercing-red night-time illumination is not for everybody.

The glovebox is also amazingly deep (it’ll fit 16 CDs or Madonna’s Gaultier bra), as is the centre bin. And the rear seats split and fold flat to boost the big 300-litre hatch area.

The Mazda 3 SP23 hatchback is one of the most complete small cars available at any price. It offers the quality of a VW Golf, dynamics of the Ford Focus, stand-out style of a Renault Megane and space efficiency of a small wagon -“ in a very Mazda-like value-for-money package.

There’s no doubt about it. Like Daryl Somers, Mazda -“ courtesy of its 3 SP23 -“ is one of the comeback kids of the year.

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