LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- At the airport rental car counter in Little Rock, Ark., we sign for a presumably boring compact-class car in order to hold the rental rate to a minimum.
To our surprise the resultant rental vehicle, while pint-size in scale for the compact class, turns out to be anything but ho-hum boring.
Dubbed the Mazda3s 5-Door to denote a five-door format in hatchback variation of the Mazda3s 4-Door sedan from that "Zoom-Zoom" brand out of Japan, our rental unit quickly reveals itself in a drive through the convoluted Ozark Mountains of Arkansas as one cool motion machine that thinks it's a sports car.
Mazda3s 5-Door looks muscular with taut contours in a promise of spirited performance and dynamic handling traits.
It rolls on sporty P205/50R17 V-rated rubber with 17-inch alloy wheels and rides on a platform of exceptional rigidity with a broad 60-inch wheel track and long 103.9-inch wheelbase for stability.
And there's a high-revving 2.3-liter four-in-line plant under the hood which produces an unexpected kick through a short-stick manual five-speed transmission or a smooth five-speed electronic automatic with a manual-shift mode.
Building an agile little hatchback has historical precedents in Mazda's product line, tracing back as far as 1977 to a three-door subcompact hatchback called the GLC -- Great Little Car. With only 65 hp from a 1.5-liter engine directed to the rear wheels, spunky GLC was thrifty but still fun to drive.
A five-door wagon variation emerged in 1979 and continued for four subsequent years.
By 1986, Mazda had a new three-door hatchback 323 to replace the GLC, and two years later, a souped-up GTX rally car variation.
And in 1990 a generational upgrade to the 323 hatch rolled out for a run that continued through 1994.
The Protege5 of 1990 applied to a four-door sedan, followed by new renditions in 1995, 1999 and a fresh Protege5 in 2002.
But Mazda, currently linked by corporate ties to Ford Motor Company and Volvo of Sweden, borrowed a global platform developed by Volvo to underpin new compact-class vehicles. The series commenced in 2004 with the Mazda3 4-Door sedan but was soon followed by a Mazda3 5-Door hatch.
Mazda3s 4-Door and 5-Door models were redesigned in 2007 and the editions of 2008 carry more standard content in safety equipment, such as side-impact air bags and curtain-style bags.
Mazda3 4-Door is styled as four-door notchback sedan with two trim levels packing either a 2.0-liter four-pack (Mazda3i) or the 2.3-liter upgrade (Mazda3s).
The dual-cam 2.0-liter in-line-four nets 148 hp at 6500 rpm with 135 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm.
The 2.3-liter version achieves 156 hp at 6500 rpm plus torque of 150 lb-ft at 4500 rpm.
Mazda3s 5-Door pulls strictly from the larger 2.3-liter engine.
Sheetmetal designs of sedan and hatchback differ, as the 4-Door features smooth contours on a bulbous form while the 5-Door shows edgy shapes for an aggressive posture.
Mazda3s 5-Door as a long-body hatchback scores sporty aerodynamic elements, such as air dams and crisp side sills or a spoiler on the trailing edge of the roof, that disguise boxy parameters of the hatchback format.
Mazda's 5-Door also gets foglamps, low side skirts and the 17-inch wheels.
The slinky prow of 5-Door pins narrow cat-eye headlamps with multiple lenses on corners flanking a five-point grille marked by body-colored bars, with a pair of square foglamps prominent in the air dam.
Shapely sides in a monochromic treatment break for exaggerated round wheelwells as two side doors blend into the panels.
Blackened roof pillars on each side disguise the four-door format and make the hatchback seem like a little coupe with high-hiking roofline.
At the rear, corner lamps frame the bulging hatchback door. Clear glass reveals three lamps in different colors -- red for braking, white for running in reverse and amber as a signal for turning.
Inside, there's big-time cabin space magically crafted from the confines of a compact-class chassis.
And the hatchback design with a folding rear seatback (split 40/60 in two sections) forges a cargo bay with 43.8 cubic feet of space when rear seatbacks are down.
Even with all seats occupied -- two buckets up front followed by a brief bench for three -- the back bay still has 17.1 cubic feet of room.
Front seats show firm bolsters on flanks and fit in sporty fashion when you toss the car around on a wiggly route like our course across the Ozarks.
Driver's bucket makes adjustments for lumbar back support. Seat position is elevated so you sit erect in ideal position in relation to the leather-wrapped steering wheel and a shifter stick studding the center console.
Stow space shows up in thoughtful places -- a glovebox large enough to house a laptop computer or numerous CD cases, the dual-level console with built-in cupholders, or a rigid map pocket on each front door housing a bottle holder.
The dash arrangement has a large center cluster of controls for audio and climate systems, and an instrument panel shaded by the arching lid with analog gauges housed in tubular binnacles. Gauges are electroluminescent, glowing in vivid red notations.
Mazda3s 5-Door stocks hardware for sporty handling, beginning with the rigid platform and a suspension system that's independent at each wheel using MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link design in back. Front dampers get specific tuning for fast steering response and to diminish the understeer factor of a front-wheel-drive (FWD) vehicle.
Steering uses a rack and pinion device controlled by electro-hydraulic power assistance and brakes consist of ventilated discs up front and solid discs in back.
Mazda3s 4-Door and 5-Door carry convenience gear like power controls for windows and door locks, air conditioning, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and six-speaker audio kit.
MSRP figures for the 2008 Mazda3s 5-Door spread in a range from $17,925 to $21,145.