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If you've got $30,000 to spend on a car, you're in the catbird seat.Manufacturers are so eager to please buyers in the profitable "entry-luxury" category that they've flooded the market with gems like the Infiniti G35, the Acura TSX, and the Cadillac CTS.

But what if you want a hot, well-appointed car for under 20 grand? Options have slimmed to everymobiles like the Honda Civic and the Ford Focus, plus a growing fleet of Korean-made contraptions with loads of features but questionable quality. Now there's an antidote to this down-market ennui. For a base price below $15,000, the new Mazda3 offers a spirited ride, brash youthful looks, and interior comfort that should appeal to most people under 40. Even the high-performance "sport" version, a hatchback Mazda calls the five-door, is affordably priced below $18,000. It's refreshing evidence you don't have to be well heeled to be well wheeled.

There's no magic to Mazda's design, only intelligent trade-offs. Performance is an obvious focus, with a sophisticated 160-horsepower, four-cylinder engine standard on the five-door, along with 17-inch alloy wheels and front and rear stabilizer bars for firm, sporty handling. That machinery produces some thrifty thrills on curves. The few interior frills are good ones: steering-wheel-mounted radio controls, for instance, and cool neon mood lighting beneath the dash. Mazda cuts some corners with cheap dashboard components, synthetic upholstery, and spongy seats--but you'll only notice in traffic jams, when the Mazda3 can't get up and run.

Fun, low-budget competitors like the Dodge Neon (base price about $14,000) and the Saturn Ion (about $11,000) should keep the Mazda on its toes. But the economy carmaker gaining the most momentum may be Korea-based Hyundai, once the butt of Jay Leno jokes. While Kia and Suzuki, the other two Korean automakers selling cars in the United States, continue to score low in most quality rankings, Hyundai recently placed seventh out of 37 nameplates in J. D. Power & Associates' initial-quality survey--a startling 29 percent improvement from 2003. The Sonata sedan (about $16,500) bumped aside the Oldsmobile Alero and Chevy Malibu to place first among entry midsize cars. And the Santa Fe, starting around $19,000, placed second among entry SUV s, after the Honda Element. Plus, Hyundais tend to come packed with gizmos like heated seats and potent V-6 engines that cost hundreds or thousands more on other models. If these are economy cars, it's a pretty good economy.


Well wheeled

Affordable . The Mazda3 offers strong performance for a base price under $15,000.

Attractive. The model line includes a sporty "five-door" hatchback.

Handy music. The Mazda3's radio controls are built into the steering wheel, a rarity for a compact car.
 

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Ray said:
While Kia and Suzuki, the other two Korean automakers selling cars in the United States, continue to score low in most quality rankings, Hyundai recently placed seventh out of 37 nameplates in J. D. Power & Associates' initial-quality survey--a startling 29 percent improvement from 2003.
Since when did Suzuki become a Korean company? :donno:
 
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