2014 Mazda3 has the goods, but will consumers know it?

The problem for Mazda as it readies the launch of its latest generation Mazda3 is the message, not the car.

A drive through the twisty roads of the Angeles National Forest earlier this week proved that the Hiroshima, Japan, automaker has produced yet another in a series of great small cars. But consumers still haven’t gotten that message. Despite best-in-class handling and competitive pricing, these cars just don’t sell well.

Year-to-date, Mazda has moved about 53,000 of the 2013 model, less than a third of the sales of compact car rivals such as the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Even domestic automakers — which have long trailed Japanese rivals in the segment — easily outsell the Mazda3 with the Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cruze.

The current Mazda3 has been a favorite of critics, said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst at car shopping company, “but it hasn’t caught on with the public.”

The Mazda3 has nonetheless been the automaker’s best seller, accounting for 30% of global sales. So it’s crucial that consumers get a favorable impression of the new model, said Larry Dominique, a former Nissan executive who is now an executive vice president of car shopping company TrueCar Inc.


“The Mazda3 is not an important car, it is their most important car,” he said.

Video: Interview with Mazda design chief Derek Jenkins

When it comes to marketing, Mazda doesn’t have a big television presence like the other automakers. When it does advertise, Mazda pushes its “zoom-zoom” fun-to-drive persona. It has also put money into motor sports, including buying the naming rights for the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

But most compact car buyers care more about price and efficiency than race-inspired handling.

“Racing doesn’t speak to compact car buyers,” Caldwell said. “The marketing message has not been consistent.”

Marketing aside, the 2014 Mazda3 does indeed go zoom-zoom.

Photos: The 2014 Mazda3

This is the first Mazda3 freed from the former partnerships the carmaker had with Ford Motor Co. and Volvo. And that’s allowed the Japanese automaker to fully adhere to its Kodo, or “Soul of Motion” design philosophy and SkyActiv technology, which focuses on wringing fuel economy out of standard gasoline engines. The automaker’s newly regained independence means it can dispense with the compromises inherent in sharing platforms and parts with other brands.

Mazda knows it needs to turn heads with the design of the new Mazda3 so it can get buyers in seats for test drives.

Designers pulled what is called the A-pillar — the line that runs from the hood, over the passenger window and to the door post — back about 4 inches. This creates a longer, more prominent hood.

“That’s what gives the car what we call a coupe quality,” said Derek Jenkins, head of Mazda’s Irvine design studio.

The car’s grille gives a hint of an impish grin, bracketed by narrow halogen headlights that look like squinted eyes. The package shows a strong resemblance to the recently redesigned Mazda6 sedan and the CX5 crossover, released last year.

Company executives call the new Mazda3 a “sports compact” rather than merely a compact car. They want the Mazda3 to stay on the leading edge of an industry trend that’s transforming small cars — once derided as econoboxes — into stylish, fun-to-drive sedans with amenities once reserved for larger cars.

That means optional leather seats, premium sound systems and even cutting-edge safety equipment. All but the base level Mazda3 will come with a standard blind spot alert feature.

A special technology package — yet to be priced — that relies on radar and lasers will provide even more safety features. The package will include: adaptive cruise control, which slows the car to maintain an even distance with the vehicle ahead; forward collision avoidance warning and braking, to help prevent rear-ending another car; and a lane departure warning system.

SkyActiv is what Mazda labels a suite of technologies that include the engine, transmission, body and front steering assembly of the car. It’s all designed to improve the driving dynamics and increase fuel economy. On the Mazda3, this includes slashing the weight by about 100 pounds, stiffening the frame to improve handling and reducing engine friction 30%. High compression in the engine cylinders, combined with direct fuel injection, helps save fuel without losing power.

The base engine will be a SkyActiv 2.0-liter four-cylinder unit that makes 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque. It carries over from an engine upgrade Mazda made to the line in last year’s model. Buyers can also choose a larger 2.5-liter engine that produces 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque, 17 horsepower and 17 pound-feet of torque more than the 2013’s optional engine.

Both engines will come with either a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic.

The smaller of the two engines proved perky enough in a test drive last week, hesitating only occasionally on the steeper mountain grades. But a Corolla or a Civic won’t get you up the hill any faster. The bigger engine provided some extra zip and easily handled the climbs, but it isn’t a must for drivers looking at the Mazda3 as their daily commuter.

Not all the tests for the federal fuel economy ratings have been completed, but expect about 33 miles per gallon in combined driving for the smaller engine. There are no estimates yet for the larger engine.

The 2014 Mazda3 sits on a wheelbase that is 2.4 inches longer than the 2013 model’s, yet the hatchback’s overall length shrinks 1.8 inches. The new design has opened up the cabin, enabling an adult to sit comfortably in the back seat, even though the car is shorter. There’s ample headroom.

Mazda won’t reveal pricing until closer to the time the new model arrives in showrooms this fall, but expect the cars to start at about $17,000 and climb toward $28,000 for the models with the bigger engine and fancier features.

Although you won’t see a Mazda commercial during the Super Bowl, the automaker plans to increase its television advertising, especially on sporting events and prime-time shows, said Jim O’Sullivan, the company’s North American chief executive and president. That’s something Mazda can do, having posted its first full-year profit for the period that ended in March after multiple years of losses, he said.

The automaker also will be spending more on digital communications, focusing on keyword searches and website advertising, in hopes of reaching buyers who don’t consider the rival Civic and Corolla compacts as the default choices in the compact car market.

Mazda executives know they have to grow sales. Of the major players in the market, only the Dodge Dart logs fewer sales.

“The car is fundamental to our core strategy and existence in this market,” Jenkins said.

Twitter: @LATimesJerry