When the Mazda 3 was first introduced locally three years ago, it was a sales hit due to its revolutionary exterior design. But the competition has caught up significantly, propping Mazda to launch an upgraded version last June. But does it have enough on all fronts to make customers look past the Honda Civic, the Toyota Corolla and even its Ford Focus cousin?

An initial outside look of the test unit (the base model 1.6L S) sees very little has changed in the overall design from the original C1 platform shared by both the current Focus and the current Volvo S40. However, there are a few subtle yet nifty changes to the outside, such as new front and rear bumpers, tailights "borrowed" from the previous model 2.0-liter, a single-slat grill inspired by the grille of the previous model 2.0-liter, and a more pronounced ridge atop the rear bumper for easier access to the trunk lid.

Step inside and you'll also see that little has changed since the first Mazda 3 units rolled off Mazda's Sta. Rosa (Laguna) assembly line. The predominantly black interior colorway, the upscale overall design and layout (with a uniquely "Euro" presence) and smattering of metallic trim are retained, resulting in a nice look but lacks panache. Also retained is the 60/40 split (not flush) rear seat folding of Mazda 3s before, the large glovebox, the four cupholders in front (two in the doors, two in front of the center console) and the two cupholders in the rear doors. The instrumentation cluster still gets the layout and chrome trim of the previous model, but totes a white-on-red look that displays a cool blue light during night driving. To be honest, the cool blue night light is a great upgrade, but it would be better if Mazda still stuck to the previous model's black-on-red dashboard gauge look.

Two major interior upgrades are the seating and the audio entertainment. The former now totes full cloth on both the seats and the door linings, which dissipate heat much faster than the leather-cloth combo of the previous Mazda 3. Unfortunately the rear seats still feel a bit hard on the lumbar area, but gives great lateral room for two. On the other hand the MP3-ready sound system is much improved. Gone is the tinny sound and in place is better tonal clarity, but treble replication was found wanting. And the steering wheel audio controls on the nine o' clock side were retained, a big plus in helping the driver concentrate more on what's ahead.

On the road, the 3 is a big disappointment. Powerband entry is high (2750-3000 rpm onwards). The automatic four forward gear setup is retained, and tends to downshift at inopportune times, such as on the apex of crests. Using the manual mode is not much help either, as a REALLY SHORT second gear and a VERY TALL third gear makes emergency lane changes ingratiating. Top speed is typical of an inline four cylinder (181 kph), but the eight km/liter consumption rate registered on four days of mixed driving is a bit of an improvement from the old Mazda 3.

Handling is improved, but not by much. Despite Mazda's claims about the 3's suspension component additions (an improved Macpherson front setup and an e-type multilink rear setup), understeer still occurs at 75kph and there's a tendency to oversteer at 80 kph, no thanks to the awful grip from the OE tires (Goodyear Eagle NCT 5s). Steering is heavy but manageable, but braking ability is excellent, the side mirrors are large, the headlights now tote high intensity discharge units (a big plus) that turn on in tandem with the foglights and the ride is firm. However, the handbrake position was still retained from the old model (near the passenger side), which can be intrusive to your shotgun passenger.

Two complaints about the previous Mazda 3 were the archaic, door handle receptacle-incorporated power locks and the nauseating smell from the aircon during the first 30 seconds of use. With the 2008 model the former is still retained, which begs the question "When will Mazda use a door armrest power lock switch for the Mazda 3?" On the other hand the aircon (whether in use for 30 seconds or for one hour) doesn't make occupants dizzy, and provides more than ample blasts of cold air.

Despite its quirks, the Mazda 3 can still be considered a topline option in a primarily looks-driven market. But for the unit's sales to rival that of the Civic and the Corolla, serious engine, transmission, handling (and perhaps interior styling) upgrades must be addressed.