The Mazda3's performance has always kept it a step ahead of the other economy cars on the market. However, as Mazda's worked to differentiate their econobox from cookie-cutter Cobalts, Corollas and Civics visually, they've tweaked it from different to borderline bizarre. It is said beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bones. Has Mazda gone too far, or is the 2010 Mazda3s Sport still good enough underneath to make you overlook its sheet metal shortcomings?

width=398Mazda says the front-end styling of the Mazda3 is borrowed from the RX-8. If that's so, then they need to return it posthaste. Its grinning countenance brings to mind the pre-Heath Ledger Joker. And when you discover more than half the grill is blocked off and only a small portion of it functions to funnel air anywhere, you have to wonder what Animé-influenced acid trip the designers were on.

Fortunately the inside is as good as the outside is bizarre. A dual pod instrument cluster sits right in front of the driver, displaying the electroluminescent speedometer and tach. You also get a bar-graph gas gauge but all indicators of the engine's wellbeing are relegated to warning lights. The leather-wrapped steering wheel sports buttons for the cruise control, audio system, Bluetooth and nav system, and all of the other controls on the dash are well marked and easy to figure out.

width=398The seats deserve special mention. They're firm, well bolstered and one of the few seats I've been able to get comfortable in without an inordinate amount of fiddling and squirming. While power adjustment is standard in the top-line Touring model, the lesser models' manually adjustable seats are so good you don't miss the electronics.

The only real ergonomic blunder is the optional nav system. The screen is above and to the right of the instrument cluster, almost at the base of the windshield. The tiny screen is hard to read and the steering-wheel-mounted controls are inaccessible to the passenger. That means the driver has to divert his attention from the road to locate local points of interest, restaurants, etc.-tasks best relegated to the passenger while the vehicle is in motion.

width=398And you don't want to divert your attention from the road, especially when that road is the infamous Tail of the Dragon. Mazda says the 3s has zoom-zoom, so to see if they're right my son and I drove up to Tennessee to abuse put the 3s through its paces.

Driving there showed it's a capable freeway cruiser. It had no problems keeping up with (or leading) traffic. The 2.5L, 167HP engine has plenty oomph for passing and the 168 lb·ft of torque makes it quick off the line. The five-speed automatic shifts almost imperceptibly. Overall it's fairly quiet on smooth pavement, and with a Cd of 0.29 there's a minimum of wind noise (at least with the sunroof closed). However, if the surface is somewhat rough, quite a bit of tire and road noise filters through.

width=398But where the Mazda3s shines is when the freeway ends and the twisties start. It had no problem exceeding the (ridiculously low) posted speed limit on the Cherohala Skyway (thanks, Trooper Allen, for cutting me a little slack!). I tried manually shifting the transmission but it seemed happiest when left to its own devices. Even at altitudes in excess of 5000 feet, the engine didn't seem to be straining.

The real test came once we hit the Tail of the Dragon. Mazda says they recalibrated the suspension for 2010. Whatever they did, it worked. This thing boogies like a Bollywood babe. There was a bit of understeer as you might expect, but the handling was totally predictable. The steering is light but never feels over-assisted and you get excellent feedback.

width=398The P205/50R17 Yokohamas voiced their protest at times but the car never faltered as I hound-dogged a motorcycle the entire 11 miles. After alternating between the two pedals for all 318 curves, the 11.8-inch front and 11-inch rear disk brakes showed no sign of fading. This car has the type of handling performance you paid big bucks for in sports cars two decades ago. And it runs rings around other similarly-priced econoboxes.

We returned home tired but I could have sworn I heard the car saying more, please as we got out. For all my heavy-footed driving it still returned a respectable 25 mpg (EPA rating is 22/29) My only misgiving was that it had the automatic instead of the six-speed manual. I guess it's a good thing it didn't have the third pedal, though. There's only so much fun someone my age can handle in one day and the Mazda3 delivered in spades. Like an ugly puppy that grows into a faithful lifelong companion, the Mazda3's goodness transcends its questionable looks.

[Mazda provided the vehicle, insurance and a tank of fuel for this review.]