Mazda 3 review
The new Mazda 3 is a stylish, well-built hatchback that's fun to drive and cheap to run
The Mazda 3 has continued the rich vein of form Mazda is in right now, producing a range of cars that are good-looking, great fun to drive and well-priced. The 3 hatchback is one of the best of the bunch; it’s more fun to drive than a Ford Focus or a Volkswagen Golf and more than a match for other family favourites such as the Vauxhall Astra and Kia Cee'd.
There’s even a four-door saloon version called the Fastback, which offers a cheaper alternative to the VW Jetta and the Audi A3 Saloon along with more boot space than the hatchback. Mazda’s latest range of engines, known as ‘SkyActiv’, is cheap to run and delivers strong performance in all but the most basic version’s case and the 2.2-litre diesel engine is superb.
A rival to mainstream family hatchbacks such as the Ford Focus, the Volkswagen Golf and the Vauxhall Astra, the Mazda 3 inhabits one of the most competitive sectors of the market. The classy interior and sharp handling mean it may also steal a few buyers from more upmarket hatchbacks such as the BMW 1 Series and the Audi A3, though it’s just about affordable enough to muscle in on cheaper rivals such as the Kia Cee’d or Hyundai i30 as well. The 3 sits above the 2 supermini and the 6 saloon in Mazda’s range and is now in its second generation, having come on leaps and bounds from the old model.
Though previous versions of the Mazda 3 were sold as hatchbacks only in the UK, the current version is also available as a four-door saloon known as the Fastback, which puts it in the same territory as fellow small saloons such as the Volkswagen Jetta, the SEAT Toledo and the Audi A3 Saloon. There is no price premium for the Fastback and it adds more space and is, also slightly faster with better economy than the equivalent hatchback versions.
Three are three main trim levels in the Mazda 3 range: kicking off at SE, then SE-L and the top-spec is Sport, while adding sat-nav to your car upgrades it to a ‘Nav’ variant, i.e. an SE-L with sat-nav becomes SE-L Nav. Four engines are available: a 99bhp 1.5-litre petrol, a 148bhp 2.2-litre diesel, and a 2.0-litre petrol offering either 119bhp or 163bhp.
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There’s no hot hatch version at present (the previous Mazda 3 had a high performance variant called the MPS) nor is there an eco special similar to Volkswagen’s Bluemotion range. There’s a straightforward choice of two gearboxes: a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic.
Underpinning the 3 and all of Mazda’s recent models is its ‘SkyActiv’ engine technology, which focuses on low weight to improve efficiency and handling. The 3 is a great example of this, as it’s lighter, more frugal and better to drive than the old model. Quality is up too, though the rakish shape does mean the 3 isn’t as roomy in the back, and the rear window’s narrow shape inhibits visibility.
Engines, performance and drive
Mazda has been known for producing cars that are good fun to drive for a long time. Much of this comes from its incredibly successful MX-5 roadster, which is the world’s best-selling sports car and widely renowned as one of the best cars to drive at any price.
Even better is that a lot of the components and characteristics that make the MX-5 sports car so much fun tend to find their way into more conventional models and the Mazda 3 is no exception. Thanks to its involving handling, well-weighted controls and lively performance, the 3 sets the standard for driving fun in this sector.
A twisty back road is where the Mazda 3’s nimble handling, strong grip and easy to control nature really come to the fore. The steering is also well balanced, direct and positive, plus the brake pedal is nice and progressive – it doesn’t bite too low or too high.
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Another welcome hangover from the MX-5 is the precise short-throw six-speed gearbox. It has a slightly heavier action than a lot of other family hatchbacks but if you enjoy driving then it’s an absolute pleasure to use.
A six-speed automatic gearbox is available as option, though only consider it if you really are averse to changing gear yourself, as the manual is a delight. That said, the six-speed automatic affair is a good transmission. It’s not quite as quick to change gear when you’re driving fast as, say, Volkswagen’s DSG automatic gearbox but Mazda’s offering is actually smoother when you’re making relaxed progress.
The ride smooths out most bumps but there is a bit of a trade-off in exchange for the 3’s sporty handling, as potholes can send a shudder through the cabin. It isn’t bad enough to really mark the car down but don’t expect the same levels of comfort as you would find with the likes of the Audi A3 or a Volkswagen Golf, both of which excel in this area.
The Mazda 3 is also fast, especially the 2.2-litre diesel, which packs 148bhp and has a 0-62mph time of 8.0 seconds in the Fastback saloon and 8.1 seconds in the hatchback. The diesel engine also has a lot of mid range pulling power and it’s really responsive, so you can make the most of the engine simply by leaving it in gear – great for overtaking or on the motorway. It’s also extremely smooth, so much so that you wouldn’t really know it’s a diesel either on the move or when the engine is just ticking over.
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The 2.0-litre 118bhp petrol engine is expected to be the biggest seller in the Mazda 3. It lacks the mid-range punch of the diesel but it isn’t far behind it in terms of acceleration – you’re looking at 0-62mph in 8.9 seconds for the hatchback and 8.8 seconds from the Fastback. You have to drive it a bit harder than the diesel to get the most out of it, but as petrols go it’s smooth and brisk enough for a family car.
There’s also the option of a more powerful 163bhp version of the 2.0-litre petrol engine, which is almost as sprightly as the diesel with 0-62mph in 8.2 seconds, though it’s only available with the hatchback.
It may be the cheapest to buy but the 99bhp 1.5-litre petrol engine is the one to avoid. There’s nothing wrong with it per se but it’s quite lethargic compared to the other engines, especially the truly impressive diesel. Its only real selling point is the low list price.
All the engines use Mazda’s SkyActiv technology, which aims to make the cars more efficient through saving weight. Those savings translate into both stronger performance and better fuel economy: the current 3 is much lighter on its feet and far more economical than its predecessor – and even that didn’t handle badly.
Surprisingly, Mazda hasn’t sacrificed refinement for performance and handling, as is often the case with sportier cars. The 2.2-litre diesel is extremely quiet for such an engine and the 2.0-litre petrol is similarly hushed and smooth. Wind noise is also very low but there is a bit of racket from the road beneath. As impressive as the Mazda 3 is in this area, it’s got a way to go to have the Volkswagen Golf and the Audi A3 licked on refinement.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
It isn’t hard to find rival family hatchbacks that do better than the Mazda 3 in terms of fuel economy and emissions, but when you consider the size of the diesel engine (it’s a 2.2-litre) and how fast it is, the 3 does extremely well for itself. The most economical version is the Fastback saloon with the 2.2-litre diesel, which returns a combined economy of 72.4mpg and emits 104g/km of CO2.
Go for the same engine in the 3 hatchback and the figures drop slightly to 68.9mpg and 107g/km (the Fastback has a more aerodynamic shape and therefore better economy). Neither sets of figures are record breaking by today’s standards but the diesel-engined Mazda 3 is still a very economical car and you’ll struggle to find rivals that can match the blend of economy and performance.
One thing to bear in mind is that the automatic gearbox really takes the edge off efficiency. The 2.2-litre diesel hatchback with an automatic transmission drops to 58.9mpg with CO2 levels rising to 129g/km and there are similar reductions for the petrol engines.
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The 99bhp 1.5-litre petrol manages a combined economy of 55.4mpg and 119g/km of CO2, but it feels a little sluggish. If a petrol engine better suits your needs – for example, if you cover a lower than average mileage –we'd opt for the 2.0-litre with 118bhp, an identical 55.4mpg and emissions of 129g/km CO2. There is also a 162bhp version of the 2.0-litre petrol engine, but the combined cycle drops to 48.7mpg with CO2 emissions of 129g/km.
Insurance groups start at 13 for the Mazda 3 fitted with the 1.5-litre petrol engine and rise to 24 for the 2.2-litre diesel model. This is one of the areas in which the Mazda lags slightly compared to its biggest rivals, as it is a few groups higher than every comparative Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra. Some Volkswagen Golfs are more expensive to insure and some are cheaper – it just depends on the model. It’s worth noting that higher-spec SE-L models nudge the insurance group up one, too.
Private buyers will be heartened by the predicted residuals of 42.8 per cent after three years and 36,000mls – and that’s also good news for companies, who will see an attractive lease rates as a result. The Volkswagen Golf and the Audi A3 traditionally have strong residual values but the Mazda’s is still competitive and much stronger than the used prices typically associated with rivals such as the Ford Focus and the Vauxhall Astra.
Interior, design and technology
Over the years, Mazda has forged itself a strong name for building good-looking, affordable cars and the latest Mazda 3 is no exception. Influenced by the sleek 6 saloon, the 3 has the much more understated Volkswagen Golf beaten in the styling department. This is especially true when you factor in that low roof and steeply rising waistline. Thankfully, the design transfers nicely over to the Fastback saloon model, which looks like a shrunken Mazda 6 – and that's a good thing. Mazda’s signature metallic red paint is easy on the eye, too.
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From the entry level SE model upwards, all versions get alloy wheels, colour-coded door handles and mirrors as standard, while the SE-L gets bi-Xenon headlamps and LED running lights thrown into the deal. Top-spec Sport models also benefit from all of this kit, plus 18-inch alloy wheels.
The racy theme continues inside with a very driver-focused design. For starters, the comfortable driving position is quite low down, while the view ahead of the driver is dominated by a neat instrument cluster that features a large, central rev counter flanked by smaller digital dials. Sport Nav models also benefit from a head-up display that shows speed and sat-nav directions on the windscreen in front of the driver.
Other highlights include the seven-inch, tablet-style, touc-operated screen on top of the dashboard, and the metal finish used for the ventilation and infotainment controls. While the Mazda can't quite match Volkswagen, BMW or Audi for upmarket appeal inside, the cabin still features plenty of soft-touch materials and it feels robust – more so than the old Mazda 3 and a lot of other Japanese cars, which have been known for slightly cheap feeling interiors.
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Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
The Mazda 3 has a decent standard kit list, which includes Bluetooth, USB and aux inputs and a seven-inch colour touch screen display on the top of the dashboard. There is also a pair apps called Aha and Stitcher that allow you to sync up internet radio and social media accounts through a smartphone.
It’s not as generously specified as a SEAT Leon or Peugeot 308 though, which means you’ll have to trade up to the pricier SE-L or Sport models if you want desirable additions such as cruise control, parking sensors and auto lights and wipers.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
The price you pay for the Mazda’s sleek exterior is a cabin that can’t match the space in the Peugeot 308 or that of the new Nissan Pulsar. Rear passengers don’t get quite as much leg or headroom, while the small side windows add to the slightly claustrophobic feel and the shape of the hatchback’s rear window means visibility isn’t great. Both the hatchback and the Fastback saloon are five-seaters but it’s worth noting that the saloon has a much bigger boot.
On the plus side, there’s lots of storage elsewhere in the Mazda, including deep door bins, a lidded cubby between the front seats and a large, air-conditioned glovebox.
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The Mazda 3 hatchback is 4,465mm long and 1,795mm wide, while the Fastback saloon is a little longer at 4585mm but an equal 1,795mm wide. The former is slightly longer than a Ford Focus – though the Ford is not renowned for its generous boot – and also longer than a Volkswagen Golf and Vauxhall’s Astra.
The Mazda’s shapely bumpers add a bit of exterior length but the car as a whole could be more spacious given its longer proportions compared to rivals. At 1,465mm tall, the 3 sits lower than the Focus, the Astra and standard Golfs, which isn’t surprising given its sporty stance. However, it’s still taller than eco-friendly Bluemotion spec Golfs, which have a lower ride height to improve their aerodynamics and subsequently fuel economy.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
Though both leg and headroom have been improved over the old Mazda 3 by mounting the seats lower, neither are best in class and it’s quite easy to find rival family hatchbacks with more spacious interiors, such as the Peugeot 308 or the Nissan Pulsar.
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The Mazda 3’s 364-litre boot is OK but it’s by no means the best in the class. It’s 106 litres behind the Peugeot 308’s boot and also lags behind the Volkswagen Golf’s 380-litres and the Vauxhall Astra's 370 litres. The Mazda does have more room in its boot than the Ford Focus though, which musters a mere 316 litres. However, the 3 doesn’t have any useful shopping bag hooks or even a 12-volt power supply. There’s a total of 1,263 litres available when the rear seats are folded flat.
The saving grace is the Fastback saloon, which has much more spacious 419-litre boot and there's a wide opening to make loading big items easy.
Reliability and Safety
Mazda has always had a strong reputation for building durable and dependable cars, and this is backed up by the brand’s ninth-place finish in our Driver Power 2015 survey. The 3 itself was ranked a respectable 39th out of 200 cars in the same poll, with owners reserving particular praise for the model’s reliability. And while some earlier examples suffered a few quality issues, with loose trim and switchgear, our new test car felt solidly screwed together. It’s worth mentioning that Mazda’s build quality and interiors have improved over time, particularly with the current generation of cars. The cabins are a cut above many Japanese competitors, some which have been know to have fairly cheap feeling interiors.
There are unlikely to be any safety concerns either, as the 3 was awarded a maximum five-star rating by Euro NCAP. All versions get six airbags, stability control and Smart City Safe support, which applies the brakes if it senses the possibility of a low-speed collision. Sport Nav models can also be ordered with the £700 Safety Pack, which includes lane departure warning and blind spot monitoring.
The Mazda 3 comes with a three-year/60,000-mile warranty, which is about average for the class and the same family hatchback heavyweights such as the Ford Focus, the Volkswagen Golf and the Vauxhall Astra. However, it is possible to have longer cover with models such as the Kia Cee’d, which has a seven-year/100,000-mile warranty or the Hyundai i30 and the Toyota Auris, both of which have five-year, unlimited mileage warranties.
The Mazda 3’s service intervals are every 12 months or 12,500 miles for both the petrol and the diesel-engined models. Mazda offers a fixed price service plan that starts from £499 and covers the first three years or 37,500 miles. This is a guide price though, and may vary depending on the exact model and the dealership, so it’s worth contacting a Mazda dealer to find out an exact figure for a particular car.