The first official pictures of the new Mazda 3 appeared this week – but before they were released, Auto Express was given exclusive access to drive a near production-ready prototype.
Video: watch CarBuyer's video review of the Mazda 3
Expectations are high, as it uses Ford Focus underpinnings, has a lightweight construction and is powered by a range of hi-tech new engines.
Although our car was heavily disguised on the outside, the interior is spacious, while the Honda Civic-influenced dashboard is stylish and well laid-out.
We tried two new engines: the 150bhp 2.0-litre direct-injection petrol and 2.2 diesel. While the former is smooth and responsive, the oil-burner is incredibly refined and delivers mid-range pace to match the current MPS hot hatch.
Better still, in corners the well weighted, direct steering combines with strong grip and great body control. Even in this unfinished state, the 3 is clearly ready to rival the class leaders.
* Price: £18,500 (est)
* Engine: 2.2-litre 4cyl diesel
* Power: 185bhp
* Torque: 400Nm
* 0-62mph: 8.0 seconds (est)
* Standard equipment: Climate control, stop/start technology, electronic stability control, trip computer, alloy wheels
* On sale: Early 2009