The pressure is on for the new Mazda 3 to deliver. Not only is it the latest iteration of Mazda’s all-time best-selling model, but small hatches now account for a quarter of all new car sales in Europe, that’s around three millions units a year. And with accomplished rivals such as the Ford Focus and VW Golf already out there, the competition is fiercer than ever.
We reviewed the 118bhp 2.0-litre petrol version recently, and we were impressed in every area apart from the slightly sluggish, non-turbocharged engine. Now we’ve driven the 148bhp SKYACTIV-D 2.2 (to give it its full name), which is the only diesel on offer but promises the best mix of performance and economy, and will be the model of choice for company car buyers.
The 0-62mph sprint take 8.1 seconds (0.1 seconds quicker than even the higher-powered 163bhp 2.0 petrol), while fuel economy and CO2 emissions of 72.4mpg and 104g/km are seriously impressive for a car that feels this quick. It’s an engine that’s familiar from the Mazda 6 and CX-5, but in the smaller and lighter 3 it’s more potent than ever.
Whereas the naturally-aspirated petrol engine feels gutless at low revs, the 2.2 diesel thrusts the car forward whenever you require a burst of speed. Our test car was fitted with a six-speed manual, and although an auto ‘box is available, the manual is definitely the one to go for, doing a perfect impression of the MX-5 as it slots precisely from gear to gear.
Keep things smooth and steady and the refinement and ride quality are both superb. At medium speeds it sweeps around corners with near-perfect body control and plenty of front-end grip. The steering is well weighted and direct, the brakes are strong and the seating position is low enough to feel sporty without affecting visibility. For most hatchbacks that would be enough, job done, but Mazdas have always been built with more ‘enthusiastic’ drivers in mind.
Up the pace and you’ll be surprised and how agile it feels, easily coping with quick chicanes, despite some noticeable body roll. In tighter corners though the front-tyres lose their traction (resulting in much tyre-screeching and understeer) much sooner than the petrol version. You can blame an extra 115kg of weight in the diesel model for that.
It’s not just the way the 3 drives that stacks up well against its rivals. The rear feels more spacious than a Focus (the Mazda is 100mm longer than the Ford), although 350 litre of boot space is merely average for the class. The quality of the interior materials is excellent though - combining textured plastics with leather, chrome and brushed aluminium. It’s a tasteful place to be.
A Mercedes A-Class-style 7-inch screen is neatly integrated into the dash and controlled via a BMW iDrive –style rotary knob, while a head-up display is fitted to higher-spec models. - and that’s just the start. Auto braking (at speeds below 19mph), radar cruise control and a lane departure warning system are among the lengthy list of safety features.
As for the swoopy styling, it’s a clever mix of striking details and classic proportions. Choose a somber colour such as white and it will blend into the traffic, but go for something brighter and it will definitely turn heads. Those slippery lines aren’t just for looks either – Mazda claim it’s the most aerodynamic car in its class, thanks to active shutters in the grille, underbody and tyre deflectors and carefully design spoilers to smooth the airflow around the bodywork.